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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: The Past Month In Heavy Metal
Pavel Godfrey , September 5th, 2017 08:48

Friendly wyverns bring Pavel Godfrey tidings of late summer’s mightiest metal, from Akercocke and Serpent Column to Arckanum, Esoctrilihum and Sons of Crom.

Late summer comes with heightened expectation, and a sharper sense of the world’s motion. Earlier this week, summer gave one last gasp of sickly warmth, timed to herald the solar eclipse. Here in southeastern Michigan, the light dimmed to yellow-gold, the sky darkened without losing its midday blue, and the leaf-shadows danced with crescent moons. It was strange how people – myself included – more or less went about their daily business as the astronomical catastrophe unfolded, simply taking a few moments to gaze up at the narrowing crescent of fire through cardboard eclipse viewers. But what else could we do?

Today, just before sunset, massive black clouds blew in from the west, carrying hopes of fall. Stalking through downtown Ann Arbor, I looked up to see crows playing in the wind, wheeling over a tall apartment building. They’ve been returning for the winter in ones, twos, and threes, and now they’re gathering. The world is poised on the threshold, and all the more vital for it.

One way or another, pretty much every album I’ve chosen for August has a bit of a ‘threshold’ quality, whether it wanders through liminal atmospheres or stands at the crossroads of genres and sounds. I’ve also decided to change it up a bit - especially after my last column, which was a very focused exploration of pagan aesthetics. So, this month there’s nothing that sounds like Hate Forest or Bolt Thrower. Instead, I’ve included a lot of downtempo heaviness, meditated on the noble legacy of mid-90s Norway and Sweden, and featured two or three bands that take polished, artistically serious approaches to black/death metal.

Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis (Peaceville)

Gentleman occultists of London, recently returned from beyond the grave, Akercocke are no strangers to the threshold. From the visceral Rape of the Bastard Nazarene (1999) through the acclaimed Antichrist (2007), they were part of the experimental arms race bridging the gap from the proggy extreme metal of the 90s to the avant-garde black/death of the 2000s. But their aesthetic was not as widely influential as that of, say, Deathspell Omega or Portal. It was eclectic, less a uniform ‘style’ than a set of discrete elements placed at the service of an eccentric, quintessentially English vision. Akercocke fused the technical brutality of Suffocation and the sinister pomp of Emperor with the mystical atmospheres and textural guitar work of prog-rock and goth, conjuring up a high-class Satanism as debauched as it was refined, as intellectual as it was brutal. They were sui generis, and beyond imitation.

On Renaissance In Extremis, Akercocke have refined and distilled everything that set them apart in the first place. The air of eldritch magick remains strong, but they’ve traded in their youthful obsession with lascivious evil for a stately, gothic grandeur. ‘Disappear’ heralds the return with chugging death metal riffing and spiraling Killing Joke arpeggios. By the three-minute mark, though, Jason Mendonça’s br00tal gutturals have slipped into almost operatic crooning, and we are deep in progressive rock territory. For a lot of black/death frontmen, this would be lethal, but Mendonça can actually sing. And where bands like Enslaved inadvertently regress by directly imitating stuff that was ‘progressive’ in the 70s – essentially, a lot of bad rock music – Akercocke never falls into such traps.

While there are some blistering black/death moments, especially during ‘First To Leave The Funeral’, overall there’s little of the naked brutality of Akercocke’s earlier work. Instead, their default metal riffing has become virtuosic thrash, with melody woven into rapid-fire staccato chug. On the mercurial ‘Unbound By Sin’, you can hear how this style allows them to transfer motifs between metal and prog sections, sustaining an atmosphere of wide-eyed wonder through numerous change-ups. Just after the three-minute mark, though, the tone darkens, and we get a triumphant Luciferian chorus in the style of Morbid Angel’s Blessed Are The Sick. ‘Insentience’ builds on this with a pensive theme that explodes into stern, harrowing tremolo chug, and then returns as the basis for two minutes of ornate guitar interplay. ‘A Final Glance Back Before Departing’ and ‘One Chapter Closing For Another to Begin’ continue developing these ideas. Here, Akercocke temper their prog intricacies with a newfound embrace of classic heavy metal kicks. It’s nice to know that, as far as they’ve come, they haven’t put Satan behind them.

Serpent Column - Ornuthi Thalassa (Fallen Empire)

Like a warrior leaping, bronze-clad, from the furrowed field of Cadmus, Serpent Column rise out of nowhere, fully formed. This new American two-piece plays towering, majestic black/death carried by blazing, virtuosic tremolo melodies, and driven home by a dizzying, kit-wrecking drum assault. Serpent Column find the inner connections between seemingly disparate styles, weaving together the cathedralesque atmospheres and abrasive textures of Deathspell Omega, the melancholy reverence of Finnish kvlt BM like Sargeist, and the ripping death/thrash attack of Angelcorpse and Scythian.

The unifying impulse, drawing these disparate sounds into a single irresistible torrent, is the classically influenced songwriting of mastermind ‘Theophilos’. This aesthetic marks him as an heir to the sturm und drang of mid-90s Scandinavian bands like Dawn, Sacramentum, and Kvist, but Serpent Column goes even further – Ornuthi Thalassa doesn’t just sound like classical music, it has the dynamic, unified structure of a romantic symphony. Each sick riff is just one of many closely interrelated melodies derived from a handful of stem phrases. For instance, the whiplash flourish that opens ‘Biogony II’ foreshadows the rolling, scornful climax of ‘Men Of The Polis’, even as it launches into the album’s first major theme. This heroically ascending melody is built from a single, propulsive three-note phrase that recurs throughout. Over this, Theophilos screams out his primal invocation – ‘Ornuthi, thalassa!’, or, ‘Rise, ocean!’

The lyrics – written in English, as a single epic poem, and then translated into Ancient Greek – lay out a sweeping mythopoeic history of the western world, tracing a cyclic arc from the origins of life to the rise of man, from the pagan glories of Bronze Age Greece to the slow spread of the cancerous rationalism of Socrates. In the final track, ‘Feuersäule’, we hear this process culminate in the catastrophes of the present day. All the major themes from the album recur, transformed, as all the cosmic forces set in play converge. The oceans will rise once again.

But this dark story is told with a purpose – to ‘restore to us our sight’, and orient us for what lies ahead. We get a glimpse of what this might mean on track five, ‘Feldweg’, where triumphant, racing riffage erupts into a stately dance, and Theophilos asks the Muse to ‘Lead us, then, far from the cities of men / To behold things that consume us’:

‘Here course primal waters wild  And whirls bios unfettered  To time’s mad pulses  Though no place, none,  Not the blackest gulfs of thought  Nor the dunghills of ἄνδρες  Constrain gods, for all is Macht.’

Morbid Evils – Deceases (Svart Records)

Finland’s Morbid Evils, a two-guitar power trio led by Keijo Niinima of Rotten Sound, play devastating, downtempo industrial death metal, crackling with decaying guitar noise and dripping with revulsion. They’re one of those idiosyncratic bands that radiates musical connections to all sorts of cool sounds, but stands out all the more clearly for it. Their ‘morbid’ riffiness recalls Celtic Frost, Winter, and Rippikoulu, but the closest parallel I can think of is Skin Chamber (a Controlled Bleeding side project), who combined lurching, clanking grooves with torturously sliding leads and whining, humming guitar noise, and made Godflesh sound like fun party jams. At the same time, Morbid Evils are fellow travellers of some sick contemporary bands making abstract, down-tuned body music, from the reptile-brain black metal of Ride For Revenge and Venus Star (fellow Finns) to the remorseless drum-machine war metal of Legion Of Andromeda (Japan).

Deceases rolls along like a juggernaut, and tracks like ‘Murder’, ‘Tumour’ and bludgeoning album-closer ‘Abacinated And Blind’ feature all the massive, three-note chug riffs you could hope for. But the ghastly atmosphere owes just as much to Niinima’s subtle ear for melody and composition, and the way he takes advantage of their twin-guitar format. If you don’t believe me, listen to the contrapuntal tremolo leads that open ‘Dead Weight’. Halfway through the track, when the beatdown eases off a little, that theme returns played by a single guitar, and it has the bleak beauty of Katatonia or Lifelover. The real masterstroke of songwriting, though, is when the rhythm guitar changes underneath, kicking into an insanely intricate power-chord riff, and we hear the two parts interlocking – the effect is almost like classical music.

Arckanum – Den Förstfödde (Folter Records)

Since the opening invocation of Antikosmos (2008), Arckanum’s sole member, Shamaatae, has looked towards the reddening sky at Ragnarök with cold and eager eyes. The originator of Thursatru, an “anti-cosmic” reversal of Norse heathenry, Shamaatae hails the utterly inhuman powers of destruction and decay personified in the jötunns, and especially their leader, Loki – the wolf-in-the-woods, the outlaw, chafing to tear the cosmos apart. Den Förstfödde (“The Firstborn”), is Shamaatae’s ode to Loki’s eldest son, the world-serpent Jörmungandr. This is his first full-length in four years, and also Arckanum’s final album, its long-awaited Ragnarök.

Does Den Förstfödde take its rightful place as the end of an end-obsessed career? Absolutely. This is Shamaatae’s best songwriting since ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ (2009), immediately evident from the elegiac melody that drives lead single ‘Likt Utgards Himmel’. He remains true to his classic formula – snarling, clearly enunciated invocations over simple, epic riffs, all delivered with battering aggression – but now a thunderous, low-end heavy production gives Arckanum a truly chthonic sound, bringing out death metal and hardcore tendencies that have always set this project apart. With rolling double bass under escalating arpeggios, ‘Lat Fjalarr Gala’ grooves like early Amon Amarth, but with a lot more depth. ‘Du Grymme Smed’ comes off as Shamaatae’s grim tribute to d-beat. The intros and interludes that raise this record from EP to LP length aren’t just ‘ambient’ filler, but sombre bass meditations wrought from the same cloth as the rest of the album. Closer ‘Kittelns Beska’ opens with jötunn battle-music, and blasts off into the final stand of Jörmungandr, as he shakes the seas from their beds and vomits forth his ancient poison. Hail Ragnarök!

Sons Of Crom – The Black Tower (Nordvis)

Sons Of Crom play epic heavy metal in the absolute sense of each word – nothing is off-limits, so long as it fits into their stories of misty, mountainous Cimmeria, the far northern home of Conan. Their foundation is Viking-era Bathory, but they clearly appreciate more extreme stuff, skilfully folding it back into memorable songs with vocal melodies. On ‘In Fire Reborn’, Sons Of Crom cop the sinister dissonance of early Emperor and the brooding menace of Hades, skillfully moving back and forth between this darker territory and a sprawling landscape of choral vocals and guitar solos.

One of my favourite tracks, ‘Fall Of Pandemonium’, plays wailing Thin Lizzy leads against a looping, shapeshifting heathen rock riff that’s perfect for traipsing through autumn woods. The clean vocals have a slightly wonky quality that instantly recalls Quorthon, and adds a feeling of reckless abandon. Plus there’s a thrash break! The epicentre of the album, though, is ‘Black Wings Up High’, which could easily have been on Nordland I. It’s written from the perspective of the raven Huginn singing to his brother Muninn (or vice versa) and calling back to their father, Odin, who eventually makes a cameo. For a band that hails bloodied broadswords and burning cities, this is strangely sweet, a mighty tribute to the boyish wonder of heavy metal and the wisdom in the flight of birds.

Horrified – Allure Of The Fallen (Shadow Kingdom)

I’ve waited about a decade for contemporary bands to start responding to the formidable but much-neglected legacy of 90s Swedish black/death, and thanks to the likes of Serpent Column, Sinmara, and Uada, it’s finally happening. But none of these sound as Swedish or as death metal as Newcastle’s Horrified who, on last year’s Of Despair, followed the common threads between bands like Necrophobic, Unanimated, Dismember, and early At The Gates to create a dark and surprisingly brutal sound.

Horrified could have rested easy as a well-above-average retro band, but instead, with Allure Of The Fallen, they’ve completely transformed, adopting a ‘diurnal’ mood and exploring untrodden paths. Technically, this is melodic death metal, but there are none of the sugary white-key harmonies and troped thrash patterns that plague the Gothenburg sound. The title track bounces along in a weirdly harmonised major key, its infectious hook riff calling up images of vast, bleak and beautiful expanses. Towards the back third of ‘Light’s Dissolution’, long, eccentrically shaped tremolo leads give way to a driving chorded passage, and in this moment one strong influence on Allure’s immersive mood becomes clear – the Ukrainian black metal of Drukdh. The second half of the album brings out this potential further, slowing down and letting the twin guitars soar over the desolation. Excellent ‘adventure metal’, suited equally to sunny day rambles and the less claustrophobic levels of Dark Souls III.

Eskapism – Tales Of Elder Forest (Fólkvangr Records)

Tales Of Elder Forest enfolds you in seductive melancholy, and sweeps you away to the solace of ancient woods. This is some of the most atmospheric music I’ve heard all year, but it has nothing to do with the flat post-rock riffing and hackneyed sentimentalism of the so-called ‘atmospheric black metal’ scene. Rather, Eskapism blends the lush drone of Ukrainian black metal (frontman Zymobor plays in Kroda) with two improbable sounds – the hysterical trance-states of early-00s depressive BM, and the florid arrangements of 90s symphonic black metal.

This is deeply ‘uncool’, and Eskapism plays it to the hilt. ‘You’re Talking In Runes’ opens with mournfully chiming guitar and synth pads that sound like little bells, evoking a childhood sense of magic. But then it sweeps away into stern, disharmonic BM in the vein of Emperor or Kvist. The overall atmosphere of north-woods fantasy persists through continually shifting emotional and harmonic registers. On ‘The Sun Is Falling Into Autumn Embrace’, the chiming keyboards and Emperor riffs fall away, and Eskapism revel in their mastery of the grand Ukrainian style. Tales Of Elder Forest is warm and welcoming, but it is far from an easy listen. The final cover of ColdWorld’s ‘Tortured By Solitude’ improves on the original, and hits with an emotional force that might take you off guard – it flattened me.

Hell – Hell (Sentient Ruin Laboratories/Lower Your Head)

Hell is the morbid, elementally grooving sludge project of M.S.W., a central member of the small but influential Salem, Oregon scene. Hell is his fourth full-length, following in the wake of Hell (2009), Hell II (2010), and Hell III (2012). I’d seen the name around for a long time but I assumed, misled by others’ descriptions, that this was some ‘miserable’, ‘droning’, ‘wretched’ doom – the sort of thing where ugly chords hang impotently over static drums, and someone screams about being sad or whatever. I was wrong.

While M.S.W.’s artful lyrics indicate he is no stranger to misery, rage, and fatalism, Hell transmutes that existential horror into brutal ecstasy. For most of the album, Hell is great fun, suitable for lifting weights and cracking open a cold one with the boys. There are strong affinities with Eyehategod, especially on the first two tracks, ‘Helmzmen’ and SubOdin’, but Hell combines this with primitive, power-chord black metal. ‘Machitikos’ breaks out of lurching sludge grooves into irresistible two-note tremolo drone, while ‘WanderingSoul’ is driven by a crushing Hellhammer/Celtic Frost chug riff. The most disarming moment comes on ‘Victus’, when the drums drop out and the vicious low-end battery gives way to a chorus of mournful, abstract tremolo leads, like the intro or outro of a Blazebirth Hall tape. Ultimately, they blossom into a funeral doom processional, and the horror hidden on the margins comes into focus.

Fallow – Trelu (Self-released on Bandcamp)

On their Bandcamp page, Fallow self-describe as ‘slow, heavy, and hypnotic metal’. To be sure, you can classify it if you want: these are basically atmospheric sludge songs grounded by punishing, minimalist power-chord riffs, like the two-note pattern that drives ‘Taven’, and punctuated by the bellows of bandleader Thomas Casta. But despite the link to Neurosis, UFOMammut, ISIS, etc, Fallow trade in surprisingly nuanced atmospheres, drawing inspiration from dark-pastoral subject matter more often associated with black metal, neofolk, and even indie rock – the folklore and folk magic of their native Provence (‘Trelu’ means ‘Full Moon’ in old Provençal).

Of course, if they were just riffing into Orange amps all day, it would be hard to capture that elusive spirit. That’s where Fallow’s grasp of dramatic, long-form song structures, as well as their five-man lineup – equipped with Fender Rhodes, organ and synthesizers – come into play. The album was recorded live in-studio, and it shows. During the freakout parts of ‘Masco’ and ‘Tarasque’, for example, you can hear the keyboardists really playing their instruments rather than simply triggering the appropriate sounds. While those tracks have a spooky, 70s horror feel, the drone riff of ‘Taven’ is continually interrupted by a poignant keyboard theme that could have come from Sigur Rós or Mogwai in their prime. It could also soundtrack an artful anime film, at the moment when an alienated teenager, wandering the fields alone, sees a mysterious floating light and follows it into the woods.

Esoctrilihum – Mystic Echo From A Funeral Dimension (I, Voidhanger)

Esoctrilihum, a pseudonymous one-man BM outfit from France, has skipped the usual ‘necrotic basement tape’ stage to release an astonishing full-length debut steeped in ethereal beauty and demonic violence. ‘Ancient Ceremony from Astral Land’ gives us the basic template – beautiful, slightly eerie tremolo riffing in the aristocratic style of France, played with a ‘glistening’ guitar tone, but almost overpowered by an unholy racket of programmed blastbeats, double-bass flam, and busy fills. The vocals, too, range from extremely aggressive rasps to pitch-shifted, reverb-drenched death growls.

Then the riffing dies away, the keyboards swell to fill the space, and the blastbeats return, but strangely muted. The densely layered synth parts are played with such low attack that each note seems to sort of seep into the mix and fade out of it. Although the production is rich and powerful, it sounds as if the music is coming through the wall from the next room, or crossing a great distance. This warped sonic space creates a mood of wild, somnambulant ecstasy, stoked by unholy voices calling through the mist.

As the album progresses, those voices get closer. The ethereal guitar tone solidifies, and the songs do less phasing in and out. The riffing becomes less French and more Norwegian – more dissonant, more power-chord. In every way, there’s an increase in ominous presence. By the time we get to ‘BltQb (Black Collapse)’, Esoctrilihum is blasting like Antaeus and chugging like Arkhon Infaustus, with brute breakdowns and hyperblasts that confound any attempt to write this off as ‘weirdo atmospheric BM’. To me, the gripping, inevitable progress of this album suggests a narrative: first, as we acolytes call across the void, we hear faint and seductive echoes from the Funeral Dimension. Gradually, the walls between worlds wear thin, and translucent wraiths flit through the glades. At last, the walls come down, and those we summoned come storming into flesh.

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