My Top 15 Albums of 2017

Hi! Still existing and loving my family, hope the same goes for all of you. I may be retired from all else in the music world, but the year end list is eternal.

Sample size: I have 83 albums released in 2017 at the time of writing this. Can’t promise I actually listened to all of them.

Surgeon General’s Warning: Ranking music is silly and I generally discourage it.  (But I do it once a year anyway…….)

15. Chinese Man – Shikantaza

trip hop/hip hop

Sample track: Liar

fun French hip hop/trip hop album that seems to have gotten overlooked a lot. I listened to it a ton earlier this year. It’s not something I’ll remember years down the road, but it certainly earned a spot for as much as I played it.

14. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World

stoner prog

Sample track: Sanctuary

For me personally, this is probably the most unorthodox pick on my list, because it is heavily rock-centric in all the ways that typically turn me off. God but something about rock and roll has always felt absolutely soulless to me in a way that few genres can match at their worst. But Elder just do what they do so damn well that it’s impossible to hate this opus. An endless onslaught of prog ingenuity with a nice stoner rock crunch that keeps it driving from start to finish. It’s 64 straight minutes of ear candy without a dull note in the mix, and I have a world of respect for how flawlessly these guys accomplished what they set out to do.

13. Krallice – Go Be Forgotten

post-black metal

Sample track: This Forest For Which We Have Killed

Krallice are responsible for a lot of the best music to come out this decade, and in 2017 they pumped out two new ones (both painfully late into the year for a band that requires a lot of repetition to fully appreciate). While I haven’t actually read anything about either of these yet, the distinctly different styles between them have me pretty convinced that Mick Barr wrote the bulk of this one and Colin Marston took charge on the other. Go Be Forgotten gets off to a glorious start with its opening track, but the remainder has so far failed to really captivate me to the extent that most of their previous works did. It doesn’t raise the bar (or if it does, it hasn’t sunk in yet), but it’s still a fascinating exploration of highly complex soundscapes that few other artists have the technical precision to delve. And god that opening riff is sick. Krallice will be a perpetual year end contender as long they keep doing what they do.

12. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

folk rock

Sample track: When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay

I have mixed feelings about this album, and my inclination is to point out the negative; suffice to say, it’s not lacking in universal praise. It wouldn’t be on my list if I didn’t love it. The reason it’s not higher is that, as I see it, Tillman too often defaults to rather throw-away lines. That’s not inherently problematic (see: my #1 pick), but I think it clashes with the more refined, theatrical vibe of the sound around them. Simple case in point: Total Entertainment Forever kicks off with an absolutely delicious line–Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift–and follows it up with something so generic that I feel it only exists to achieve a rhyme–after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes. Sometimes gentle flaws make a work all the more endearing, but Pure Comedy goes too big and refined to get away with it for me. I feel like he aimed extraordinarily high and almost got there.

11. Tchornobog – Tchornobog

blackened death metal

Sample track: II: Hallucinatory Black Breath Of Possession (Mountain-Eye Amalgamation)

A landscape album as only blackened death metal can paint one. Tchornobog takes you on a 64 minute journey across an entirely unpleasant and stomach-turning waste of all purpose ugliness that really reflected how I’ve felt about the world this year any time I let my attention range beyond my immediate household. We’re talking death metal aesthetics here so yes, that can be a compliment. And while the visions are certainly exotic, there’s not much surrealism of the lofty, artistic sort you find on say, a Blut Aus Nord album. It’s just leaves you feeling kind of dirty. It hit a note I could appreciate while maintaining enough melody and progression to avoid succumbing to redundancy.

10. Hell – Hell

doom sludge

Sample track: Machitikos

Ridiculously heavy slow-rolled sludge that shouldn’t require any genre appreciation to crush your skull. At its peek on “Machitikos”, the quality of this album is unreal. Unfortunately I was pretty late to the ballgame, and their more ambient moments are going to take more than a sporadic month to leave a lasting impression or definitively fail to. Nowhere to move but further up the charts for this one.

9. Nokturnal Mortum – Істина

pagan metal

Sample track: Дика Вира

We’ve certainly come a long way from Knjaz Varggoth screaming hateful nonsense to crackling cassette recordings of Dollar General synth, and as endearing as Nokturnal Mortum’s early works may be, you can’t deny that he has matured (both musically and intellectually) substantially over the years. This album thoroughly lacks the trademark Eastern European folk metal execution that Knjaz inspired more than perhaps anyone else: brutally hammered folk jingles lashing out violently from beneath a wall of modern noise. Істина is a lot more even keel, to such an extent that its metal elements almost feel unnecessary at times. It fully embraces the more cerebral, orchestral sound we began to hear on Weltanschauung and leaves most else behind, achieving a new height in terms of orchestration. I do miss Knjaz’s more passionate explosions, but I don’t consider that a flaw. The real down side to the album for me stems from the studio. For all of its grand instrumental diversity, the complete package is a bit washed out. Everything feels like it’s playing in the background as a supporting element to a non-existent centerpiece. It’s something I’m certainly used to–Nokturnal Mortum have always struggled a bit on the finer finishing touches of sound production–but it’s still a fault that’s hard to ignore. An incredibly solid album that could have been even better.

8. Riivaus – Lyoden Taudein Ja Kirouksin

black metal

Sample track: Vihan Temppeli

This is probably the most unknown album on my list. It’s just straight-up black metal. No frills. No novelties. Really it’s the sort of thing I rarely listen to these days, because most great bm artists have moved on to more experimental fronts. But this is tight as fuck. The riffs are great and it’s got a nice punchy pace and a crisp tone that suits the mood perfectly. Outstanding debut from an unheard of artist. Hoping he sticks around for many years to come.

7. Thundercat – Drunk


Sample track: Bus in These Streets

A tongue-in-cheek dreamfunk fantasy. Artists who can let a cheesy sound be cheesy often accidentally stumble into brilliance. This guy makes some of the goofiest sounds that funk and jazz have ever imagined somehow feel endearing. I’m also pretty impressed by how distinct his sound is. I mean, considering how radically uninformed on this sort of style I am, it kind of blew my mind that I could instantly go “this guy must have wrote the bass lines to Wesley’s Theory“. I think Drunk is an incredibly well-craft work masked behind a delicious veil of comedy. And it’s given us such eloquent 21st century mottos as “thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?”

6. Krallice – Loüm

post-black metal

Sample track: Etemenanki

If Go Be Forgotten offered Krallice’s most deranged opening melody to date, Loüm might take the prize for their heaviest boot in the ass. Etemenanki hammers down all the brutality of a headbanger’s wet dream from the first note without budging an inch on Krallice’s classic eclectic tremolo noodling. I don’t think I’ve wanted to just open my mouth and shout “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” to a Krallice song this bad since Inhume. As with Go Be Forgotten, there’s a serious question of whether the album as a whole is really that great or if the opening song just carries it, and that’s not to knock the rest so much as to say that by Krallice’s ridiculously high standards I think it might have some mediocrity. You can never really tell with most Krallice songs until you’ve heard them four dozen times. It’s complicated, intricate shit that your brain doesn’t instinctively unravel. My gut tells me that Loüm will keep on growing on me in a way that Go Be Forgotten may struggle to, and I was right about that with Prelapsarian’s incredibly late release last year. (Yes, it is amazing.) The only lasting down point about Loüm for me is, surprisingly, the addition of Dave Edwardson (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot) on vocals. He does a killer job, but I am shamelessly in love with Nick McMaster’s vox and can’t help but miss them.

5. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me


Sample track: Crow

Phil Elverum’s wife died last year, and he wrote this album. It’s artistically significant for reasons that are pointless to explain, because I think you will either already get it or it will fundamentally conflict with whatever life coping mechanism you personally subscribe to, and both are fine. It matters to me more than other albums about death because we appear to share roughly the same world view. It isn’t my favorite album of the year because it can’t be.

4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers


Sample track: Bosses Hang

I somehow managed to ignore the rebirth of GY!BE in spite of being entirely aware of it, and this is the first album I’ve listened to by them since Yanqui U.X.O. fifteen years ago. In the meantime, I’ve become an avid consumer of Silver Mt Zion, and after that long of a break it’s easy to forget just how different the two projects were. I’m at a loss for words to properly describe how I feel about Luciferian Towers because I have nothing remotely current and similar to compare it to. “Bosses Hang” and “Anthem For No State” are both absolutely mind blowing, and I usually skip the first and third tracks and don’t even care. This is the greatest band in post-rock being exactly that.

3. Kendrick Lamar – Damn

hip hop

Sample track: DNA

Every time I saw this album top another year-end list, I wanted to move it further down mine. It doesn’t move me on an emotional level like To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not Kendrick’s greatest work. Can it really be the best of 2017? But every time I revised my year-end list, it just kept moving up instead. Everything he touches has a subtle finesse to it. I love the sound of his voice. I love the way he weaves it into the instrumentation flawlessly. I love how every aspect of each song seems painstakingly tailored to suit the intended vibe. I can just really get into this from start to finish time after time with zero effort. It was my 2017 fallback the grand bulk of the times I wasn’t in the mood for something dark or heavy. This album makes me feel empowered every time I put it on with no cheap sense of escapism attached, and god did I need something like that.

2. Boris – Dear


Sample track: Dystopia (Vanishing Point)

Wow. This is 16th year that I’ve compiled a year-end list. For the grand majority of that time, I would have named Boris in my top 5 favorite bands if you asked me. During that time, they’ve put out 53 releases just that I have managed to acquire. And not one has earned my #1 slot. Smile came so close. So close. And now I’m saying it again. I almost feel guilty leaving Dear at #2. It was never dropping any lower. But if you’re at all familiar with it, this might sound generous. Dear is nowhere near their most well-received album. It is absolutely nowhere near their most accessible. Doom and drone at its core, it’s a slow drip grind that will leave all but the most steadfast fans bored out of their minds on first encounter. Yet I somehow managed to listen to it close to 50 freaking times. It wasn’t that I liked it at first. I kind of didn’t. But the mood was right. It hit that sweet spot between ambience and melody that made it never quite dull enough to bore inherently but never quite memorable enough to bore through familiarity. It was dark but it wasn’t morbid. It was just the right sort of fuzz to make me feel more alert without distracting me. And it was through that extremely passive but relentless pattern of listening that its finest moments slowly revealed themselves to me, raising the bar higher and higher, until now it blows my mind that a track like Dystopia (Vanishing Point) could have failed to sweep me off my feet on first encounter. It certainly manages to every time now, on take number one hundred and god knows what. This isn’t my favorite Boris album, but I suspect it’s much higher up there for me than for most fans, and after a very great deal of consideration it only failed to take the title by a fraction of a hair. Oh, I also got to watch them play it live in its entirety. 😀

1. Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood


Sample track: Lone Star

The grand prize goes to Sun Kil Moon. I think this might be for me what Pure Comedy has been for a lot of other people this year. It just speaks to so much I’ve been feeling in 2017 in a way I can completely relate to. Mark Kozelek takes half of the stuff I’ve been making enemies spouting all year and sets it to solid American folk music. He has a blue collar political perspective that offers no compromise for our “total fucking asshole” President but takes far more cutting hits at liberal America’s zero-attention-span reaction-click-and-move-on culture for allowing the country to fall into this state. The album is a two hours and ten minutes meandering disjointed travel through personal stories and monologues that reach all over the place, but underneath it all is a consistent love and appreciation for the bonds we share in our meager little lives, and an intense compassion for those who have permanently lost them. If he comes across as cranky, he’s just pissed at how many Americans have lost sight of this.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016

October Music Series: Векша – Царство снега

The short-lived, Yaroslavl-based band Векша (Veksha) offer a look at that strange world of ultra-nationalistic, rabidly pagan Slavic metal that began to emerge shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. I love the awkward juxtaposition (by 1998 standards) of black metal and this anonymous woman’s clean, almost childish singing in the environment of absolutely rock-bottom recording quality. The aesthetic consequence is spooky–a sort of half-formed ghost of a demo tape that dares you to shut off your speakers and see if it continues to play.

But the appeal that keeps me listening to На пороге ночи (Na Poroge Nochi) might not have been the band’s intent. Believe it or not they actually had a website, on which they greet all Aryan brothers with pastel flowers and rotating heart gifs.


But creepy by accident is always more effective than creepy by intent, right? The bizarrely pervasive fixation on race throughout a lot of early Slavic pagan metal bands probably has an interesting historical explanation that is well beyond the scope of my knowledge, and the explicitly sinister intent of a few prominent bad apples in that bunch might cast the rest a little out of context, but at any rate it’s another off-kilter factor in rendering Veksha’s lone release just a wee bit disturbing for reasons the band probably never intended. They’ve definitely earned a spot in my Halloween playlist.

True Slavonic Romantic Pagan Metal ?

October Music Series: Myrkgrav – Endetoner

Lars Jensen has been working on his solo project, Myrkgrav, since 2003, but his discography is pretty brief. Trollskau, skrømt og kølabrenning (2006) is his only full-length album, and it’s a pretty solid entry into the annals of pagan metal. The album is a bit brooding overall, with a lot of slower tempo black metal-infused hymns, but the optimistic closing track has always stood out to me the most.

“Endetoner” feels like a victory anthem–a celebration of Norse history and tradition that honors those old gods who always seem to make a brief return to Midgard around this time of the year.

Review: Saor – Aura

The history of Saor is a bit deceptive. If you’ve heard the name at all, you didn’t until last year, but the man behind it has been around for some time now. Before Scotland’s Andy Marshall chose this name for his solo project, he released Eternity as Askival in 2009. He was also a major factor in Where Distant Spirits Remain by Falloch in 2011. Neither of those albums stuck with me well enough for me to remember how they sound off the top of my head today, but I do have them. That tells me this is a musician with a good bit of experience, who managed to get his name out there well before he changed it to Saor. Aura is apparently his second release as Saor — he released Roots last year, and I’ll have to make a point to go check it out. If it sounds anything like Aura, it will be well worth the trouble.

Saor – Children of the Mist, from Aura

It does not take long for this five song, 57 minute album to convince you that it has something special going on. The opening track, “Children of the Mist”, erupts almost immediately into a graceful, distinctly Gaelic sweep of woodwind, layered atop well-mixed metal that lets the folk melody shine without much intrusion. The piano and string that follow seem to float in the air, painting a vivid landscape that seems to mirror the album’s cover art. The vibe is similar to Waylander of Northern Ireland, and it feels like it could drift on forever without losing any of its opening grandeur. Around 4:20, the metal briefly gives way to a beautiful cloud of strings and traditional drumming, soon to be met by blast beats that, much like on Kentucky by Panopticon, manage imbue the landscape with life rather than darkness. As the song continues on, you hear a wide variety of folk, pagan, and black metal techniques employed towards this same end of adding a feeling of life and spirit to the nature scenes that the traditional instrumentation invokes.

Saor – The Awakening, from Aura

This approach holds true throughout the grand bulk of the album. The melodies always arise from the folk instrumentation, with the metal serving a supplemental role of forcing you to feel directly engaged in the moment–a temporal witness to some eternal tranquility. It is a devout album, alive in reverence for the spirits of the land. From start to finish, it varies relatively little but never disappoints.

I suppose the terms “folk” and “pagan” can get thrown around rather haphazardly at times, without much of a clear distinction. One tends to conjure to mind lighter, “fun” bands like Korpiklaani and Alestorm, the other more serious bands such as Waylander and Drudkh. Sometimes this seriousness generates a sort of militarism or savagery, rendering bands like Arkona and Nokturnal Mortum far more intense than anything traditional black metal has produced on its own (and far too often, in Nokturnal Mortum’s case for instance, this gets vandalized by absurd notions of supremacy). But this does not always have to be the case. On Aura there is never a hint of desperation or brutality. The feeling is purely of peace and reverence boldly denying that the tradition it embraces has been in any way weakened by the modern world. “Folk” and “pagan” both denote music focused on ways of life that are no longer socially acceptable or possible in a modern, technologically advanced, monotheistic world. If folk suggests people, pagan suggests religion, and the religions of old were not based upon some highborn Greek notion of divinity. Their gods took hearth in wood and water and earth. Saor feels like pagan metal in that sort of sense to me. Its folk instrumentation paints the landscape, and the metal imbues it with supernatural life.

Aura is undeniably one of the most beautiful recordings of 2014. Don’t let it pass you by.

Review: Valknacht – Le Sacrifice d’Ymir

Valknacht is a five-piece paganish metal band from Quebec that have released three albums beginning in 2009–not to be confused with Walknut, the highly acclaimed side-project of Stringsskald from Темнозорь (Temnozor). I suppose I grabbed this album for an obvious reason: it presented a pagan tag from a relatively new act I had never heard of. With the folk and pagan metal scene now fifteen years in the making, a lot of the old stalwarts are simply running low on material. I am always hoping to stumble upon a new collaboration willing to pick up the slack and carry one of my favorite genres onward into a new era. Valknacht could be that band, but it’s going to take some work.

Valknacht – Bataille de Maldon, from Le Sacrifice d’Ymir

The album begins with a 3 minute intro track that I’ll not bother sampling here. You already know what it sounds like. Oars splash through the sea in time with viking voices oooing and OOOing and sometimes aaahhing. Break and repeat with some overbearing choral and brass synth, throw in a gong for good measure, and you will find yourself in the opening moments of “Bataille de Maldon”. Add a dash of synth woodwind, queue the crunch crunch crunch monotone guitar, and remind your drummer to make it metal in a few more measures. The black metal at 2:05 gives us a well-needed boost, and from there the song transitions to something that ought to be really, really cool. 2:40 made me think of Nokturnal Mortum’s “The New Era of Swords” from Weltanschauung, and for about one minute “Bataille de Maldon” is a song I really want to listen to. But the segment soon gives way to something fairly indistinguishable from what came before.

For the vast, vast majority of this 9:30 song, what you hear is an endless rain of double bass, rhythm guitar that only knows two patterns and three chords, a cheap synth whistle that’s totally unconvincing as the real deal, an admittedly interesting lead guitar, and total synth overkill plugging in every gap, sometimes doubled up with layers of “OOOOOOOOO”.

Yet, this could have all worked out really well. This band surely listened to a lot of Moonsorrow, and the string portion of the synth gets playfully close to Nokturnal Mortum at times. But the rest of the synth is just bad. It feels so fake. They use bold brass like they’re Equilibrium or Turisas, but the music isn’t nearly bombastic enough to merit it. The woodwinds have no depth, no air, no punctuation… Аркона (Arkona) is about the only band I can think of that pulls off fake woodwinds effectively (unless others are doing it so well I take them for studio musicians), and they must have much higher-end equipment than Valknacht at their disposal to do it with. It would have been nothing for one of the band members to pick up a whistle and record it proper. The vocals get really annoying really quickly for lack of dynamics or anything interesting to encase them. And the song goes on and on and on without ever adding much of anything. By 3:10 we’ve pretty much heard everything, and there’s next to nothing in the form of build-up or break until we hit a sudden transition at 8 minutes into an admittedly solid finale.

So, am I going to say anything good about this album? Surprisingly, yes. Quite a lot actually.

Valknacht – Le carmin des anges, from Le Sacrifice d’Ymir

The tragedy of Le Sacrifice d’Ymir is that just about anyone listening to this album will get the same impression that I did for its first 13 minutes. How many will keep listening? Few, I suspect, and it’s a shame because by the end this album is sounding pretty damn solid. “Le carmin des anges” is the closing track. It should have been the opening. Here is a song that cuts out all of the bullshit and condenses everything I did like about “Bataille de Maldon” into a much more manageable 5 minute package. The term “trying” drops back down my throat, and I hear some really badass Windir licks connected by groovy breaks and synth again reminiscent of Noktrunal Mortum. Thorleïf’s vocals do a total 360, and his previously dull deeper bellows sound epic when juxtaposed and then overlaid with higher-pitched rabid black metal screams.

The collective sound really works here, too. The Moonsorrow vibe they were going for in “Bataille de Maldon” flopped for a far-too-excessive attempt to be epic. That sort of music is meant to sound earthy, and the synth swarm just made it seem cheap and fake. On “Le carmin des anges”, a lot of the frivolous choral and brass sounds are gone, and what remains works far better with the Windir vibe they’re getting at.

Valknacht – Le sacrifice d’Ymir, from Le Sacrifice d’Ymir

You didn’t have to wait until the last track to find this though. The third, “Chants de guerre”, carries an infinitely more successful Moonsorrow vibe than the song before it. The woodwind’s fakeness is barely significant because the loop it plays is more of an unnatural Falkenbach chant than a harmony. Thorleïf’s full vocal range finally comes into play, and there is way more Windir-esque black metal–a sound they do right. Track 4, “Sur les ruines de Rome”, throws in some seemingly female screams and spoken lines that feel kind of reminiscent of Masha from Arkona, and could be a guest musician or further testament to Thorleïf’s range. (Liner notes for this album have been hard to come by.) As if Masha had been on their minds, track 5, “Le sacrifice d’Ymir”, feels pretty “slava!”, with some frantic whistle and guitar tapping. I had good cause to doubt another 10 minute track, but there is so much more going on here than in “Bataille de Maldon”. Thorleïf’s vocal dynamics alone are enough to make the overdrawn passages–and there are certainly a few–way less dull, the lead guitarist keeps up that Windir kick he’s proven pretty good at, that obnoxious rhythm guitar from the opener is all but missing, mixed down from a nuisance to its proper role and a background accessory.

“De murmures et de givre” starts nice but regrettably returns to a lot of the mistakes of “Bataille de Maldon”–a 7 minute track that could have probably made its point in three and a half. “Que le sang constelle mes mains” gives us our first and last taste of some accordion. Though its synthetic generation is painfully obvious, it does kick off with a melody pleasantly reminiscent of Finsterforst. Again though, the song drones on way too long with boring “I’m going to growl, you chugga-chug, and you hit a whole bunch of notes at once on your keyboard” moments.

So what’s the verdict? I think that this band either ran out of material and had to generate a few filler tracks, or else the minds behind it have some differences of opinion on how they ought to sound and they tried to accommodate everyone. Over all, fans of Windir will find plenty of moments to swoon over, and Moonsorrow die-hards will be modestly entertained. I got a Nokturnal Mortum vibe in some of the synth string utilization and rhythm guitar breakdowns, but not nearly enough to satisfy, and it has to take second stage to a lot of derivative crap. These guys have enormous potential, and they’re relatively young by band standards. I think the inclusion of “Bataille de Maldon” in its present state–at all let alone as the not-so-grand opener–is a little suspect. It would be nice to hear some session musicians for the folk instrumentation, or at least a better keyboard. And they really need to do something about song lengths relative to content. I will have long forgotten Le Sacrifice d’Ymir this time next year, but I won’t forget to check out their future releases. Turisas rose from a totally generic sound to release one of the best albums in folk metal. So did Finsterforst. Valknacht are certainly capable of becoming a band I could fall in love with.

Ten Years #16: Falkenbach

Decade of scrobbling countdown:
16. Falkenbach (1,418 plays)
Top track (84 plays): Heathenpride, from En Their Medh Riki Fara (1996)
Featured track: Tanfana, from Tiurida (2011)

Happy Halloween! As you may have guessed, October 31st is our favorite day of the year here at Shattered Lens. I thought I’d celebrate with two entries in my Top 50 series that both happen to be particularly appropriate for the occasion. The first, coming in at 16th place with 1,418 listens over the past ten years, is the solo brainchild of Vratyas Vakyas: Falkenbach. A band I find some excuse to mention almost every October, Falkenbach have about as much of a right as Bathory or Enslaved to claim the invention of viking metal. While Vakyas certainly lacks the widespread influence attributable to Quorthon–only nine copies were supposedly ever made of the 1989 Havamal demo–he seems to have been a part of the movement from its very founding. Recording originally in Iceland and later settling down in Germany, Vakyas has dedicated his career as a musician to persistently refining a unique sound inseparable from the notion of viking metal.

“Viking metal” is a term I use sparingly. It marks, in my opinion, the transition of fringe metal bands away from reactionary Satanism and towards a more refined, pagan appreciation for pre-Christian European tradition. This process took the majority of the 1990s to fully realize, and many of the bands that most commonly receive a “viking” tag–Bathory, Enslaved, Falkenbach, Burzum–originated firmly within the spectrum of black metal. (The term “pagan metal” emerged in much the same manner further east, as Ukrainian and Russian black metal bands found similar cause to divorce Satanism.) Modern use of “viking metal” refers to little more than a lyrical theme, the transition to a folk aesthetic in black metal circles and beyond being at this point complete. “Pagan metal” seems to be the tag for any folkish band that still lies on the fringe, usually through heavy doses of black metal, provided they didn’t get dumped off in the “viking” bin first.

It would make a great deal of sense to me to lump the likes of Enslaved and Bathory into the “pagan” category where applicable, along with more recent acts like Moonsorrow, and abandon “viking metal” altogether. But if it is to persist, I find no band more appropriate for the title than Falkenbach. Much like Summoning, Falkenbach’s sound developed into an independent entity with no clear counterparts. From Ok Nefna Tysvar Ty (2003) onward, Vakyas’s sound has stood distinctly apart. The looping electronic woodwinds, acoustic guitar, mid-tempo beat, and chugging electric guitar in the sample track I’ve provided are all fundamental to the sound visible within the earliest available Falkenbach recordings and fully realized by 2003. But where Summoning has always defied classification, Falkenbach’s close ties to the onset of the viking metal movement seem to grant the term weight. It would be a bit silly to suggest that Falkenbach’s uniqueness is somehow more significant than the countless other innovative, folk-inspired metal bands of the 90s and 2000s, but his timing in history and lack of parallels, be they copycats or coincidental, has earned Vakyas a distinction beyond his impeccable song writing and sincere reverence for the old gods. Falkenbach is, for me at least, the closest thing to viking metal as a style of music that you will ever find.

Ten Years #33: Аркона

Decade of scrobbling countdown:
33. Аркона (909 plays)
Top track (49 plays): Покровы небесного старца, from От сердца к небу (2007)
Featured track: Гой, Купала!!!, from От сердца к небу

It’s no coincidence that a lot of folk-oriented Slavic metal bands have more of an edge than their western counterparts. There is a spirit of primitivism and barbarism that seems to permeate these acts; while Alestorm and Korpiklaani are reveling in booze, bands like Arkona are delighting in something more savage. Grittier distortion, harsher vocals, lower quality production, and a tendency to incorporate black metal all play a role. While this has allowed a lot of Slavic folk metal bands to capture a slightly deeper, more introspective connection to their cultural roots, it has also reduced their accessibility. Arkona are impervious to this consequence; they manage to invoke that essence of savage Slavic glory while still constructing songs I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to people unconditioned to extreme metal. This is due in part to their above-average production quality (obviously lacking in a youtube rip), but more so to Masha’s wildly diverse range of sung and screamed vocals, often accompanied by a glorious operatic Russian chorus.

As with the last entry in my series, there is not much I care to say about Arkona that I did not already cover in a previous post. Their position as my 33rd most listened to band of the past decade is no accident. Hell, they’re the initial reason I learned how to transliterate Cyrillic.

Ten Years #37: Drudkh

Decade of scrobbling countdown:
37. Drudkh (841 plays)
Top track (67 plays): Fate, from The Swan Road (2005)

Ukraine was my gateway into black metal. My earliest exposure to bm in general was met with a closed mind; I remember picking up IX Equilibrium not long after it came out, hearing nothing but distortion and blast beats, and wondering what all the fuss was about, as if its brilliant classical component was non-existent. But somehow Nokturnal Mortum’s Goat Horns blew my mind on first exposure, when I was still a teenager rocking out to In Flames, Opeth, Iced Earth and the like. That pagan spirit screaming murder beneath a wall of chaos struck me with more force than “satanic” or “progressive” bm ever would, then or now. I spent a substantial chunk of my paychecks at The End Records in the years that followed, and I was not searching for “black metal” so much as “Ukraine”. The consequence was that I got to enjoy bands like Drudkh, Hate Forest, and Astrofaes before it was “cool” to do so. (Let’s face it, hype always influences our perspective on a band in one way or another, whether we like to admit it or not.)

Drudkh quickly became my second favorite band in that scene after Nokturnal Mortum, and what I have heard in them over the years is nothing like the steady degradation from Forgotten Legends downward that supposedly “old school” fans are inclined to proclaim. I don’t know why so many people see Drudkh as a one-track band. Perhaps it is because the rate at which they release new material softens perception of the major shifts in their evolution as artists. Handful of Stars (2010) was the only album on which fans actually had to stop and go “wait, is this still Drudkh?”, and the band answered that question decisively with the Slavonic Chronicles EP. But if you listen to Drudkh as a band who played the same solid thing for four or five albums and then got too successful and lost their touch, you’re fairly misguided. It’s true that their first three albums have a lot of similarities. I sort of feel as though their vision on all three was roughly the same, with Swan Road (2005) marking the point at which they had enough recording experience to really make their sound fully capture that vision. The band has rarely repeated the same sound since. Blood in Our Wells (2006), my personal favorite, was a tremendous shift in favor of their pagan undertones, with songs like “Solitude” and “Eternity” crushing the listener through anthems more than atmospherics. Songs of Grief and Solitude (2006) was perhaps the best folk interlude album in black metal since Ulver famously did it, and Estrangement (2007) completely revisioned their sound, replacing characteristic deep plods with rabid, shrill blast beats and grittier production. Microcosmos (2009) was a significant change in production towards the other end of the spectrum, and I rather doubt the gut-wrenching quality of “Ars Poetica” (a song I still think has an almost screamo vibe to it at the climax) would have hit home so forcefully otherwise.

Drudkh’s trip to France on Handful of Stars (2010) may have left some fans disgusted, but it would be frankly stupid to call a band so consistently open to change “sell-outs” the moment their vision failed to reflect stereotypical expectations of aggression, masculinity, whatever the fuck tr00 cvlt dandies demand. And anyone who thinks Eternal Turn of the Wheel (2012) was some grand return to the good old days is in stark denial of the (I think quite intentional) persistent French influence underlining this newest chapter in their discography.

If I seem to be taking a defensive stance here, it might be in part because I’m arguing against my own initial inclinations. I’ve made the shallow mistake of blowing off Drudkh as washed up many times before, and I never fail to regret it once I’ve given the album in question substantially more time to grow on me. (My initial review here of Eternal Turn of the Wheel was cautiously negative. Today I would say it’s great.) I think over the years I’ve developed some boneheaded stereotype of Ukraine as a third world nation–an opinion based mainly on Ukrainian Americans whose pseudo-heritage reeks of self-debasing Cold War propaganda and “world music” zines. (“Only my American non-profit organization can preserve the endangered culture of our pathetic, eternally oppressed, utopianly pacifistic Slavic ancestors! I’ll give you a cultural awareness award and my new Carpathian-Caribbean fusion cd! Buy my shitty handicrafts! Send money!”) I try to forget about it and remind myself that these people are the ultimate American idiots with no actual connection to the people they pretend to represent, but I still find it hard at times to give Slavic musicians the intellectual credit they deserve. Roman Saenko and co are actually among the most intelligent musicians of our generation, and when I remind myself of that and revisit their discography, I realize again that it has been consistently solid from start to finish.