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Some Opening Thoughts

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There is a temptation to try and find a narrative thread, some invisible connective tissue that binds and directs the forces of art, indulgence, and commerce at once. This makes sense: there is simply so much art released all the time that trying to find some kind of siphon to direct our efforts as critics and listeners is a valid goal. But there are only so many hours in the day, so many days in our lives, and finding how to judiciously spend those hours with new records that might perhaps grow to the same internal esteem as Symbolic or Ride the Lightning or Bergtatt is a deeply understandable impulse.

The problem is that the shape of art resists those attempts at easy parcelling. For every moment we seem to grasp, however tentatively, some new fertile genre space expands or some returning old giant wields its might again; still, some always find a quick counter-action, whether it be in the comments sections of Facebook and music blogs or floating out on the tides of social media. It can sometimes be annoying and an easy temptation to swat away cries like "OSDM revival is actually killing death metal" or "screamo influence is diluting real black metal" -- the underlying points, whether stated well or not, are still validly debatable. Sometimes, though, these easy narratives we cling to as listeners and critics, occlude and obscure not just single records or bands but entire active scenes. Platitudes are meant with pure intentions: to lift out records and bands that are wonderful and give them the brightest and biggest possible stage to succeed. But there is still that negative flip-side casting shadow upon the groups that get left out of end-of-year lists and major coverage -- ones that slip beneath the radar despite having released quality work worth the engagement.

I'm not going to pretend that I have some great master list to unfurl at this point. That's because, to be honest, we are just as culpable as any other. A great deal of this is mechanical; we can only post so much in a day, which requires us to write articles and criticism, which requires us to listen to the material, which requires time. This resource in particular is limited, but so often too, personal taste, some journalistic and critical discretion, and a little bit of gut impulse are used to sort the unending fields of material. Metalheads adore that hunt for the great underground thrill, discovering some crusty two-song demo released only on cassette in Bulgaria that happens to have throat-ripping black metal, and sometimes acquiring that music without the hunt feels a little bit cheaper and less authentic and less powerful and just less real.

What I will elaborate on with the below selections is the good faith elements of some of the arguments about the tides of taste: that there is simply more material abounding in seemingly every corner of the heavy metal that's anywhere between good and great rather than less.

This being a wide net, I'm going to narrow things for the purposes of this article to black metal, narrowed again to albums released last month. Between the spaces, these albums emerged out of the specific approaches to black metal they showcase. Hopefully these will at least slash through, albeit only temporarily, one-hit narratives surrounding heavy metal and return us briefly to the sweet serenity of the idea that a great record can strike you from any direction at all.

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The Black Metal Albums That Ruled February 2020

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Fluisteraars -- Bloem
February 28th, 2020

It feels magical. You spend so much time listening to music in general (or more specifically music like this), and sometimes that base initial sensation can wash away. We become hardened listeners, one who can discern the words through the screeching, who can parse riffs through the muddy lo-fi production, who find joy and solace in things that previously felt unapproachable and extreme to us. Sadly this sometimes also leads to a deadening of the nerve, not so much necessarily a loss of love (though for many lifers they find their passion for extreme music wanes with age) but more like a state where no new record can really feel like that first listen of an old classic ever again. Imagine the first time you heard Neurosis, Godflesh, Morbid Angel, Darkthrone, Discordance Axis, or others -- that first magical, inscrutable blush with some new genre space in these broad fields of heavy music we all love. Now imagine the second-, third-, and fourth-string peer bands in those styles, groups and albums we still enjoy but sometimes find hard to indulge in as fervently as those first magical few.

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Listening to Fluisteraars is like ice shattering in my brain, like sunrays cast down from the spring-time sky melted some forbidding shell that kept that magic from me. Hearing Bloem feels not like the first time I heard black metal; that would be Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, with its strange neo-classical flourishes erupting into volcanic pummels. Rather, Bloem sounds like the first time I heard post-black metal, the first time black metal struck me as transcendentally beautiful. It reminds me of Bergtatt, of the brightness of the sun devoid of coldness. There is still an intensity here, a reliance on folk melodies that by brute definition fits the mold of fairly traditional black metal that arose after the second-wave. But the tilt and tenor are different; there is melancholy, sure, and aching and regret, but it's all rendered in a substantially more pastoral setting, one that feels earthen and almost euphoric rather than brooding and satanic and cold.

You still get the sense of wind and trees, but it is springtime and the thaw is coming, a growing heat you can feel in your bones.

This isn't a new idea in black metal, of course. Thinking about it even begins to unravel the admittedly amorphous and functionally non-descriptive tag of "post-black metal." Sure, this tends to fold in a good bit more alt-rock sonic ideas, from strumming patterns to atmospherics, and its approach to the base conceit of black metal hews neither to the frantic, fractured, and weird satanic heavy metal of the first wave nor to the tremolo-picked frostbitten stacked minor thirds of second wave. Except: then the opening of "Vlek" starts and, were it on any other album, this would simply be black metal period, great and rich, with its blast beats and goblin vocals and nearly medieval tremolo riffing. Bloem is composed of riffs that give way to a strident and startling beautiful sungazing passage reminiscent almost of Deafheaven before it is crushed in the cold winds again.

Fluisteraars seem to be stridently agnostic to where their ideas come from, so long as they have a tentative connection to black metal, and the material is alight with the creative fires that sparks. I can attempt with some critical faculties to try to assign the various riffs and colors and textures I hear to other spaces, to attempt a complete taxonomy of the material presented here. I can attempt to call this black metal, a term that feels like an improper fit, or to call it post-black metal, a term that seems to sell short just how deeply black metal this record is. What matters: it lives within the space of black metal with glee and bounty and, through it, produces one of the most gaspingly beautiful records I've heard all year, even as it shirks those ten-plus minute runtimes that were previously this band's forte for substantially more digestible song lengths this time around.

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Cult of Fire -- Moksha + Nirvana
February 20th, 2020

Cult of Fire's recent release is that pleasant mixture of "easy to listen to, hard to describe." The sonics aren't what's hard to describe; the spiritualist ecstaticism present here is not only par for the course for Cult of Fire but also broadly a mainstay of black metal itself, being prominently featured in first-wave black metal bands. Most of this ecstaticism in black metal is often directed toward satanic ends, broadly European pagan ends, or general earth/death worship; Cult of Fire, though, devote themselves to a particularly dark Hinduism flecked with elements of reformist Buddhism. Even this combination is ultimately not unheard of within the genre, albeit it is one of relative rarity.

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Cult of Fire work hard to undercut the tired cliche that black metal is merely a genre of a flattened and puerile satanism. They show that it is a genre marked by religious ecstasy, a Dionysian and Luciferic furor that draws more from aspects of Lucifer as an archon and bearer of light rather than a mere pithy antagonist to Abrahamic faith. It is from this element of the spiritual side of black metal -- one that's hard to discuss without sounding terribly corny while still being an undeniable part of the genre's history and lifeblood -- that Cult of Fire draw from for their particular Hindu take on black metal, finding parallelism in things like the Kali Yuga and the richness of both Hindu and Buddhist approaches to death worship and death consciousness.

From this set of spiritual inspirations comes a particularly bright and euphoric approach to black metal, one that compares the unhinged savagery of the most vicious forms of the style with the kind of ecstatic joy of the ascetic and the mystic enraptured by the euphoria of god-consciousness or the Buddhist serenity of proper death consciousness. They aren't afraid of major chords, of the brightness of brass tilted towards the kind of triumphant lines you would expect to hear as a fanfare for an approaching victorious knight or perhaps respected high priest rather than the presumed intense negativity of black metal. The ending tracks of Nirvana in particular display a brightness and joyousness and serenity that feel reminiscent of Lantlos' departure from black metal for the more serene pastures of post-metal in their masterpiece Melting Sun, mirroring that album's intensely sunny atmosphere.

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The formatting is the thing that's hard to describe about these two albums. The pair isn't a double album per se but instead two separate albums, delivered as promos separately, sold separately, cataloged separately. Similarly, though, Moksha follows a series of thematic threads tied more to the group's Hindu teachings from their guru while Nirvana is drawn from Buddhist reformist critiques of those same Hindu thoughts. Both albums in conjunction provide a powerful demonstration of the spiritual end of black metal thankfully free from the sometimes cringe-inducing manifestos that sink certain black metal projects before they can take off. This is because Cult of Fire are great at showing over telling, but with some deepening the sense of theater and mysticism where less adept others might feel a bit more camp.

The fact that this double-ish album crests just over 70 minutes is mitigated by its dual nature, with each one individually coming in at a much more approachable and digestible 35 minutes. This seems to be a perfect length for the group, giving enough time for five meaty tracks that manage to build off the moods and timbres of one another before drawing to a finite and triumphant close, allowing for either a single hour-plus listening session or two 30-minute bites, all without feeling like you've been shortchanged or emotionally blueballed. It is not concision that is being praised here but tautness and shape; where some groups can turn in behemoth-length records that feel the absolute perfect length, Cult of Fire have spent the last six years since their previous release dialing in the perfect amount of material they can compose and still have everything feel of a single continuous emotional geometry, producing not just great riffs and songs (and these songs are year-end worthy great) but also a supremely satisfying twin release.

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Tombs -- Monarchy of Shadow
February 28th, 2020

Tombs has always been more proximal to black metal rather than inserting themselves into its central column. The band's early days came in the midst of the big post-metal push in the mid-to-late 2000s and saw them touring with bands like Pelican and Isis despite being notably more extreme than those groups. The association fit, but the group has always had a fixation on groove that makes them feel like an improper placement next to Mayhem or Limbonic Art when compared to other bands in the post-metal mold -- constant tremolo-picked attack patterns can be found in the inspiring genre of post-rock and not just black metal, of course. But as time rocked on, one genre space found itself continuously being filtered out of Tombs' sound and another found itself being pumped in such that by Savage Gold, it felt more judicious to view them as a black metal outfit rather than post-metal.

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This doesn't mean that they simply clarified their sound and went straight to second-wave riffing. Far from it: Tombs has retained some buried sense of groove-oriented writing they picked up in their post-metal days and even applied an injection of post-punk weirdness, be it synth lines or the particular way chanted vocals are carried out, or even a deliberate punky simplicity in some passages. After The Grand Annihilation, their weirdest record to date, the rest of the band split, leaving main man Mike Hill to pick up the pieces with an entirely new lineup. Hill seems to have seized upon this creative juncture to do two things with Monarchy of Shadows: double-down that Tombs is more a weird black metal band then a blackened anything-else band, and to coalesce those odd and striking tendencies.

Tombs has the tendency to chug away on this record in a manner that's frankly a bit too toughened to really hold much blackening which usually errs away from this kind of sharpness and beefiness in the low-end. But the important thing is that it works. Hill is a smart composer and knows his band's identity well; black metal stays the focus, with furious tremolo picked passages and that kind of grizzled and scowling mid-tempo double bass work we get from certain more deliberate rather than bestial groups. The other touches, from synth lines contributed by a member of Locrian to violin from a member of Thank You Scientist (and also a black/folk metal band called Wayfaerer), as well as the album's toughened deathcore-esque chugging -- these are all meant as accent points, ways to reframe the initial influence of groups like Swans on the music of Tombs but with totally different combinations of sound. There are other groups that are more objectively avant-garde and progressive, but generating new sounds doesn't necessarily always mean you are the most inventive in using the sounds we already have. It's always shocking listening to a new Tombs record; they use and recombine previously well-known sounds and sonic ideas in strange ways that feel continuously catching to the ear. They also disprove the idea that to be an inventive black metal group in the 2020s you necessarily have to follow the mold of groups like Krallice and Weakling and Blut Aus Nord, all great groups in their own right, but by no means the sole inheritors to the crown of inventiveness within the genre.

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Dark Fortress -- Spectres From the Old World
February 28th, 2020

It's important in the midst of discussing some of the various fringes of black metal that we do not also forget the bigger and more mainstream bands of the genre. This is actually a continuous problem both within discussing heavy music in specific but also general coverage of music overall. We feel both as listeners and critics caught between the dual tides of mainstream tastes and figures and their underground counterparts, with time spent listening to and covering bigger groups like Machine Head and Slipknot feeling like time lost that could have been spent on up-and-coming bands, groups in their demo stage, curious and potent underground bands, and global groups that don't always get their fair share of coverage outside of zines in their home country. But this same sense of aversion can also create strange whorls where we accidentally make ourselves unaware and, worse, totally disengaged from the groups currently pulling the most newcomers in.

Mainstream heavy metal groups are more or less anathema on heavy sites and not necessarily for undue reasons; while certain bands like Deftones, Slipknot, and Metallica "play nice" with coverage of smaller groups and have a sense of clear continuity, others like Five Finger Death Punch, a group that's clearly a heavy band, feel like a profoundly bad fit for sometimes unnameable and perhaps not always even correct reasons.

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This is something death metal navigates with surprising thoughtfulness, having enough splintered subgenres from slam to tech-death to deathcore to OSDM and more that delineate what spaces make the most sense, and when. With black metal though, there are certain subgenre spaces that feel clearly and obviously a fit for venues covering underground music: depressive black metal, avant-garde black metal, anything that reeks of coffin dust and crust, etc. But there is a pewter ring of black metal bands somewhere near the financial top of the genre that sometimes get factored out. The throughline for them tends to be that when a black metal band gets major label backing, even if only for a brief window, and when they start playing festivals next to substantially less underground acts, they somehow stop fitting, stop being as deserving of attention as, say, Malokarpatan and None (both incredible groups, to clarify).

"Now wait," you might be thinking, "Cradle of Filth is in the midst of a critical renaissance. And Dimmu Borgir always gets covered." That may be true, but I think we all had roughly the same feeling the first time a few years ago some friend told us that the newest Cradle of Filth album was, well, good, not nostalgia good but just regular old good.

Dark Fortress is very nearly one of those bands. For one thing, they aren't just signed to Century Media; they receive prominent backing from them, have music videos produced in an era that tends more toward lyric videos or just Bandcamp surprise releases for the truly underground. They've been around since the mid-1990s (even if their debut record was in 2001) and have always erred on the more melodic end of black metal, one that tends to get shorted both by extremists who want things either crustier or more avant-garde but also by the same mainstream spaces more melodic black metal bands sometimes get accused of courting. Dark Fortress was, of course, well-regarded for the first near-decade of their recorded material, with albums like Stab Wounds and Seance rating well. Ultimately, they were still limited by the paradox of "mainstream black metal" that many melodic black metal groups not named Dissection found themselves saddled with, becoming at once a name associated with second-wave traditional black metal by those who preferred the more industrial, avant-garde, and progressive ends of the genre that began to flourish in the 2000s and beyond -- maybe, too, they were seen as perhaps a bit too polished by the older fans of the second wave themselves.

Those two records, Stab Wounds and Seance, were the final records of their first vocalist Azathoth and, to their credit, their warm reception set the stage for the kind of breakthrough their second vocalist-lyricist Morean would bring to the group. Morean had the unique skill set of being a monumentally skilled guitarist, having studied flamenco under the great Paco Peña, being one of the finalists considered for Morbid Angel following Erik Rutan's exit from that group, and one of the two guitar players present on progressive avant-garde death metal band Noneuclid's debut record. Beyond that, he was also an accomplished contemporary classical composer by the time of his joining Dark Fortress, with four major works under his belt. When considering the positive reception of the two records before his introduction to Dark Fortress and the already-shifting directionality of the group, what would come after is less of a surprise, but the addition of Morean certainly feels in retrospect like the group doubling down on a directional shift that had been slowly accumulating for some time.

Dark Fortress is wise to understand their place within black metal, choosing not to overextend themselves with the 20-minute epics explored in some of these offshoots and experimental spaces. Their approach to progressive music is more restrained, matured; it is a means of combining a dozen or more riffs in a single six-minute song with a clear sense of continuity from section to section, avoiding the cliche of mind-boggling time signature change-ups to instead pursue a sense of atmospherics and mood that only being a virtuoso on your instrument can allow. In this way they join second-wave groups in viewing the kinds of virtuosity that progressive metal music can instill as necessary to achieve the black metal ends they point the group toward; the difference is they seem to produce music that clearly registers as fairly straightforward second-wave black metal but which, under the hood and on close examination, reveals a richness of progressive ideas in composition.

Dark Fortress have quietly transformed themselves over the past decade or more from an also-ran second-wave group producing good records to one of the best of the genre. The group is less overly capital-P Prog on this release than on their previous, with no track cracking the ten-minute mark this time around. Instead, the contours are folded into straightforward black metal compositions, which now feature atmospheric touches, little twists and turns, resolutions that have a couple more tricks to them than you'd expect on first blush. This is second-wave black metal; it is melodic, yes, and progressive too, but those are deliberately reduced to being flavors to explore the inherent weirdness and self-differentiation of black metal, a genre born as much from the loose proto-prog metal of Mercyful Fate as it was the intense avant-gardism of Celtic Frost.

Dark Fortress: a group that makes me eat crow and reminds me that, shit-talking aside, second-wave black metal has plenty of tricks up its sleeve plus a still-prodigious untapped potential to create great songs and records. Spectres of the Old World is quietly one of the best black metal records of the year, whip-smart and savage, beautiful and terrifying, replacing satanic darkness with the death-consciousness of space and philosophy by someone actually smart enough to write about those topics without coming across as fake-deep or tryhard.

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Coda

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The key praiseworthy trait of Dark Fortress in this setting is not just their own greatness but that, in juxtaposition to Fluisteraars, Cult of Fire, and Tombs, they show that even relatively straightforward and traditional black metal on a fairly big label can manifest a truly great record. Despite what narratives may seem to appear, constructed on blogs and social media and metal magazines, that metal lives in its weirdness or its traditions, in its mainstream acts or moldering unknown in the underground, in the avant-garde or the primitive, none of these really hold true. The terrifying vertigo of great art arising from seemingly everywhere still holds. Each of the four records I've discussed here are, by my estimation, roughly as good as one another. If this sounds reaching, like I'm trying to make some big point, my intent is precisely the opposite; sometimes those false "big points" can be useful rhetorical framing devices for discussing records we otherwise think are just plain good and worth discussing, and sometimes those narratives that are casually developed to make a piece read better and hit home more solidly can take on a life of their own and start choking out the thing they are designed to celebrate.

At the end of the day, I don't think OSDM is killing death metal, but I agree with some more kvlt-oriented figures that bands like Convulsing and Pyrrhon deserve just as much coverage as Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold even if they are playing an objectively weirder take on the genre. Likewise, I don't think Deafheaven's success somehow diminishes the intense and ugly beauty of a record like Damp Chill of Life, but I agree that sometimes a media fixation on them can inadvertently diverge attention from those other records and bands producing quality black metal right alongside them.

My hope in plucking Fluisteraars, Cult of Fire, Tombs, and Dark Fortress and placing them alongside one another demonstrates hat four completely different approaches to black metal with four rather different fanbases, labels, presences, etc. are all producing not just quality black metal but black metal of the same high quality. I invite you to extend this argument further and further: that there is more good music than what we cover, whether that be in black metal or beyond.

It is a persistent embarrassment of riches. We just try to keep up as best as we can.

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