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.