Neon Dream #14: Blut Aus Nord – Epitome XVIII


The dream has to end somewhere. Science fiction seems to agree on that. Futuristic technology produces what biology could not: logic-based systems so functional and adept at survival that humanity becomes obsolete. Whether we assimilate into a borg colony or a zerg hive mind, imagination is pretty screwed. Our best bet might be something like The Matrix. Perhaps some utility will compel our robot overlords to spare the sheep who spawned them. Yay!

I cannot say what it must feel like to be enslaved by a post-human species, but I fancy it would sound a lot like the 777 trilogy by Blut Aus Nord. Between 2011 and 2012, these French black metal legends offered up a journey through a world that was beyond dystopian. Discordant melodies and unorthodox rhythms taken to the extreme are usually a recipe for disaster–the tools of technically proficient but creatively deprived math rock and avant-garde musicians I would only listen to under duress. Blut Aus Nord masterfully avoided that pitfall by envisioning a coherent aesthetic framework and driving the music forward as a consistent conceptual progression across 18 tracks. Radical experimentation joins forces with dark industrial grooves to place the listener in a futuristic, post-human world where mechanical gods rule apathetic over mortals bred in gestation crates.

The trilogy does not actually offer any textual insight into what its world is supposed to be. The minimal lyrics are highly esoteric, and Blut Aus Nord ultimately leave it to the instrumentation to tell their tale. You might not experience it as a futuristic world at all, but rather as some bleak corner of hell from which a lost soul digs through the madness and witnesses his overlord. But as far as it speaks to me, the 777 trilogy is the vision of a feckless human slave awakening from his dream into terrifying, incomprehensible world. He slowly comes to understand his master and, perhaps, ultimately assimilates into the hive mind. The final track, “Epitome XVIII”, is a grim, cold trance in which a soulless machine reigns on triumphant.

Review: Pyramids – A Northern Meadow


Pyramids are four seemingly random Joes from Denton, Texas, who have managed to attract some huge names in the world of music, possibly through their completely ridiculous album covers. Well, maybe not that, but the genre-defying oddity known as Pyramids and their associated acts have shown an uncanny knack for recruiting stars to their projects. Originally signed to Aaron Turner’s (Isis, Old Man Gloom) acclaimed Hydra Head Records, they managed a transition to metal’s newest cutting edge label, Profound Lore, as soon as the former went defunct. Their self-titled debut in 2008 scored Colin Marston (Krallice), Vindsval (Blut Aus Nord), and Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Jesu), among others, to contribute to a remix album, while band leader R. Loren’s White Moth and Sailors with Wax Wings projects have featured David Tibet (Current 93), Alec Empire (Atari Teenage Riot), Jonas Renkse (Katatonia), John Gossard (Weakling), Simon Scott (Slowdive), Hildur Guðnadóttir (múm), and Aaron Stainthorpe (My Dying Bride), to name… a few? The 2009 follow-up, a collaborative album with Nadja, featured Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins), and there’s an Ulver remix of it floating around out there. They also lead some cassette tape project with 49 bands I’ve never heard of and This Will Destroy You.

In spite of the absolutely ridiculous, confounding string of names I just threw out, this band remains pretty damn obscure. A Northern Meadow, their first full-length since 2009, may well change all that, with positive reviews on sites like Pitchfork Media ensuring them a moment in the spotlight. Moreover, Colin Marston and Vindsval are active guest musicians this time, with pretty encompassing roles.

track: “In Perfect Stillness, I’ve Only Found Sorrow

The opening track, “In Perfect Stillness, I’ve Only Found Sorrow”, kicks off with Marston’s quintessential tremolo and Vindsval’s equally iconic drum programming, while R. Loren’s vocals quickly cue us into the fact that this isn’t going to be a straight metal album. Instead, we face a prolonged melancholy that finds its essence in the vocals and never really resolves into anything. This brooding approach carries throughout the album, but as the minutes tick by you can notice a slight sort of development–little hints at a more complex animal below the surface. “The Earth Melts Into Red Gashes Like The Mouths Of Whales” rises out of the plod for thirty seconds of really catchy guitar before dissolving back into bleak noise. “The Substance Of Grief Is Not Imaginary” feels like a Blut Aus Nord song in slow motion, offering all of their accustomed madness with none of the speed or volume, while Loren briefly confounds the mood with a really beautiful but short lived vocal melody. “Indigo Birds” extends the vocal presence, with Loren singing longer with more effects and range. As the song dissolves out into distorted droning and ultimately three minutes of dissonant synth, the album approaches a modest transition in character. The interlude resets the mood, allowing the remainder of the album to take, I think, a slightly more abrasive or confrontational approach.

Track: “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye

The second half of the album is more distinct, with more drive in the guitar and a faster rate of transition. “I Have Four Sons, All Named For Men We Lost To War” starts off with the most crushing tones on the album, enhanced in their finality by the still slow pace set by Vindsval’s drums. “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye” has a really memorable industrial groove, with some synth tones that invoke for the first time in me a real vision of something… perhaps ancient, a sort of primordial ruin made all the older by Loren’s forlorn, beautiful vocals. Like “Indigo Birds”, the song dissolves out into low-tuned guitar and synth droning, but the feeling is more complete. The substance of the song gives you more to reflect on in the haze of noise that follows.

On “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye” and growing throughout the remainder of the album, Loren’s vocals start to sound subtly reminiscent of Chino Moreno to me–high-pitch meanderings that feel slightly unstable yet always harmonious. It’s an effect he pulls off well, and it makes the album feel rather back-loaded to me. “Consilience” wraps things up with a turn back to the darker side. More chaotic, and with a new touch of pessimism to the vocals, it concludes an already morbid album on a particularly bleak note. Oppressive synth creeps its way in a bit earlier, and a hard stop takes us to fading noise and silence.

A Northern Meadow leaves me with pretty mixed feelings. R. Loren has a clear aural agenda that he sticks to throughout, yet I can’t escape the feeling that the album’s highest points were those most distant from the overarching theme. The beat-down opening of “I Have Four Sons…”, the synth early in “I Am So Sorry, Goodbye”, Marston’s driving 30-second sweep in “The Earth Melts…”, the short-lived vocal burst at the start of “My Father, Tall as Goliath”… I find myself anticipating these finer moments through a lot of the moody grind, rather than just enjoying the ride and taking the highs as they hit me. That grind has a lot of character at times, especially the further into the album I get, but not enough to match the talent Loren was working with here.

I guess I would say that A Northern Meadow is a very unique album, and I love Loren’s dedication to uniting awesome musicians, but I don’t feel very compelled to keep listening to it as the novelty begins to wear off. If its slightly chaotic morbidity strikes a chord with you, you might love it, but if you can’t connect to that feeling it will inevitably grow tedious at times. Marston’s noodling isn’t extensive enough to keep me constantly engaged the way a Krallice album can–a tall order, considering how equally brilliant that band’s other three members are–nor do I think Vindsval’s drum tones hold up in this sort of mono-tempo drag. It doesn’t help that both musicians inevitably play themselves. Like say, Humphrey Bogart or Morgan Freeman, they are so distinctly themselves that you feel like you’re hearing the actors, not the characters they are meant to portray. There is nothing of the instrumental synergy both produce in their main bands. I don’t hear the chemistry of two great musicians working together here. I just hear two great musicians, like some mash-up with Loren mixing vocals and synth into the pot. There may be some truth to that: if I understood Loren’s recent interview with Decibel Magazine correctly, I’m pretty sure Vindsval and Marston had no direct communication while crafting this.

I’m not saying A Northern Meadow is bad. Not at all. But it does leave me wanting something more. I can’t help but wonder what could come out of Loren, Marston, and Vindsval sitting down in a recording studio together, and I suspect it would be something more substantive than this, with a lot more motion and a lot less gloom. But that meeting might be pretty difficult to arrange, and who knows whether they would see eye to eye if Loren had allowed them less freedom to do their own things. I might yet get into this, if I can get over what it isn’t sufficiently to appreciate what it is.

Review: Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry


I am definitely not a time-honored, faithful fan of Blut Aus Nord. They managed to evade my radar for over 15 years before the 777 trilogy brought them into the broader spotlight. Sect(s) impressed me from the start, but in a twisted, bewildering way that was not necessarily enjoyable. It was a car accident you slowed down to gawk at in spite of your better judgment. It was a disturbing feast of dementia. I did not hop on The Desanctification right away, naively expecting more of the same, and it was only with Cosmosophy that I finally caught on to just how intelligent and creative Blut Aus Nord could be.

I didn’t go back in time and pick up their classics, but I did eagerly await their next album with zero assumptions about where it might go. This seemed like a band that could do anything they set their mind to, and judging by Kristian Wåhlin’s cover art, it would be something fairly distinct from 777.

Blut Aus Nord – Paien, from Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry

What I found was an album that kept a lot of basic elements intact, but, sure enough, sounded nothing like 777‘s cyberpunk journey through a hellspawn-ridden hive mind. Saturnian Poetry feels like much more traditional black metal on the surface, though you will be hard pressed to write it off as such. It takes about five seconds to realize that the blurred tremolo will not be content to loop into any stereotypical black metal monotony. The song jerks upward in a frantic fit, and by the 40 second mark we’re already on to a new rotation. Celestial keyboard “aaahhhs” and a barely sane pattern of motion rip your eyes wide open, and the clean, ethereal vocals at 1:20 tower above as an apathetic higher being uninterested in quelling the chaos beneath it. When the blast beats and constant motion do break, it is never long enough to calm the mood. It is an avant-garde, progressive approach to black metal that I can only compare to Krallice, only where they remain raw and brutal to a fault, Blut Aus Nord mellow out the drumming and keep the eye of a graceful keyboard looming ever above you.

You are being watched as you thrash about into empty space as hard as steel. We don’t know what that eye wants, but we sometimes catch a glimpse of its perspective, as at 5:10, as the beat slows to a plod and the sweeping guitar takes in a vast vision far beyond your natural senses.

Blut Aus Nord – Metaphor of the Moon, from Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry

Blut Aus Nord is a band you can sense beyond the limitations of your ears. That was something that struck me from the first time I ever listened to Epitomes 1 and 2 on Sect(s). Where so many experimental black metal bands aim to invoke a feeling, Blut Aus Nord paint a sensory world. The motion of the guitar is so pronounced that you feel the notes cascading around you. Metaphor of the Moon opens amidst a tornado, everything spiraling downward in a rush of energy that encircles you. Wherever their songs might be headed, I tend to feel trapped within them in body–some twisted wonderland where keyboard and clean vocal spirits gaze upon me and invisible forces and amalgamations of lead guitar swoop all around, discernible only through some super-sense that informs me of their presence without ever forming a solid image.

But if I had to pick a fault in Saturnian Poetry, it would be the overly traditional percussion. Beats carried the day in the 777 trilogy. The band’s experimentation with unconventional drum tones added the final layer needed to complete the unique quasi-physical world of their music. On Saturnian Poetry, the lack of this element serves as an occasional reminder that I am, after all, only listening to a song. “Metaphor of the Moon” is the track that seems to extend beyond my attention span the most, at least to a point. I can latch on to it at just about any moment if I choose to, but it sometimes fails to hold me long without some effort on my part.

Blut Aus Nord – Clarissima Mundi Lumina, from Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry

That being said, these guys are a clear cut above the vast majority of their competition in the black metal scene. It is hard to believe that France, once known for the raw and unadorned acts of Les Légions Noires, could give us three of the most significant post-black bands of our time, but Blut Aus Nord, Peste Noire, and Alcest surely stand as a triumvirate of progression and experimentation in 21st century metal. Saturn Poetry will never top the 777 trilogy in my books, and generic drumming is to blame first and foremost. Yet I’ll not soon forget a closing track like this–the listener sacrificing himself to madness, screaming towards that eye above, catching unintelligible glimpses that only make his violence more desperate. It never ends, never finds resolution, just continues to implode in perpetual waves of self-destruction. I don’t know that the song, or the album as a whole, has any clear passage. There is no apparent journey here or grand enlightenment at the end, though perhaps I ought to find the first two Memoria Vetusta albums before I pass judgment. Either way, Saturnian Poetry is another shattered window into that twisted, imaginative world that only these French masters can conjure. Whether I see in it precisely what the band intended or not, I definitely see something words cannot easily describe.

It’s also worth mentioning the Debemur MoRTi EP released earlier this year. It offers a unique cover of “Bastardiser” by Pitchshifter that I think you will all appreciate.

Horror Music


I suppose if I asked most people what music they identified with horror, John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme” and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (The Exorcist) would come up first. After that, you’d get a lot of Rob Zombie and Glenn Danzig. So right off the bat, you’re looking at an enormous variety of sounds and styles connected mainly by association. While John Carpenter’s work was intentionally composed for the film in which it appeared, “Tubular Bells” was originally a 50 minute progressive rock opus that was anything but sinister or foreboding in its full form. Misfits was a goth punk band that happened to favor horror themes. White Zombie’s horror imagery was more a matter of crudeness and vulgarity in the spirit of GWAR; their sound was a frontrunner in the emergence of industrial groove metal, and the greatest “horror” associated with Rob was the countless terrible nu metal spinoffs. A couple of “top ten horror songs” lists I stumbled upon even list Bobby Boris Pickett’s “Monster Mash” and Richard O’Brien’s “Time Warp”. I mean, “Monster Mash” is a fun Halloween song, sure, but horror? Really? And the Rocky Horror Picture Show does make me want to vomit, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Suffice to say, “horror” music is not a genre at all. Simply associating a song with a scene or theme is enough to relate them; Huey Lewis and the News will probably make me smile and think of Christian Bale chopping people to bits in his apartment for the rest of my life. But there are definitely certain musical attributes that conjure in us a less glitzy feeling of dread than Hellbilly Deluxe. That skittering cockroach beat in the background of Halloween is completely unnerving; Carnival music is way creepier than Stephen King’s It; Black Sabbath’s appreciation for diabolus in musica virtually invented heavy metal; and it took a firm dose of the blues in 1988 for Danzig to capture a sense of the sinister that Misfits could never convey.

I don’t believe that any particular musical formula is the coalescence of evil. The music we find most haunting is derived from association too, but it connects in more subtle ways than say, the fact that a particular song appears in a horror film or mentions witches in the chorus. The real deal distorts what comforts us, denies our sense of order, and pries upon our innocence. Through a musical medium as through any other, horror focuses on shattering the lens through which we perceive reality as an ordered, logical construct. It reminds us of the real nightmares in life while nullifying our means to counteract them. It takes us to the world of the child, where emotional extremes enhance our senses of comfort and terror alike.

The carnival tune and music box are prime targets, conjuring in our minds a time when fear was more potent. The brief piano loop, the simple hum, the monotone drone–these bring us to solitude and isolation through minimalism. Effective horror themes offer no comforting symphony or rock ensemble to encase us in a nuanced world. They surround us with something singular and far from warm, or with nothing at all. The wind chimes warn of a storm; when none is coming, the darkness is all the more unnatural. The cathedral bell, a sign of fellowship on a Sunday morning, also tolls for death. A twitch, a buzz, a repeated knocking, a bit of static–things that would otherwise annoy us–exploit the close connection between discomfort and tension.

Or else we can completely overwhelm the senses with noise that strips away the familiarity which typically diminishes extreme music’s effect, leaving us a nervous wreck. When Blut Aus Nord chose to employ programmed, industrial blast beats in their 777 trilogy, they effectively eliminated the one element of the music that would have sounded too familiar to disturb. Instead, the epileptic guitar finds companionship in a persistent, unnatural clatter designed to place us permanently on edge.

Other bands have found other means to the same end. Peste Noire’s unique “black ‘n’ roll” sound enlivens a standard formula for “evil” music with a pep and a grin, giving the brutalizer a human face in the spirit of medieval sadism. Sunn O))) are inclined to drone on for ages, developing a false sense of comfort before infusing their deep buzz with a caterwaul of shrill pitches and clattering chimes. (I actually had a guy start freaking out on me at work one day when “Cry For The Weeper”, which he didn’t even notice playing, hit the 3:55 mark.)

And lastly, we can’t forget the power of lyrics to render a song gruesome. The stereotypical lines of a black metal song–nonsense about necromoonyetis and an appeal to Satanism far less disturbing than the average Christian commentator on Fox News–are pure cheese, and they entertain us in a manner similar to your typical zombie flick. But when you first heard Smashing Pumpkin’s “x.y.u.”, you probably got a feeling more akin to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Horror in lyrics is something a bit the opposite of horror in sound; it strikes us most deeply when we can be convinced that there is absolutely nothing supernatural about it. There are certainly a few exceptions–Townes Van Zandt’s tall tale in “Our Mother the Mountain” chills me to the bone–but generally speaking, the real atrocities committed throughout human history far exceed the limits of our imaginations. Vlad Tepes was worse than any vampire, and from Elizabeth Bathory and Ariel Castro to Hernando Cortes and Adolf Hitler, we are flooded by examples of direct personal cruelty and dehumanized mass slaughter. When a song manages to make us think of these individuals and events beyond the safety blanket of historical narrative, an authentic feeling or horror is hard to deny.

Review: Blut aus Nord – 777 Cosmosophy


Blut aus Nord generated a lot of waves in the metal scene last April when they released Sect(s), the first installment in their 777 trilogy. The album was a gripping ride through a vivid musical nightmare, merging industrial music and a particularly demented take on black metal to paint its demon-ridden post-apocalyptic landscapes. The Desanctification, released in last November, flew much lower under the radar. Lacking all of Sect(s)’s shock value, it was a more contemplative plod which capitalized on the industrial side of their 777 sound and presented the devastation inflicted first-hand on Sect(s) from a less intimate angle. If the listener was the victim on Sect(s), Desanctification offered the role of witness.

Cosmosophy, the final installment in the 777 trilogy, was released this September, and a lot hinged on it. Sect(s) and The Desanctification were drastically different and yet inseparable, the second naturally flowing from the first. How did Blut aus Nord intend to bring it all to an end?

In the very last way anyone could have ever expected: They repeated the exact same thing they did on The Desanctification. It’s a brooding, visually stunning bird’s-eye view of a cyberpunk holocaust, and as such it’s just as outstanding as its predecessor. But where is it going?

If Blut aus Nord released two albums like this every year they might well become my favorite band. I’ve been dying for this kind of material, and The Desanctification and Cosmosophy both fill that niche with a degree of excellence that surpasses all other attempts I have heard. But I guess for me the 777 series was telling a story, vague though it need necessarily be, and Cosmosophy just kind of waves that off. It’s an outstanding album in its own right, but it does not feel appropriate in the context of the trilogy.

Epitome XVII and XVIII are somewhat of an exception,and they’re the tracks I’ll be sampling here. XVII has a definite sense of conclusion about it. It’s not an optimistic one, especially given the lyrics–“How many seasons beyond this sacred life? How many treasons beyond this clever lie?” But the feeling is one of profound revelation, as if the listener in this nearly wordless narrative has finally come to see the grand vision we were all hoping Cosmosophy would offer. The transition that spans from about 4:20 to 6:20 is pensive, serving to reintroduce the darkness that resolution has by no means abated. As this fades and we reach the final track in the trilogy, you can definitely see the story coming to an end:

Epitome XVIII is one of the finest of those bird’s-eye perspectives on the greater 777 landscape, and in its context it offers something of a new, esoteric light on the devastation below. The outro that begins to fade in after the 7 minute mark is the perfect conclusion and perhaps the darkest moment in the entire trilogy, epic in its silence. Of Cosmosophy’s two concluding tracks I have no complaints. It’s the first three that get us there that leave a lot to be desired.

If you care to revisit The Desanctification, it ends on a completely twisted industrial groove that offers all of the madness of Sect(s) without any of the fear–a sense that the subject (the listener) is breaking down into utter insanity, becoming a part of the surrounding chaos. I desperately wanted Cosmosophy to pick up on this note. I wanted to hear a merging of Sect(s)’s black metal and Desanctification’s industrial that, if you’ll humor my manner of description, merged the victim and the witness into one. I expected a juxtaposition of the sweeping landscapes and the frantic madness that could, in the context of the trilogy, depict a sort of out of body experience in the subject/listener. Epitome XIV and XVI instead feel like unused (though equal) tracks from Desanctification, while XV offers three minutes of obnoxiously spoken French which quite frankly fails to invoke anything but annoyance before plunging into an outstanding but compromised semi-operatic sweep that could have found a place on the album but lacks appropriate context as presented.

Epitome XV is the only track I dislike in the trilogy, while XIV and XVI seem out of order. In the meantime, I feel like an essential step between Desanctification’s XIII and Cosmosophy’s XVII is missing. In short, Cosmosophy does not live up to my ridiculously high expectations. If Blut aus Nord were to come out with a surprise Part 4, I certainly would not deem it overkill. But if we view Cosmosophy as just another 2012 metal album there is hardly room to complain. It is only in light of the standard set by Sect(s) and The Desanctification, and in expectation that the conclusion ought to be the 777 trilogy’s finest hour, that it slightly disappoints.

My Top 15 Metal Albums of 2011


The years I most actively indulge my musical interests are the ones I find most difficult to wrap up in any sort of nice cohesive summary. December always begins with a feeling that I’ve really built up a solid basis on which to rate the best albums of the year, and it tends to end with the realization that I’ve really only heard a minute fraction of what’s out there. I’m going to limit this to my top 15. Anything beyond that is just too arbitrary–the long list of new albums I’ve still yet to hear will ultimately reconfigure it beyond recognition.

15. Thantifaxath – Thantifaxath EP
Thantifaxath’s debut EP might only be 15 minutes long, but that was more than enough to place it high on my charts. The whole emerging post/prog-bm sound has been largely a product of bands with the resources to refine it, and it’s quite refreshing to hear sounds reminiscent of recent Enslaved without any of the studio gloss. That, and I get a sort of B-side outer space horror vibe from it that’s not so easy to come by. (Recommended track: Violently Expanding Nothing)

14. Craft – Void
This is the straight-up, no bullshit black metal album of the year. It doesn’t try anything fancy or original. It’s just good solid mid-tempo bm–brutal, evil, conjuring, and unforgiving. Hail Satan etc. (Recommended track: any of them)

13. Turisas – Stand Up and Fight
Stand Up and Fight doesn’t hold a candle to The Varangian Way, but I never really expected it to. As a follow-up to one of my all-time favorite albums, it does a solid job of maintaining that immensely epic, triumphal sound they landed on in 2007. It lacks their previous work’s continuity, both in quality and in theme, but it’s still packed with astoundingly vivid imagery and exciting theatrics that render it almost more of a movie than an album. (Recommended tracks: Venetoi! Prasinoi!, Hunting Pirates)

12. Endstille – Infektion 1813
Swedish-style black metal seldom does much for me, and it’s hard to describe just what appeals to me so much about Germany’s Endstille. But just as Verführer caught me by pleasant surprise two years ago, Infektion 1813 managed to captivate me in spite of all expectations to the contrary. Like Marduk (the only other band of the sort that occasionally impresses me), they stick to themes of modern warfare, but Endstille’s musical artillery bombardments carry a sense of something sinister that Marduk lacks. The dark side of human nature Endstille explores isn’t shrouded in enticing mystery–it’s something so thoroughly historically validated that we’d rather just pretend it doesn’t exist at all. The final track, Völkerschlächter, is one of the best songs of the year. Stylistically subdued, it pummels the listener instead with a long list of political and military leaders responsible for mass murder, named in a thick German accent over a seven second riff that’s repeated for 11 minutes. It’s a brutal realization that the sensations black metal tends to arouse are quite real and quite deplorable, and it will leave you feeling a little sick inside.

11. Nekrogoblikon – Stench
Nekrogoblikon released a folk metal parody album in 2006 that was good for laughs and really nothing else. The music was pretty awful, but that was intentional. It was a joke, with no presumption to be any good as anything but a joke. They’re the last band on earth I ever expected, a full six years after the fact, to pop back up with a really fucking solid sound. But Stench is good. I mean, Stench is really good. It’s still comical in theme, but the music has been refined beyond measure. Quirky, cheesy guitar and keyboard doodles have become vivid images of little flesh-eating gremlins dancing around your feet, whiny mock-vocals have taken the shape of pretty solid Elvenking-esque power metal, pretty much everything about them has grown into a legitimate melo-death and power infused folk metal sound. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not meant to be taken seriously, but they’re now of Finntroll caliber. (Recommended tracks: Goblin Box, Gallows & Graves, A Feast)

10. Týr – The Lay of Thrym
I thought By the Light of the Northern Star was a fairly weak album, and because The Lay of Thrym maintains some of the stylistic changes they underwent then, a part of me keeps wanting to say it can’t be as good as say, Land or Eric the Red. But of all the albums I acquired in 2011, I’ve probably listened to this one the most. Týr have one of the most unique sounds on the market, and it’s thoroughly incapable of ever boring me or growing old. Heri Joensen’s consistently excellent vocal performance alone is enough to make them perpetual year-end contenders. (Recommended track: Hall of Freedom)

9. Waldgeflüster – Femundsmarka – Eine Reise in drei Kapiteln
This is some of the most endearing black metal I’ve heard in a while. Intended as a musical reminiscence of Winterherz’ journey through Femundsmarka National Park in Scandinavia, it’s a beautiful glorification of nature that takes some of the best accomplishments of Drudkh and Agalloch and adds to them a very uplifting vibe. Someone made an 8 minute compilation of the album on youtube which does a good job at previewing without revealing all of its finest moments. (Recommended track: Kapitel I: Seenland)

8. Ygg – Ygg
Ygg is an hour-long trance, evoking ancient gods in a way that only Slavic metal can. You could probably pick apart the music and discover plenty of flaws, but that would miss the point. I think that a lot of these Ukrainian and Russian bands are true believers, and that the purpose of music like this is more to create an experience in the listener than to be good for its own sake. This is a spiritual journey, and if it fails to move you as such it will probably come off as rather repetitive and generic, but I find it impressively effective. (Recommended track: Ygg)

7. Blut aus Nord – 777: Sect(s)
I don’t know where to put this really. I could just as easily have labeled it second best album of the year. Dropping it down to 7th might seem a little unjustified, but eh, this is a list of my top albums, not of the “best” albums of the year. There’s no denying Sect(s) credit as a brilliant masterpiece, but it’s an ode to madness. I mean, this music scares the shit out of me, and if that means it’s accomplished something no other album has, that also means I don’t particularly “enjoy” listening to it. (Recommended track: Epitome I)

6. Altar of Plagues – Mammal
I never did listen to Mammal as actively as I would have liked. I never sat down and gave it my undivided attention from start to finish. But it’s served as a background piece for many late nights at work. It zones me in–stimulates my senses without ever distracting them from the task at hand. I don’t feel like I can really say much about what makes it great, because that’s not the sort of thing I’ve considered while listening to it, but I absolutely love it. It’s a big improvement from White Tomb, which was itself an excellent album, and more so than most other releases of 2011 I will probably continue to listen to it frequently in years to come. (Recommended track: Neptune is Dead)

5. Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand (track: No Grave Deep Enough)
Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand is by no means perfect. It’s got a few sub-par tracks detracting from the full start to finish experience, but when it’s at its best all else can be easily forgiven. Call it folk metal or call it black metal, whichever you prefer, but first and foremost call it Irish, with every good thing that might entail. The vocals are outstanding, the music rocks out in folk fashion without ever relenting from its metal force, and while the lyrics don’t always make sense, they always hit like a fucking truck. Where they do all come together, delivered with Nemtheanga’s vast and desperate bellows, the result is overwhelming. O Death, where are your teeth that gnaw on the bones of fabled men? O Death, where are your claws that haul me from the grave? (Other recommended tracks: The Puritan’s Hand, Death of the Gods)

4. Falconer – Armod (track: Griftefrid)
Prior to 2011 I’d largely written Falconer off as one of those power metal acts that were just a little too cheesy to ever excite me. Maybe it was bad timing. Maybe I just happened to hear them for the first time while Kristoffer Göbel was filling in on vocals. Or maybe Armod is just their magnum opus–a spark of genius they’ve never neared before. Flawless if we ignore the “bonus tracks”, Armod takes that early folk metal sound Vintersorg pioneered with Otyg, merges it perfectly with power metal, and offers up 11 of the most well-written and excellently produced songs of the year. Mathias Blad’s vocals are absolutely phenomenal. (Other recommended tracks: Herr Peder Och Hans Syster)

3. Falkenbach – Tiurida (track: Sunnavend)
A lot of people might voice the legitimate complaint that Tiurida, Vratyas Vakyas’s first studio album in six years, sounds absolutely indistinguishable from his prior four. For me, that’s exactly why it ranks so high. Vakyas landed on a completely unique, instantly recognizable sound which, alongside Bathory, defined viking metal as a genre, and he’s refused to change it one bit. I fell in love with this album ten years ago. (Other recommended tracks: Where His Ravens Fly…)

2. Liturgy – Aesthethica (track: Harmonia)
Yes, Liturgy. It’s immature, childish, and imperfect, but it’s uplifting in a completely new way. No matter how far Hunt-Hendrix might go to embarrass himself and his band mates, behind all of his pompous babble there just might be some truth to it. (Other recommended tracks: True Will)

1. Krallice – Diotima (track: Dust and Light)
More than the album of the year, Diotima is one of the greatest albums ever made. I can’t fathom the amount of skill it must take to perform with the speed and precision that these guys do, but if they battered down a physical barrier to metal in 2008, they finally grasped hold of what lies beyond it in 2011. They claim that the songs on their first three albums were all written at the same time by Mick Barr and Colin Marston, before their self-titled debut. If that’s the case, then it must be the experience of performing together and the creative contributions of Lev Weinstein and Nick McMaster that raised Diotima to a higher level. It’s not just that they’ve improved in every way imaginable; the songs themselves are overwhelming, breathtaking, and chaotic to a degree they’d never before accomplished. Krallice perform an unwieldy monster that took a few albums to thoroughly overcome. Now they’re in complete control, and their absolutely brilliant song-writing can shine through. With the exception of the dubious Litany of Regrets, this is possibly the greatest album I have ever heard. (Other recommended tracks: Inhume, Diotima, Telluric Rings)

Review: Aosoth – III


French black metal as crushing chaos is something of a novelty to me this year. I think I was sort of envisioning the metal scene there as composed of a dozen Neige side projects and Deathspell Omega. Blut Aus Nord and Aosoth’s new albums have both thus thrown me for a bit of a loop. I didn’t really listen to either band prior to this year, and both have recently released something tormented to the point of being both fascinating and entirely unpleasant to listen to.


II

Unlike 777 Sect(s) though, III doesn’t give me any sort of moving vision. It doesn’t so much take me on a journey through a nightmare I’d rather avoid as confront me head on. There’s a lot less to latch onto beneath the wall of noise, and what does surface isn’t exactly friendly. You can expect an album that’s tormented from start to finish, and unrelenting even in its slow parts. If II is the most frantic song on the album, it’s also perhaps the most direct example of this. At the transition around 1:15, what emerges as the song’s most defining characteristic is something of an instrumental tornado. Here the black metal serves as sort of a portal, a summoning sphere that conjures forth sinister elements from the beyond. On II it might be a tornado ready to rip you limb from limb. More frequently it’s a slow-moving monster with equally ill intentions, and the ritual that invokes it is likewise more of a methodical blood-letting than a butchery.


III

III is a bit more characteristic of what you can expect to hear throughout–a lot of slow, haunting progressions interlaced with blast-beat brutality. Again the song’s most memorable moment fades in. The break around 2 minutes doesn’t explode back into full-throttled black metal. It slowly builds up. A deeper guitar tone takes its sweet time to emerge out of the filth and present, around 3:45, possibly the most crushing, albeit brief, moment on the album, soon to be buried again beneath higher-pitched, haunting sounds and blast beats.

It wasn’t for a while after reviewing 777 Sect(s) that it really grew on me, and likewise Aosoth’s III might take more time than I’m willing to give it to develop in my ears into something not enjoyable, it will never be that, but at least more intriguing than it is unbearable. But then, the two albums don’t really compare as much as I’m making them out to, I just haven’t heard enough music like this to better describe it. There are definitely no good vibes to derive from Aosoth. Like I said, it’s not a journey filled with hidden horrors–it’s direct. What’s there to be heard I think you can take in in one attentive listen. It shares the ability to terrorize without any real relief, and for better or worse that may be its only effect. The songs are fairly diverse, but the bad vibe is consistent. As something I doubt was meant to be enjoyed I think it’s pretty successful. Prepare to walk away feeling a bit less content than when you started.

Review: Blut aus Nord – 777 Sect(s)


Blut aus Nord have released eight albums, and prior to this I’d only heard their last one, Dialogue with the Stars. So shame on me for thinking they were a rather chilled out black metal band with space-themed music and a lead guitarist with progressive rock tendencies. Fans of the band might hear a lot of consistencies in 777 Sect(s), but I could barely tell it was the same group. For better or worse.

Epitome 1

Because if Dialogue with the Stars was a pleasant ride, 777 Sect(s) is a chaotic nightmare. “Painful to listen to” is a description few bands acquire by intent, and bravo to them, I guess, for breaking from that norm. 777 Sect(s) tours some astral wasteland–some distant dimension of post-industrial horror that you’d really rather just avoid but can appreciate all the same. After about five and a half minutes of running for your life, just when you can barely stand any more of it, the music finds a safe haven, a place to reflect on the monster you’ve just engaged. It is remarkably effective, with the outro of the first track giving you time to catch your breath before gazing out from your refuge onto Epitome 2.

Epitome 2

The music describes what you’re looking at better than words can–some vast vulgar hell that marries a cyberpunk scene to an installment of the Doom series. Take what you will from this song. It seems to me like the centerpoint around which the rest of the album is designed–a portrait of the world you’ve briefly escaped from and are doomed to dive back into after seven minutes’ repose.

Epitome 5

777 Sect(s) isn’t like some Hollywood action-horror flick though, packed with distracting eye candy and special effects. It has its highs and lows, its moments of intensity and calm, but nothing is ever pleasant. After the second track you are never again permitted to live in the moment or appreciate the vastness of it all. No, it’s more realistic than a movie. You’re there, and it’s a shitty place to be, so there will be no relief. The feeling of dread never goes away, constantly nagging and distressing you. Blut aus Nord see to it through a series of songs that are not only ugly but sometimes downright annoying. The annoyance though–the repetition of unmelodic nonsense no matter how often the songs beg for coherence–can’t be directed at the band. You know that it’s intentional. You know that you’re not supposed to like it. So it manifests instead as anxiety.

Epitome 6

Even the closing song, the only coherent track besides Epitome 2, isn’t something you can really enjoy. Like track 2, it’s more of a grand view of the hell that surrounds you, but unlike that first look, where the recognition that you were a part of it had not quite sunk in, you’re not going to leave this one feeling good about yourself. The fear and disgust are ever present.

The end result is an album I never want to listen to again. You know, a lot of black metal, especially atmospheric scene-setting stuff, is really enjoyable if you aren’t too stubborn to appreciate the darker side of things. But this album, for me at least, doesn’t tap into the dark and vulgar. It harnesses fear and distress as its focal points, and does so not in real-world settings that anyone with a backbone wouldn’t be startled by, but rather within a nightmare. That’s something I’ve not come to sufficient terms with yet to enjoy. Perhaps what I take from 777 Sect(s) isn’t quite what the band intended, but there’s certainly something there for the taking, and it’s not for the meek.