October Music Series: Opeth – The Twilight is My Robe


If there’s one thing that will draw me back out of obscurity no matter how much work I’m bogged down with, it’s Horror season here on Shattered Lens. As a de facto film blog’s one author who pretty much never watches movies, I like to do my part by digging out a mix of tunes appropriate for the season.

This is always the time of year when I stop focusing on new releases and revisit a lot of my metal and folk favorites of old. From b-side Satanic cheese to authentic pagan anthems to the truly deranged, all the music I love most seems to find a home when that oppressive summer sun gives way to pleasant temperatures and dimming lights. It’s my favorite time of year, and my music collection rises to the occasion.

Opeth is pretty common fair in the textbooks of heavy metal these days, but Mikael Akerfeldt’s finest works came before the fame, in my opinion. Their 1995 debut, Orchid, ranks highest for me. While Akerfeldt’s trademark progressive rock experimentation was present from the get-go, those early albums had a sort of hollow, natural tone to them that lent the band a distinctly folk vibe. Orchid (and Morningrise) seem to drift through the crisp, foggy air surrounding a lake on the edge of a forest, the sun just beginning to rise over the horizon. I don’t wake up early when I can help it, but if a morning commute is necessary, Opeth always sees a spike in my play count. The vision that songs like “The Twilight is My Robe” paint is stunningly vivid, and surprisingly peaceful in contrast to Akerfeldt’s harsh vocals.

Review: Panopticon – Roads to the North


Two years removed, Kentucky has left a unique long-term impression in my mind. For all of the excitement over an authentic and well-crafted mingling of traditional Appalachian folk and black metal–the term “blackgrass” got tossed around a lot–I honestly don’t remember how most of the songs went. This is because Kentucky‘s message managed to trump its sound. I remember the old man talking about organizing strikes against the coal company. I remember Sarah Ogan Gunning’s boldly defiant calls to overthrow capitalism. I think of settlers slaughtering Indians, mountains blown into dust, rivers running black with pollution, grim-faced miners broken in body but never in spirit, a modern generation abandoning everything their ancestors worked so hard to accomplish… That is my memory of Kentucky.

Chase the Grain

I can’t detach myself from Kentucky enough to appreciate Roads to the North as an independent entity. That’s probably fine. I had never heard of Panopticon before Austin Lunn nailed his bloody heart to his sleeve in 2012, and that identity will persist through my perception so long as it remains true. Roads to the North has no explicit message, no lyrics sheet, no spoken tracks or American folk covers. But it has Kentucky, and because of that every song takes on a deeper, more robust meaning than it might have otherwise.

It would be interesting to know what a folk/black metal fan unfamiliar with Panopticon takes from this album. Does the music alone stand far above and beyond the norm? I like to think it does. The album incorporates some entirely unexpected but highly effective melodic death metal moments, especially in the opening track “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong”. This track also gives us perhaps Lunn’s best incorporation of fiddle directly into black metal to date. “The Long Road Part 2: Capricious Miles” transitions out with a long and enthralling jazzy progressive rock chill reminiscent of mid-era Opeth. The whistle in “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” sounds nothing like what we’re used to out of the European scenes, harkening instead to a western indigenous sound I have only heard from some obscure Mexican folk metal bands. “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” is an unconventional six minute acoustic bluegrass piece that feels more like something straight out of Lunn’s imagination than Appalachia.

The intensity hops around so suddenly that Roads to the North may feel disjointed at first, but the stark contrasts are never forced. Because you don’t always see them coming, they are striking rather than cliche. Lunn performs each of the album’s myriad instruments better than a lot of people who specialize in only one, and there aren’t many producers on the black metal market that can compare to Colin Marston. He has a knack for subtlety that is hard to come by in the scene. I absolutely love the way the tremolo emerges around 30 seconds into “Chase the Grain”, for instance. It’s so soft that you feel its effect on the song as a whole long before your brain consciously recognizes it.

Norwegian Nights

But I suppose I don’t really care about the finer musical details of Roads to the North, and that is why I found this album so difficult to review. This music is only a gateway. Like an engaging book, you never notice that it is well written. Roads to the North is not the guided tour we found on Kentucky. It leaves us be to explore where the feelings take us within the context of the world Lunn has already shown us. Those paths can be rocky. It’s not the glorified past of so many European pagan metallers. The should-be eternal is tainted. The land is marred. It’s the introspective melancholy Americana of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and your heart goes out to so many things that you can never hope to save.

Lie beneath a cold blanket and watch the mountains sleep. The train rolls by every hour, as I wake and dream. The woods and the hills–faces so dear to me. Frozen lakes, flatland snow, where I’m called I’ll go. Such still quiet, then the whistle echoes. My fragile sleep torn from me, as many other things will be.

27 Days of Old School: #21 “One” (by Metallica)


MetallicaOne

“Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me”

Yeah, my taste in music see-sawed back and forth from one end of the spectrum to the other. Yesterday, I reminisced about one of the best R&B ballads from my time as a teenager in high school during the late 80’s. Today, I focus on one of the songs on metal end which remains (in my opinion) one of the best metal songs ever put out there.

“One” was the final single released from Metallica’s fourth album, …And Justice For All.

The song also had the distinction of being the first ever Metallica song which was accompanied by a music video shot for it. Metallica had avoided making music videos of their songs for years. Their success as a band never needed the assistance that MTV could provide. They saw it as a badge of honor that they’ve never made a music video, but that change in January 1989 when the single for “One” was released and a music video followed soon after.

A music video that combined elements from the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun and the band playing inside a warehouse. It was an effective video that more than convinced many skeptics that when done properly a metal music video was possible. This wasn’t a video using garish colors, over-the-top imagery of hair metal music videos. It was a video that was just as heavy and through-provoking as the song it was made for.

My Top 10 Metal Albums of 2013


It’s that time again. In spite of 2013 being pretty much the worst year of my life, I found it a lot easier to select a top 10 list than in 2012. Odd-numbered years almost always seem to produce a wider selection of good music, and I can confidently state that each of these at least border on excellence. Here goes:

10. Ihsahn – Das Seelenbrechen (track: Regen)

There was never a bad Emperor album. Ihsahn’s solo career hasn’t been quite as consistent. The Adversary was an outstanding start, but I barely noticed angL. After was a blast, Eremita something of a bore. Well, what do you know; the cycle continues, and Das Seelenbrechen is outstanding. Eremita seemed all about rhythmic grooves and eclectic interludes, neither of which painted a grand picture for me to take hold of. Das Seelenbrechen, without reducing any of the progressive rock peculiarities for which Ihsahn is famous, reinvests its tension in song structure and the subtler stuff of atmospheric appeal. At times it delves heavily into the world of drone metal, with Tobias Ørnes Andersen pulling off his best Atsuo impression and Ihsahn showing that his unique vocals are pretty well suited for the genre as they stand. The most impressive track on the album might be “Pulse”, if only for the fact that Ihsahn was able to stray so far from his comfort zone and still pull off an excellent song, but my personal favorite has to be “Regen”.

9. Ash Borer – Bloodlands (track: Oblivion’s Spring)

I missed out on Ash Borer’s acclaimed 2011 debut and the 2012 full-length to follow, but the Bloodlands “EP” (it’s still 35 minutes long) found itself well embedded in my subconscious this year. Like many of my selections, I never really sat down and gave it my undivided attention from start to finish. It was a busy year, and most of my albums were experienced as background music rather than a main event. I was kind of surprised to find just how many times I’d listened to this album throughout the year. It was never really on my radar, but I kept playing it time and time again. A twisted, bleak, highly atmospheric recording, Bloodlands successfully captures a traditional black metal vibe that is neither overly passionate nor distractingly aggressive. It’s a pleasant break from the otherwise welcome trend towards a less sinister, more humanizing approach to the genre.

8. Westering – Joy (track: This Will Quiet Us)

Joy is definitely the weirdest album I’ve heard this year that actually worked. Bryan Thomas’s second release as Westering is a cracked window peering into folk, industrial, and maybe even 80s pop scenes, sensible to melodic appeal yet firmly rooted in black metal tradition. To label it another “shoegaze black metal” album would hardly do it justice; the warbling walls of distortion don’t angelicize the metal, but rather demonize the more direct pop elements, creating a final product basked in darkness yet awkwardly catchy and familiar.

7.Ensemble Pearl – Ensemble Pearl (track: Island Epiphany)

It’s sad that this album has gone almost completely unnoticed in 2013. It’s sad that people regard it as another Boris album, or as “Boris and Sunn O))) Part 2”. Because, while it shares much in common with Altar, the cast is quite different and the end product surprisingly even better than its predecessor. While Atsuo Mizuno and Stephen O’Malley reunite, Takeshi and Wata are out, as well as Greg Anderson. Michio Kurihara steps up to the plate along with a fellow I’ve never head of–Bill Herzog–to complete the lineup. The sound these four have managed to assemble is flawless. Smooth as glass and black as night, Ensemble Pearl is a compelling example of music’s capacity to paint a scene more vivid than sight can ever offer.

6. Paysage d’Hiver – Das Tor (track: Macht des Schicksals)

Like Ash Borer, Paysage d’Hiver provided ideal background music for me throughout the year. With a similar appreciation for late 90s/early 2000s atmospheric black metal aesthetics, Das Tor presents a significantly noisier, more trance-inducing break from current metal trends. I fell in love with this album’s capacity for endless repetition as the backdrop for work, reading, and just about any other activity that requires concentration. This particular style of black metal has always really zoned me in and helped me to focus, and Paysage d’Hiver’s take on it is substantially better than most.

5. Mechina – Empyrean (track: Anathema)

Fear Factory’s 1998 opus, Obsolete, was the last industrial death metal album to really blow me away. A lot of bands go there, but few, at least in my experience, are willing to fully nerd out into uncompromised sci-fi fantasy. There is something about the death metal mentality that inclines most bands to play with their nuts out, and it rarely works in their favor. Mechina don’t fall for that. They have no qualms whatsoever about employing clean vocals, dramatic symphonics, and operatic hymns to serve their end. Empyrean paints a lush vision of a futuristic world of technology and galactic combat on the brink of apocalypse. Really stellar stuff. … ha..ha… hmm…

4. Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn (track: Old Mornings Dawn)

It took Summoning seven years to release a new album. I would not be surprised if they were hard at work on it that whole time. Not quite as perfect as Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame, Old Morning Dawn is nevertheless an instant essential within the Summoning discography, never wavering an inch from the solid sound they forged a decade ago. I can’t think of too many albums I’ve anticipated for this long that didn’t let me down (Falkenbach’s Tiurida in 2011 might be the most recent exception), and for that, coming from one of my favorite bands ever, Old Mornings Dawn easily slides in towards the top of my chart.

3. Cara Neir – Portals to a Better, Dead World (track: Peridot)

I remember when I was first getting into black metal and a friend of mine was doing the same with screamo. They seemed like two incommensurable paths at the time. We’d trade the best of what we found, and I love a lot of screamo because of it, but that was his genre and this was mine. There just wasn’t all that much in common between Carpathian Forest and City of Caterpillar.

Times have changed, and much for the better. I’ve tossed around “screamo” and “black metal” in the same sentence before (Roads to Judah), but this is certainly the most raw realization of the two as one that I have heard so far. Portals to a Better, Dead World is another fine product of a new era of metal artists informed beyond their flagship genre. It might not achieve the fame of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, but the two go hand in hand.

2. Deafheaven- Sunbather (track: Dream House)

And that brings us to the most hyped metal album of 2013. Sunbather turned more heads than Roads to Judah, and certainly more than Liturgy’s Aesthethica or Krallice’s Diotima back in 2011. But while the mainstream world regrettably failed to recognize that year as the grand coalescence of heavy metal’s mid-2000s paradigm shift, on Sunbather we reap its fruits. This album is not the novelty many would like to make of it; it is an affirmation of things already come to pass, and a glorious one at that. Music seems to come in sequences of waves, the reluctant undertow of their predecessors slowly dissipating beneath the growing weight of those rushing to shore. Sunbather basks in a new era of aesthetics and ingenuity first dreamed by the likes of Ulver, pressed into form by Agalloch and Alcest, and finally swept into the mainstream three years ago. Love it while it lasts, and amuse yourself with the die-hards that will rip this to shreds rather than embrace it.

1. Peste Noire – Peste Noire

And then there was one. I proclaimed Peste Noire the best album of 2013 about an hour after it leaked back in June, and nothing since has come even close to shaking that resolve. I’ve been doing a “top 10 album” list now every year since 2002, and Peste Noire is the only band to ever take the #1 spot twice, but never mind that. Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor has absolutely nothing on what you will experience here. Let’s try “top 10 metal albums ever recorded”. I have never heard anything quite this clever, filthy, intelligent, and depraved in my life. Famine’s “black ‘n’ roll” sound has never been better, and Peste Noire can rightly be regarded as the refinement of all of the finest features of his past four albums rolled out into one.

The album is heavily enhanced by Famine’s new willingness to tell us what it’s all about. Up through the release of L’Ordure à l’état Pur in 2011, it was anyone’s guess what Famine’s peculiar album antics were all about. He was completely inaccessible as an individual, and his lyrics have always been in French. The man behind the music has since emerged full-formed as an internet personality, conducting interviews, approving lyric translations, and responding to forum inquiries in surprisingly fluent English. He’s revealed himself as an extremely culturally and musically informed character with a sardonic sense of humor that seems to abate the more offensive features of his image, and he completely reformed my view on L’Ordure à l’état Pur–an album I’d initially disregarded, but have since grown to love.

I tried to give Peste Noire a fair review over the summer, but I couldn’t quite do it justice. This article does. Skip to 20 minutes in the above video if you care to hear my favorite track on the album: “Niquez Vos Villes”.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Ten Years #31: Turisas


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
31. Turisas (1,040 plays)
Top track (96 plays): In the Court of Jarisleif, from The Varangian Way (2007)
Featured track: Miklagard Overture, from The Varangian Way

The Varangian Way was one of the last albums I expected to matter when I grabbed the pre-release leak in 2007. Having owned Battle Metal (2004) since its release, I remembered Turisas as a run of the mill band with one really outstanding song–Sahti-Waari–and a bunch of generic try-too-hard epic numbers to their name. It took about one minute in 2007 to realize that this band had achieved one of the most impressive turn-arounds in the history of metal. A captivating concept album packed with outstanding vocals and folk instrumentation, a brilliant symphonic backdrop, and thoroughly convincing lyrics, The Varangian Way was my favorite album of 2007 and remains a top 10 all time contender for me today. Mathias Nygård and company crafted an inspiring musical journey from Viking Age Scandinavia through Russia to the seat of the Byzantine empire with all the gloss of a Hollywood blockbuster. From the symphonic prog suspense of “The Dnieper Rapids” to the drunken folk romp of “In the Court of Jarisleif” to the orchestral majesty of “Miklagard Overture”, Turisas employed a world of musical styles to uniquely capture every stage of the voyage. As a concept album, they delivered the full package to an extent that is perhaps only trumped by Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth. This was no fluke, either. Their follow-up album, Stand Up and Fight (2011), might have lacked the fulfilling sense of completeness that only a concept album can deliver, but it by and large maintained the level of quality of its predecessor, ensuring that Battle Metal could be remembered as a freshman effort and not the more accurate representation of their matured sound. Their fourth studio album, Turisas2013, is set to release this Wednesday (August 21st). While its awkward title and cover art will require some substantiation, I have really high hopes.

I’ll leave you with the lyrics to “Miklagard Overture”. I especially love how Turisas cultivate the power of names to really drive this anthem home; they employ the fact that Constantinople is known in so many languages as a testament to its glory. I personally visited Istanbul last summer, and I can confidently say that it remains one of the most overwhelming cities on this earth, breathing 2000 years of history not in ruin but in vibrant life. Turisas manage to do it justice in a way few other artists could.

Long have I drifted without a course
A rudderless ship I have sailed
The Nile just keeps flowing without a source
Maybe all the seekers just failed

To Holmgard and beyond
In search of a bond
Far from home I’ve come
But the road has just begun

Breathing history
Veiled in mystery
The sublime
The greatest of our time
Tsargrad!

“Come with us to the south
Write your name on our roll”
I was told;

Konstantinopolis
Sui generis
The saints and emperors
Of bygone centuries
The man-made birds in their trees
Out load their paean rings
Immortality!

In astonishing colours the East meets the West
The hill-banks arise in their green
In wonder I sit on my empty chest
As we glide down the strait in between

To Holmgard and beyond
In search of a bond
Distant church bells toll
For their god they chant and troll

Breathing history
Veiled in mystery
The sublime
The greatest of our time
Tsargrad!

The Norwegian of rank
In the court of The Prince
I was convinced

Konstantinopolis
Ten gates to eternity
Seen all for centuries
Your inconquerable walls
Your temples and your halls
See all, hear all, know all

My sun rose in the North and now sets in the South
The Golden Horn lives up to its name
From tower to tower a chain guards its mouth
Unbreakable, they claim

To Holmgard and beyond
In search of a bond
Adventures lie ahead
Many knots lie unravelled on my thread

Breathing history
Veiled in mystery
The sublime
The greatest of our time
Tsargrad!

Konstantinopolis
Queen of the cities
Your welcoming smile
Made all worthwhile
The sweat and the pain

Bathing in gold
Endless rooftops unfold
The sun sets for a while just to rise again

Great walls
Great halls
Greatest of all, Miklagard

Ten Years #48: Opeth


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
48. Opeth (640 plays)
Top track (26 plays): The Devil’s Orchard, from Heritage (2011)

When I saw Opeth was coming up next, I got pretty excited about what the top track would be. Would my really oldschool Opeth credentials shine with a song like The Twilight is My Robe or Advent topping the charts, or could nothing hope to match Demon of the Fall? A Heritage track was the last thing I ever expected. It’s easy to forget, in the onslaught of relatively poor reviews, how much I actually enjoyed that album when it came out. Oh, it wasn’t love at first listen, but for me it was a breath of fresh air after years of diminishing faith in Akerfeldt’s song-writing ability. Opeth was one of the first metal bands I ever listened to, and, nostalgia aside, I really do think their first three albums were by far their best. A void, beginning subtly with Still Life and expanding more drastically after Blackwater Park, had grown between my personal tastes and the direction Akerfeldt was steering the band. This coupled with what I perceived as an overinflated ego to completely erode my interest in the band for a long time. Ghost Reveries and Watershed only managed four and three listens respectively before I yawned and moved on.

I am not much of a progressive rock fan, but with Heritage I did start to feel like Akerfeldt was coming back to earth and keeping it real again. I don’t know about his whole “I’m done with metal” mentality; it seems to me like he’s exactly where he needs to be to start composing the sort of metal I can enjoy again. But even if prog rock is all that’s going to appear under the Opeth moniker for a long time to come, his decision to tone things down has successfully resurrected my interest. The Devil’s Orchard is my most played Opeth song because these charts do not begin until 2003; a few years earlier and the statistics would reflect something quite different. But suffice to say I do think this is the best Opeth album since Blackwater Park.

I’ll leave you with a classic Opeth track of the sort that made these guys, for a pre-last.fm period of four years or so, my favorite band in the world: