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Champions (and Challengers) of Black Metal: Krallice’s Career Has Helped Define an Age

krallice band

Understanding Krallice requires a bit of backstory. The group’s work itself is thankfully rather immediately parsable, a fact that runs counter to the common narrative that their music is intensely cerebral and high-brow. However, recognizing the art itself and its motivating factors are two separate things, and the sounds that Krallice make open up a bit more when understanding their origin.

The group was initially founded Colin Marston and Mick Barr, at that time best known for their work in Behold the Arctopus and Orthrelm/Ocrilim, respectively. Looking at the works of those two groups, one can see the seeds for Krallice fairly clearly: Behold the Arctopus specialized at the time in a highly idiosyncratic tech-metal style, scoring their work out first before performing it and with an eye for complexity over specific melodies or common forms; as a result, it generated a mixed set of reactions, from awe and knee-slapping fun from fellow musicians to a YouTube reupload of one of their playthroughs being titled “The Worst Band In the World.” Likewise, Mick Barr’s two conjoined groups Orthrelm and Ocrilim focused on technical metal compositions but of a significantly more pointillist variety, often featuring near-impenetrable and non-repeating sets of divided notes and tuplets synchronized between guitar and drums. Both groups tended to make mind-bogglingly technical music whose pleasures came more from witnessing players perform the impossible rather than traditional tunefulness, a schematic into which they would then bury small movements of melodic and clear rhythmic ideas into the greater matrix of alien logics. As such it was an inevitability that the two camps would collaborate, first releasing a split single before Marston reached out to Barr about potentially creating a black metal group.

Despite these seeds of hypertechnicality, Krallice’s initial material developed into substantially more song-oriented material. Their debut self-titled album in many ways is the general thesis of this first phase of Krallice’s material, where the two players on collaboration seemed to discover not just a greater musical affinity for one another’s prodigious talents but also an unanticipated well of song. Their early phase erred toward that sci-fi aesthetic of alien wisdom, marrying their complex weaving of tremolo picked arpeggios and extended progressive song structures to titles like “Timehusk” and “Energy Chasms,” all laid against a cover image of what appears to be knotted strands of wood.

What emerged was, outside of Marston’s work with the much more sonically immediate group Dysrhythmia, the most transparent work either of the two had produced. The record leans toward the Weakling-styled American black metal sound but with the more full-bodied sound that lo-fi black metal often tends to omit, offering a greater clarity to the instrumental tracks which in turn creates a much more feral and ecstatic affect. Songs seem to spill out rather than crescendo in typical form, a formal conceit no doubt informed by the significantly more experimental work both Marston and Barr did in their primary projects before Krallice.

What made that debut so endlessly appealing and intriguing to so many was, unlike a number of their peers in the growing American black metal scene, it didn’t feel possible to confine the album to a single reference point. As much as Weakling felt like the strongest precursor, there are also notes of Wolves in the Throne Room as well as the transcendent sci-fi prog metal of Voivod and the intensity of avant-garde groups like Virus and Gorguts. Even the vocals avoided the typical black metal cliches of vocalists aping the more iconic vocal affects of previous big names.

It wasn’t so much that the ideas of Krallice were wholly unique as much as the precise mixture and balance of influences and inspirations came together in a way that felt startling and fresh. It is no wonder, then, that the next three records from the group did little to deviate from this strong initial position, instead choosing the elaborate on different aspects of it. Dimensional Bleedthrough leans closer to a 1980s King Crimson-style density of arpeggios delivered in a sharp and feral black metal style, feeling often like a precursor to the same ideas groups like Thantifaxath would later pursue. Diotima offered experiment largely in production capacities, featuring for instance a near-dubstep bass wobble on “Litany of Regrets.” Years Past Matter, their last full-length of this era of Krallice, would expand on the more cosmic sensorial elements of their sound.

These are, of course, broad generalizations of the timbre of those specific albums, but this is primarily because as you stack them against each other, more similarities appear than differences. It becomes clear then why these first four were also remastered and re-released as a set by the group; the debut lays the structural groundwork that the later three would develop on and tease out further ideas, slightly pivoting one aspect to the foreground while allowing the others to remain as the bedrock.

Krallice’s overall affect in these early records slowly turned toward a method of ekstasis, something similar to but not identical to a crescendo. Specifically, a crescendo is a structural element of music of increasing intensity that is ultimately meant to induce ekstasis, but unfortunately by overuse in contemporary black metal and post-rock has lost a lot of its initial power. Krallice instead arrive at this sensation in these first four albums largely through minimalist ideas of relatively simple single-note guitar parts of irregular lengths which create a sensation of them being interlocking, interweaving, generating tensions as the arpeggios align and disalign again. Typically they use the bass as both a third voice in these movements and also just as frequently as a harmonic anchor, playing straight against the complex dappling to act as a kind of rough guide.

As such, the success or failure of any specific album comes more from how aptly it captures this more throbbing and pulsating approach to black metal; likewise, it is by the way these alignments generate that sensation of throbbing and pulsating that differentiates Krallice from other contemporaries in black metal. The closest counter might be a group like Oranssi Pazuzu, but they have a much more explicit dub and krautrock positioning that, despite a similar impact, Krallice keeps reined in closer to black metal.

In the midst of this initial run and prior to the release of Years Past Matter, Krallice released a flexi-single for Decibel of “Traditional” as well as a digital EP titled Orphan of Sickness. These are intriguing largely because the four songs across those two releases are all covers, first of the acclaimed hardcore band Rorschach and second of the short-lived sludge duo Orphan. Both groups represent intriguing counterpositions to the image of Krallice’s music as exercises in hyper technicality and offer some insight into how the group view themselves. Both covered groups come largely from the world of punk, a pivotal component of black metal and one of the primary differentiating influences that helped evolve black metal away from its roots as a reaction against death metal. Likewise, both groups and the chosen covered material showcased not just shorter song lengths, a crass and obvious difference between the covers and the groups original material, but also a focus on compelling and powerful heavy grooves, something that ties much more directly to Krallice’s compositions.

At the time, these felt like throwaway tracks, one a fun cover single and the other a touching tribute to a departed friend, but neither like substantial contributions to the overall shape of Krallice’s legacy. In retrospect, however, they were the first figures of the second chapter of the band’s career, which would singularly be comprised of these surprise self-released creative left turns.

Inevitably, following four highly acclaimed and deeply idiosyncratic black metal records that managed to marry the avant-garde with the approachable, it was understandable that Krallice would take an extended break before changing gears. At the time, the group did so, as with much of their work, with little fanfare, simply disappearing after a tour into the increased workload of the other groups the members had joined in the meantime. All four of the players, including previously unmentioned bassist Nicholas McMaster and drummer Lev Weinstein, had become highly sought musicians in their own right, playing for groups as diverse as Gorguts, The Flying Luttenbachers, Coral Cross, Woe, and Geryon.

Their break inadvertently also underscored the notion of those first four albums being a single statement spread out over four releases, arriving in what felt at the time like a single continuous gesture of yearly releases all focused on a very individual group sentiment of what constituted compelling contemporary black metal.

The gap between Years Past Matter and Krallice’s fifth album Ygg huur was almost exactly three years. For most bands, this is a common span between releases, especially factoring in touring, promotion, and rest times. For the workhorses of Krallice, however, it felt like a dissolution of the group, the members spreading out to other projects and a total silence on the part of the band. So it was a surprise when, shortly after they reconvened for some live dates featuring a few new tracks, they released the entire album out of the blue on their Bandcamp (this would, of course, become the defining trait of this period of the band’s career). They had finished their first recording contract following the release of Diotima and had self-released Years Past Matter; apparently, something within the freedom of those quick turnarounds appealed to Krallice, and it no doubt helped embolden them to pursue their creative whims wherever they might lead.

Ygg huur is conspicuous among Krallice’s body of work for ushering in the other defining trait of the second chapter of the band’s history: one less focused on release methodology and more on the music itself. Where previous records employed a dense and complex set of influences and inspirations which seemed to fully develop even on the first album as a completed thought — those first four records seemingly arrive out of the blue as a fully-developed musical synthesis — Ygg huur was singularly focused on dense prog compositions. It must be said, of course, that the group always trucked in these kinds of songs, but Ygg huur felt as though the guts had been sprayed out with a power washer, leaving cleaner and more spacious and more paced interactions of the guitar parts to better highlight how deftly and delicately interlocking they were.

A relevant comparison for Ygg huur would be King Crimson’s shift from dense, fuzzed-out and hoary avant-prog metal in the mid-1970s to substantially more airy and precise figures in their 1980s material. Where before this comparison was employed regarding Dimensional Bleedthrough to focus on how that record showcases, especially on its tremendous opening and closing tracks, on a roaring black metal take on those ideas, Ygg huur cleans up those notions to a degree that it almost feels improper to call the album black metal. Granted, holding Ygg huur up to most other contemporary prog records, even prog metal records, would bring the black metal elements back into relief; the point remains, though, that in comparison to the rest of their work, the emphasis shifted to those internal characteristics of prog more so than extreme metal.

This is not only due to tightened production and songwriting that emphasized guitar lines meant to showcase their interlocking more than more direct catharsis-driven pieces would, but also due simply to track lengths. The average runtime of songs on Ygg huur is roughly half that of previous records while feeling no less full of riffs and ideas. Instead, the ideas are compacted, featuring less elaboration and unspooling and instead a greater rate of juxtaposition. The “angularity” is increased, a term that often is stripped of meaning because it isn’t properly grounded. The angles here are the sharp juxtapositions of ideas, chords, featuring dissonances that don’t sound unpleasant so much as strange alien and resolve only to more complex voicings and juxtapositions. In comparison, the far more abstract music presented here is paired with the most direct set of lyrics the group had penned to date, with tracks like “Engram” focusing on the terror of the death of a spouse, compared to the abstract philosophizing about the nature of thought and how thoughts captured our perception of time, the body, and reality as shown in the lyrics of tracks from Dimensional Bleedthrough.

This sense of exploration and play from the group turned off some listeners who expected the group to simply pick up where they left off without much of a shift of identity. And while in the fullness of time the differences between those first four records and Ygg huur flatten, at the time it felt like a seismic shift, the group bending back hard toward the ideas of initiating groups like Behold the Arctopus (themselves having transitioned to a more approachable and black metal-infused sound) and Orthrelm/Ocrilim, which similarly focused on highly acrobatic and choreographed guitar lines. But whereas those groups featured breakneck pacing with seemingly little regard for harmonic movement, Ygg huur is still deeply chordal music, simply situating itself in the same sorts of alien emotional spaces as groups like Virus.

Anxieties regarding Ygg huur‘s change of direction would be slightly assuaged by the followup Hyperion EP, which was revealed to be recorded during sessions following Years Past Matter that failed to deliver a complete new album.

The shift back to psychedelic sci-fi imagery and titling, the title of the EP possibly referring to a number of things but feeling most obviously like a nod to the acclaimed Dan Simmons psychedelic sci-fi novel, signaled that these were older tracks without the need for the group to say as such in the liner notes. As the tracks stand, they are strong compositions but ultimately underscores why the group decided to take some time off to regroup and reorient themselves. The fact that the group was able to generate four albums of material focused on the same set of concepts is a startling feat, but ultimately most Krallice fans tend to return only to one of those first four. The group must have sensed this while creating the songs that would eventually be released as the Hyperion EP, noting that producing yet more records of the same base concepts would only serve to dilute that which they already released. The clearing of the vaults feels artistically honest and gives a better critical sense of why this shift occurred, contextualizing their altered trajectory.

Then, Prelapsarian confirmed what Ygg huur began, elevating the dense and paced webwork of skeletal prog riffs on that previous album into a more snarled and avant-garde mass. Part of the response to Prelapsarian in listeners admittedly comes from the juxtaposition of the rather outre avant-garde nature of the music with the strange amateurish collagist cover art, which depicts what appears to be a number of picture frames framing nothing no-clipping into one another. This, combined with the incredibly short anti-fascist tune “Hate Power” originally released as part of the Adult Swim singles series, gives Prelapsarian a punky and chaotic vibe echoing back to their cover of Rorschach.

In doing so it also repaints what precisely the group goes for in their conjuration of bizarre psychedelic/progressive chaos. Enough of their lyrics point, of course, toward that stand subject matter of ecstatic transcendence, the way that those stacks of riffs can make the listener feel as though they are vaulting through some perceptive veil into the tremendum of reality beyond perception. But so too to black metal’s position not just as an embodiment of the feral chaotic darkness of the world but also as a punk- and hardcore-inspired emotional response to that chaos. The music of the opening and closing track of Prelapsarian feel like the increased prog and avant-garde directionality of Ygg huur married to the types of song structures and patterns of elaboration of their first four albums, but the context of the presentation Krallice gave them instead feels like a maximalist avant-prog/punk metal suite. It is the two center pieces that give Prelapsarian its identity within the broader context of their work however, “Hate Power” leaping directly into “Conflagration”, offering a potent statement against the oppressive structures of hate that govern the world.

The next two Krallice albums, Loüm and Go Be Forgotten, were released within a month of each other, but despite that temporal proximity feel almost wholly disconnected from one another.

Loüm, the first to be released, was a collaborative album with the bassist of legendary metal band Neurosis, Dave Edwardson, here on synthesizers and primary vocals. His addition in both respects increases not only the bestial and animalistic senses of the group, leaning into his feral and deep hardcore bellow, but also toward the stargazing aspects of the group that seemed to have gone by the wayside following Ygg huur. The riffs seem to clamber over themselves like the sheer black walls of some petulant sneering tower, fittingly demonstrated on the cover of the record, where cymbals and pointillist guitars offer breaking glimpses of brightness like stars distributing pale light overhead. The record also features some moments of explicit doom metal, not of the Nuerosisian tribal and folk-ish sort but instead more like if funeral doom players played with hammers instead of hands, delivering the same punching heaviness of death metal but in a paced and emotional doom context.

The title of the record, a seeming reference to the mecha-anime series Gundam, likewise signals a return to the more sci-fi aspects of the groups early works. The summation is an album that, while not short on good songs, feels more like a look back than a look forward for the group, a fun one-off with a member of a legendary group that unfortunately contributes little to the overall body of the band’s work.

It was unexpected then when Go Be Forgotten dropped less than a month later and felt like not only the best album of the second phase of their career but potentially the best album the group had released thus far. For one, it had the broadest sonic palette of a Krallice record, even including their earlier material, opening with a cold high-pitched tremolo guitar section that feels like light glinting off the cold edges of a spaceship, pearlescent, and too-white, before descending into a cinematic and grandiose but relatively straightforward black metal portion. A great deal of Go Be Forgotten feels like it mines from the more traditional spaces of black metal, from its gothic print black and white cover (a far cry from the typical wild hues and abstract sci-fi/fantasy imagery of previous albums) to the less technical and more grooving black metal riffing. This makes it an additional surprise when, seemingly out of nowhere, bright synthesizers roar out during the title track playing chords that wouldn’t feel out of place on a 1970s Rush record. They persist not just through that track, where they are most prominent, but throughout the rest of the album, offering strange celestial hums and lush juxtapositional choral accompaniment to compositions featured.

Go Be Forgotten likewise features not one but two songs that come in under the three-minute mark, making them the two shortest non-interlude pieces on a Krallice album so far appearing alongside their most obvious tribute to 1970s progressive rock, a known favorite of members of the group across multiple bands they’ve performed in. Songs like “Quadripartite Mirror Realm” and “Ground Prayer” continue the hot streak the first half of the album develops, showcasing the signifying touch of this album, which is their best and most complete synthesis of elements from intense technicality and broad cinematic soundscapes to powerful hooks and roaring direct extreme metal.

It becomes apparent then that the likely reason why these two albums were released so close to one another was almost as a primer for the later Go Be Forgotten, with Loüm being the first record of the group to prominently feature synthesizers instead of their previous much, much smaller role. Everything from Ygg huur to Loüm felt like a band deliberately abandoning their previous sound in small portions, searching new ideas and new approaches to fold into a group that had a clear identity that couldn’t simply or easily be abandoned, whereas Go Be Forgotten felt like the clear answer to that search, producing an enduring record that felt at last not just like an intriguing and fun experiment but, from a critical perspective, a fertile path forward for future material. It synthesizing both the newer experiments of more direct progressive rock influence, the immediacy of punk and early black metal, and keyboard usage with their own earlier approach to black metal that erred somewhere between tech metal, the Cascadian/atmospheric camp and the psychedelic underground current of black metal.

Wolf, despite being Krallice’s shortest release of original material and itself clocking in at just over the length of one of their typical songs, still feels like a worthwhile contribution to the band’s legacy. On it, the band performs the same mind-boggling synthesis of prog, black metal, avant-garde, and with good doses of death metal, doom, and a sprinkling of Rush to boot. The shorter run-time becomes conspicuous as another halving, the band’s second chapter already featuring album lengths roughly half that of those first four albums with Wolf being half yet again. And yet despite this slightness, Wolf feels like it contains more distinct ideas than even many of Krallice’s own records, showcasing a group that took their own miniaturizations they performed on Ygg huur and Prelapsarian to their inevitable conclusions, collapsing down their compositions into the most compact and crystalline formations without losing much of the punch.

Wolf also shows capitalizes on the nature of surprise the group formed by their series of unannounced self-releases in their second chapter, dropping a rather transparent and digestible yet still enigmatic 15-minute statement rather than their earlier records which dealt with hour-plus runtimes of tremendously dense music. Likewise, the music on Wolf harkens back to the avant-prog that was the mainstay of Behold the Arctopus, a group which has seemingly ceased activity. It’s never been stated whether the tracks of Wolf are entirely new compositions or whether they are older compositions punched up by the group dynamic of Krallice circa their recording in 2018. Either way, it delivers a satisfying jolt of explicit avant-gardeisms, quelling the fears of those that heard the transcendent beauty of the Rush-informed synth work and bright open chord voicings of Go Be Forgotten and felt Krallice might be losing their edge.

This now brings us to the third as-yet-unwritten chapter of Krallice’s body of work. Given the now two-year gap between their previous full-length and Wolf, as well as Wolf‘s own short runtime, it feels safe to say that Krallice likely won’t be returning the same as when they left. Regardless of whether it is a large change or just the slight adjustments of shifting time, however, the group inadvertently left two lobes of material, each four full-lengths (plus some extras) in length.

Even if Krallice called it quits now, they have amassed a body of work that leaves them in the company of the greats of extreme metal, prog, and avant-garde, producing work that compels regardless of whether you are listening for black metal, experimental music, or just a good challenging mindfuck. It’s not uncommon to find groups that attempt to touch all three of those spaces, but it is exceptionally rare to find a group that adequately satisfies all of them.

It is undoubted in time that Krallice will become a band as central to the story of metal in the 21st century, or even just in the 2000s and 2010s. Across their body of work they’ve expanded less the notion of how technical black metal is able to go and more how expressive those moments of technicality can be, helping to turn the tide prevalent around the turn of the millennia that shunned proggy material as less-than compared to its more brutal counterparts.

Corrections: Krallice have since informed us that Hyperion refers to the god of the sun, and Loüm is a word the band came up with which only by coincidence corresponds to the mecha-anime Gundam universe.

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