Columnus Metallicus: Heavy Metal For May By Pavel Godfrey

From the muddy banks of the Huron, our man in black stateside, brings us the best in pagan metal and more. Some images are NSFW

Harvestman portrait by Niela Von Till

Sumer is icumen in, as they say in The Wicker Man, and the warm winds of May carry birds of prey. A couple weeks ago, I saw two peregrine falcons fighting over downtown Ann Arbor, flapping hard to gain altitude, swerving past one another, and diving in tandem. And the other day, as I was walking home past a fancy yuppie ice-cream store that always has a line a block out the door, I looked up to see great, dark wings circling overhead – a few of the vultures that roost in the bluffs overlooking the Huron River. There was a time, a millennium or two ago, when these movements in the sky would have been omens.

If you’ve been following this column, you’ve probably noticed that my aesthetic leans strongly towards that sort of thing – music that is pagan, in a loose sense of the word – telluric, atavistic, and barbaric. Indeed, one tendency I’ve been following, and want to highlight in this column, is the development of a “new pagan metal.” I know that’s a horrible journalistic buzzword, and I wish I could’ve thought of something better (NWOPM?), but bear with me. Paganism in metal is as old as ‘The Immigrant Song’ and ‘Stairway To Heaven’, and has figured prominently in the work of a few canonical bands (Amebix, Neurosis, Bathory, Burzum, Enslaved, Absu, Solstice, maybe Agalloch and Primordial if you’re into that sort of thing), but it’s actually been pretty marginal to the main currents of extreme black/ death/ doom metal.

Indeed, paganism has always had a whiff of the disreputable about it. If you tell a serious metalhead you like “pagan metal,” there’s a good chance they’ll chortle dismissively or raise an eyebrow in distaste. That’s because it tends to fall into one of two stylistic ghettos. First, there’s the “fun” and/or “cheesy” stuff. At best, this includes beefy Viking death metal bands like Unleashed, Amon Amarth, and Wolfheart, none of whom pretend to make Great Art, and all of whom are masters of their craft. At worst, this is what I call “LARPcore” – cheap plastic power metal with death-growl vocals, a keyboardist playing shitty flute sounds, and lyrics about clinking tankards with dwarves, or whatever.

Second, there’s stuff that has always existed on the margins, and should remain on the margins, because it is played by Nazis and their fellow-travelers. This is the NSBM so often alluded to, and so little discussed, in the metal press. The problem is that despite the obvious objections to Nazism, not to mention the essential incompatibility of racism and paganism, some of those bands were really good. After the decline of the Norwegian Second Wave, from the mid 90s to the mid 00s, it was NSBM and NS-associated bands, such as Poland’s Graveland, Ukraine’s Hate Forest, and Russia’s Blazebirth Hall circle, who played pagan black metal that actually sounded pagan – rabidly aggressive, crudely minimal, and driven by archaic, droning folk melodies. (NB: Hate Forest has since metamorphosed into the more respectable Drudkh, while Graveland’s Rob Darken has foresworn NS and racism.) While these pagan NS groups neither sought nor gained a broad audience, their music has had a huge influence on the development of black metal in the last fifteen years, evident in the epic, repetitive, and almost rockish grooves of bands like Mgla, but also watered down into the anodyne “atmosphere” of bands like WITTR, Alcest, and even DFHVN.

This is a very long way of saying that, when I was first getting into extreme metal, there was an almost empty niche for bands who played artistically serious, ideologically invested pagan music while eschewing Nazism. Thankfully, the new pagan metal is beginning to fill that niche. By “new” I don’t just mean that many of these are younger bands (some have been around for a while). Rather, there is something different going on here. They don’t take paganism as a “theme,” a repository of readymade lyrics and images, nor do they generally espouse it as a “religion” in anything like the way the Wiccans, Asatruar, and Nazi occultists do. Rather, in their own ways, they reimagine how “paganism” might sound, and rethinking this supposedly “backwards” ideology in a way that is decidedly forward-looking.

For instance, I’ve already written extensively about Sanguine Eagle, who elaborate on the lo-fi ambient black metal of the Blazebirth Hall, replacing one-dimensional NS Odinism with what they call “storm mysticism” – a discipline for summoning cyclonic power that revolves around the Voodoo/Yoruba thunder-god Shango, and roots itself in the ancestral cultures of the Caribbean. Then there’s the Swedish one-man project Panphage, which draws on a sort of “alternate history” of canonical Norse/Swedish BM, pagan bands like Hades, Trelldom, and Taake, all of whom have strong folk influences. On last year’s Drengskapr, my AOTY for 2016, Panphage retold the saga of the Viking outlaw, Grettir the Strong, focusing almost entirely on the cold hard realities of medieval Iceland. For Panphage, paganism has less to do with the worship of gods or the practice of overt mysticism than with the veneration of natural forces in all their inhuman savagery, forces that find their expression not just in the landscapes Grettir traverses, but in the grim deeds of Grettir himself.

Both of these bands are firmly grounded in musical and cultural tradition, but unlike the neckbeards and the Nazis, they don’t approach it as an object of nostalgia or as a static doctrine. Rather, they keep faith with it in a specifically artistic way, as great artists always have – from Homer and Hesiod to the forgotten Norse skalds to Wagner and Stravinsky. In their hands, it is a living tradition, something that exerts its power in and through their transformative engagement with it. Bands like these don’t just scream about paganism, they inhabit it.

So, in this column I will to delve deeper into this pagan current, a tendency that is definitely not restricted to kvlt black metal. For instance, there’s the star-worshiping grind of Dephosphorus, the horrifically beautiful Bronze Age doom-death of Coltsblood, and the Neolithic ur-drone of Steve Von Till’s Harvestman. And there’s plenty of stuff that has little to do with this through-line, including the lascivious black/death of Weregoat and the behemoth death metal of Excommunion. But first, my Exhibit A for “new pagan metal” is an extended treatment of the masterful new record by The Ruins of Beverast, Exuvia.

The Ruins Of Beverast – Exuvia

Exuvia is Alexander von Meilenwald’s fifth full-length under the aegis of The Ruins Of Beverast, the product of three years’ toil in the subterranean smithy. Without choosing favourites, I would say this is the most adventurous Ruins record yet, making good on possibilities always latent in the earlier records. But this vast opening-out comes about through a return to the originary impulse of the project. While the last two records The Blood Vaults (2013) and Foulest Semen Of A Sheltered Elite (2009) were sprawling and ambitious, they were basically metal albums, tighter and more consistently crushing than his earlier work. Unlocking The Shrine (2004) and Rain Upon The Impure (2006) had plenty of great black metal riffing, but the songs as a whole refused the flowing seamlessness of metal, or of any riff-based music. Meilenwald wrote separate passages based on distinct genre sources – monolithic black metal derived from Aeternus and Celtic Frost, gossamer goth rock suggestive of Fields Of The Nephilim, and extended passages of sample-based ambience – and treated them as discrete fragments to be juxtaposed with one another.

Stylistically, it placed him close to industrial bands like Coil, and gave his music a distinctly modernist sensibility, traceable back to the interlocking sonic “blocs” of composers like Stravinsky, or the fractured assemblages of voices and texts, many of them “sampled” by quotation, in Eliot, Pound, and Joyce. On Exuvia, Meilenwald returns to this narrative style of songwriting, but preserves some of the sense of wholeness that characterised the last two records. There are still seismically heavy transitions, as on ‘Maere’, where dissonant doom-death erupts into what sounds like a chorus of conquering angels. But, in general, each song passes through a series of discrete sonic episodes that are, somehow, seamlessly joined. The fragments are fused.

For instance, on the album-opening title track, an uneasy trem riff inserts itself into an arcing melody that remains in play for the next ten minutes, its simple minor-third ascent governing every subsequent event in the song (and returning, under various guises, throughout the record). By the end of the track, it intertwines with a much darker low-end riff, and ecstatic female vocals, seemingly sampled from opera, come soaring in over it all. Although The Ruins of Beverast is often characterised as murky or claustrophobic, this track – and the album as a whole – gives a feeling of vast, light-filled spaces, like spears of sun breaking through the roof and windows of a ruined cathedral. Between this new feeling of openness and the prominent use of ecstatic vocal samples, lifted from field recordings of shamanic trances as well as opera, Exuvia comes off like a metal answer to Dead Can Dance.

For the rest of this already-way-too-long review, I’m going to try to offer some perspective on the album by posing a question – what the hell is “Exuvia?” – and giving some tentative answers. I initially assumed it was an imaginary place name. However, in an in-depth interview with Niklas Göransson for the always-outstanding Bardo Methodology explains that it’s the cast-off exoskeleton of an insect, and he ties it to a painful process of self-transformation, a passage through death and rebirth, that he carried out through the construction of the album itself. But the declaration of intent that accompanied the promo complicates things:

Exuvia is a vessel of constipated lethal bacteria, loading an atonic fluid, a venomous substance of colours, a marsh of florescence. It is a fortress against a siege machine of spiritless organisms and so much a yell to nature’s cleansing spirits.”

Apparently, this album functions as both poison-bearing weapon and impregnable bastion. It evokes nature as “a marsh of florescence,” and also as the place from whence “cleansing spirits” will arrive to break the siege of “spiritless organisms.” Though driven by personal urgency, Exuvia is impersonal in scope. It aligns images of microcosmic metamorphosis (the initiatory death and rebirth of the individual) with macrocosmic metamorphosis (the death and rebirth of the cosmos, the turning-over of worlds), and finds each within the other.

On the second track, ‘Surtur Barbaar Maritime’, Meilenwald imagines this apocalypse in terms of the Ragnarok myth, but this is no mere retelling of the myths carried to us in the famous ‘Seeress’ Prophecy’. Instead, he envisions a moment that the Seeress herself has not seen: the initial confrontation between Surtur and the fire giants, their longships sailing north from Muspellheim, and the valiant Æsir, standing ready to defend the mountainous walls of Midgard. Meilenwald takes full advantage of his narrative songwriting technique to “stage” this as a dramatic dialogue. Surtur comes on over a wall of trem-picked chords and crushing double-bass, rasping rough threats and egging on his hordes. Then, a fragile but resolute melody rises against the oncoming tide, and Thor, backed by the tempered harmonies of a divine chorus, speaks back in a roar: “Do not ever dare to roam the sacred grove unchained. Now, as your path is lost, crawl…” The threats rise, the song gathers momentum, and it closes in a barbaric stomp, Thor bellowing the last words as the battle lines close.

In the Bardo interview, Meilenwald suggests that his retelling of the Ragnarok tale has an allegorical significance: “Imagine the giants as profane, gross oppressors of culture – persistently ignorant of the soul, and deniers of respect for monumental ideas. Then picture the Æsir as their spiritualised enmity.” Where, for the Norse, the giants represented utterly inhuman natural forces turning upon the world-ordering powers that work in and through man (the Aesir and Vanir), for Meilenwald the giants are “all too human.” Bearers of the levelling, utilitarian logic of the modern world, a technological mode of existence, they arrive as a howling mob of “spiritless organisms” and “siege machines.” Against these, the only hope is a redoubt of higher, “spiritualised” culture steeped in the memory of something older, and holding out the possibility of rebirth – a fortress that is at once Asgard/Midgard and Exuvia itself.

This brings me back to the name of Meilenwald’s “band.” “Beverast” is his personal etymological derivation of the Norse “Bifrost”, so this project is bound under the image of the ruins of the rainbow bridge between Asgard and Midgard, a bridge that will shatter as the world-tree shakes at Ragnarok. If Exuvia is a fortress against the “spiritless” forces ravaging our world, perhaps it is a last, desperate rampart built up from the gleaming shards of the passage between worlds – images that rise up from the pagan past and offer themselves to be forged anew, fragments shored against ruin.

There’s much more to delve into. I should talk about how the predominant imagery of on this album, is actually derived from Greek myth, and how it merges with Germanic myth in a dreamlike way (the transfiguring action of art). And I should explain how the “spiritless organism” isn’t just debased modernity, but humanity itself, how Exuvia is a necessary poison as well as a fortress, and how, as Ragnarok grows ever-nearer, some of us might slough off our human skins, a possibility envisioned in ‘The Pythia’s Pale Wolves’. Suffice to say, this is almost certainly my Album of the Year already, and one of the great works of 00s metal.

Havukruunu – Kelle Surut Soi
(Naturmacht Productions)

Since the early 2000s, Finland has been home to the strongest and truest black metal scene in the world. The Finnish sound, forged by the likes of Horna and Satanic Warmaster, combines stern, melancholy tremolo melodies with stomping, dissonant power-chord riffs, all delivered with the raw power of punk. Although most of the major Finnish bands profess a Satanic ideology, this is a distinctly northern Satan, a direct descendant of the old gods. That’s not something that’s apparent from the album covers or song titles, but suggested by the Finnish sense of melody, which carries strong traces of folk music.

Havukruunu take that latent pagan impulse and bring it to the forefront, incorporating the bombastic “epic” feel of Viking-era Bathory and Graveland. Kelle Surut Soi has all of the brash, triumphant spirit of their 2015 debut, Havulinaan, but improves greatly on its youthful unevenness: the songwriting has become extremely tight, unflagging across the album as a whole, and the mood has changed. Where Havulinaan was an exuberant work of what I call “adventure black metal,” Kelle Surut Soi translates as “For Whom The Sorrows Sing”. This album still has great energy and loftiness of spirit, but it is also grim and storming with wrath. The aggression is strongest on ‘Vainajain Valot’, driven by a properly noble tremolo lead that plays out over a 7-beat pattern, leaping like a fanfare, its asymmetry giving it a surging energy and tying it to the organic rhythms of folk music.

Havukruunu also stands out from other Finnish bands for the way songwriter/frontman Stefan embraces a beefy guitar tone and anchors many of his riffs in hammering palm-mutes, as on album-opener ‘Jo Näkyvi Pohjan Portit’. Along with his frequent and outstanding guitar solos, this gives the record a virile, swaggering, and emphatically metal vibe, but I would not classify this as “black heavy metal,” or anything like that – the point is, you can do black metal like this, too, and it makes perfect sense.

As much as I instinctively gravitate towards the more ripping tracks, Kelle Surut Soi’s crowning moment is ‘Vaeltaja’ (or ‘Wanderer’) a solemnly paced epic that opens the second half of the record. Every riff unfolds organically from a droning ur-melody, and as Stefan yells out the song title, you can see the Wanderer, presumably the black rider on the album cover, raising a sword over vast swathes of pine forest and swampland. In that black rider, along with the elk-horned shaman from Havulinaan, Havukruunu synthesizes archetypal images of Odin, Herne of the Hunt, and the gods and heroes of the Kalevala, along with Tolkienian figures like Strider and the Ringwraiths. The Wanderer is a messenger, and when he blows his horn it will awaken the sleeping gods, or summon new ones. I’m reminded of this passage from the letters of William Morris:

“[Civilization is] doomed to destruction, and probably before very long. What a joy it is to think of! And how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. With this thought in my mind, all the history of the past is lighted up and lives again to me."

FIN – Arrows Of A Dying Age(Folter)

Like Havukruunu, FIN transmutes Finnish melancholy into triumph. Where Havukruunu does this by embracing heavy metal bombast and slower-paced song structures, FIN’s guitarist/vocalist M.K. uses the classic Finnish guitar style – usually geared towards simple but expressive chorded riffs – as the technical basis for writing long, ornate, and staggeringly fast melodies, continually harmonized as if two guitars were playing. This “baroque” approach to songwriting is strongly informed by French BM – running parallel to Languedoc troubadours like Aorlhac and Sühnopfer – which makes sense because FIN isn’t from Finland! They’re from Chicago, and it’s this distinctively American vantage point that allows them to do highly original work by weaving together these two complementary strains of the European black metal tradition.

FIN’s last album, The Furrows Of Tradition, set this baroque guitar style within pretty straightforward patterns drawn from the likes of Horna and Sargeist, but on Arrows the song structures are as complex and dynamic as the riffs themselves. The first half of this record races past in a blur. There’s so much going on that, at first, you’re not so much hearing discrete tracks or individual standout riffs as a continually unfolding riff-process. But this density rewards successive plays, and allows hammer-handed drummer D.F.K. a lot of room to play creatively. From this section, I’m particularly fond of ‘A Wall of Stone’, which shifts from one of the most ornate, aristocratic melodies on the album into powerful (and quite pretty) stomp riffs. Tracks like these are especially impressive if you remember that FIN recorded everything live in the studio, in single takes, with no edits or overdubs, placing all their virtuosity at the service of white-knuckle speed and aggression. There are eleven tracks and there is absolutely zero ambient filler.

The final sequence of four songs, beginning with the title track, is especially strong. Here, FIN open up and let the riffs breathe. ‘Clarity In These Winds’ and ‘With Hammering Glance’ revel in mid-tempo marches, exuding resolution and scorn, while album-closer ‘Outlaws’ opens with a Morricone-style whistle. It’s only here, finally, that FIN make a direct nod to their American heritage, and it’s a smart, powerful gesture. It recontextualises the whole album, showing us the heroic excess of FIN’s performance as a kind of gunslinging bravado, and recasting the “chivalric” mood of the riffs for an American setting. The feudal aristocrat is transformed into the rugged individual roaming the high plains, a law unto himself.

Suffering Hour – In Passing Ascension

(Blood Harvest)

As I’ve detailed in previous columns, and discuss briefly in my Excommunion review, it’s been an interesting decade for death metal. The genre has sprouted a number of vital (or until-recently-vital) avant-garde tentacles, but has paid a price for it, as these new offshoots grow ever-more distant from what makes death metal death metal. Suffering Hour’s debut comes at the right time to help solve this problem. Rather than retreating into retro-death, Suffering Hour have carefully listened to avant-death touchstones like Gorguts and later Deathspell Omega, harvested some of their most promising techniques, and put these at the service of writing traditionally structured death metal songs. In Passing Ascension is “space” death metal, which isn’t just a lyrical gimmick, but audible in the extremely cold guitar tone, the eerie disharmonic chord shapes, and the vast reverberating space that surrounds the unfolding riffs. In this sense, it’s comparable to Blood Incantation’s Starspawn, released late last year. As interesting and important as that record was (I year-ended it), I must admit it ultimately left me the wrong kind of cold, in part because there was this great distance between the solid underlying chug and the abstract, dissonant space chords that sort of just hung over it. For Suffering Hour, though, the spacey stuff is integral to the riffs themselves, and the riffs themselves are driving and extremely catchy.

The secret is that, at least to these ears, there’s a very strong influence from early 90s Swedish death metal, especially the melodic black/death of Dissection. You can hear this in the spiralling leads and rich, lengthy chord progressions of ‘For The Putridity of Man’, as in the ripping single-note trem riffs of ‘Devouring Shapeless Void’. But there’s also a devotion to the art of the pit riff that marks this as an American band. ‘For The Putridity’ opens up into a huge breakdown that had me stomping around my living room the first time I heard it, while ‘Through Vessels Of Arcane Power’ gathers momentum with a thrashing Bolt Thrower groove before lifting off into one of the most gorgeous hooks of the album. Here, the other distinguishing quality of this band becomes clear: They’re not just writing space-skronk. Hiding within and occasionally leaping out of the strange harmonies, there’s an ear for traditional, consonant melody that relates them back to Dissection, and is also one of the secret weapons of D.S.O. on Paracletus.

Dephosphorus – Impossible Orbits

Where for Suffering Hour, space is the boundless outward double of an internal Void within which man will dwindle and ultimately collapse, for the Greek “astrogrind” band Dephosphorus, space, in all its cruel and impersonal vastness, is also a beckoning realm of possibility. Here is Nature in the ultimate sense of the word, a realm of titanic forces giving birth to stars, planets, and alien life. For Dephosphorus, this is the proper object of heathen veneration. When I spoke briefly with vocalist Panos Agoros, he stressed that this is “not to be associated with any New Age hippie bullshit,” nor is it an abstract source of existential solace. Rather, situating ourselves in a heathen macrocosmos has direct ethical and political implications: “We believe that mankind should be reorganised and refocused towards discovering more about this plane of reality, as well as colonising the galaxy.” Dephosphorus is dead fucking serious about this longue-durée vision of our destiny, one that seems increasingly necessary given the impending collapse of our Earthbound world. They draw inspiration from hard-sf author Iain M. Banks’ conception of the Culture, a sprawling posthuman civilization run on principles somewhat like those of anarcho-syndicalism, giving his utopian vision the normative force of prophecy: “Imagination is Future History.”

So what does this all sound like? Well, if you sent anarchists out into the farthest reaches of the galaxy to form space-squats, they would play some sort of cosmic crust-grind, altered by the journey: the genre’s dystopian anger transmuted into fervent hunger for a real future, and wide-eyed reverence for the approaching stars. In other words, it would get a lot more Metal, and indeed, Dephosphorus are more stripped-down counterparts to the weird war-metal bands like Mitochrondrion and Stargazer. On previous records like Night Sky Transform (2012) and Ravenous Solemnity (2014), they gave prominent place to sinuous death metal leads and gauzy, melancholic black metal riffs that are sui generis but remind me a bit of Drudkh. Impossible Orbits dials these individual “hook” moments back, folding the black and death metal influences into extremely tight, aggressive grind patterns without losing any atmosphere. The weight shifts from particular Cool Riffs to the headlong power of the album as a whole. On lead single “Rational Reappraisal,” the Big Riff that opens the song has that shimmering, spacey quality, but marries it to an almost sludge-metal strut. Then they blast off. Panos’ howling, fanatical vocals lead the attack – they are at the heart of what makes this band so unearthly – but his band are masters at generating compressive heaviness in the blasting sections, and neck-snapping groove in the mosh breaks. Despite dealing with lofty concepts and distant stars, this is totally visceral, organic music. Impossible Orbits should be listened to at one go, and, if possible, experienced live.

Weregoat – Pestilential Rites Of Infernal Fornication
(Vault of Dried Bones / Iron Bonehead)

Given that this Portland band is named Weregoat, the cover of their long-awaited debut LP record is literally a weregoat fucking a girl in a pentagram, you may think you know exactly how this sounds. But you’d be wrong. This isn’t some inchoate, rifflessly blasting amalgamation of Beherit and Blasphemy, but an ambitious and extremely successful attempt to weave together different strains of “war metal” and “bestial black/death” around their common ancestor – raw Teutonic thrash metal and early Bathory. This is pretty significant, because although war metal is often frantically fast, it doesn’t usually thrash, using blastbeats more for their crushing heaviness than forward momentum. On tracks like ‘Osculum Infame’, Weregoat combine the primitive slow-blasts of their Finnish progenitors Archgoat with tightly-wound, blistering speed metal riffing, and it absolutely rips. Weregoat are about as close as you can get to a latter-day Kreator.

Of course, there is plenty of straightforward Neanderthal stomp, as on ‘Screaming Forth Endless Blasphemies And Emitting Foul Seed Upon The Pitiful Face Of Benevolence’, where the blastbeats slow all the way down to quarter-notes. Even here, though, the faster parts have tremendous momentum, propelled by the wickedly syncopated tremolo power-chords. As the album develops, the songwriting opens up, and gets even thrashier. My favorite is probably ‘Forked Tongue Lashes Between The Virgin’s Thigh’s’, with huge, dissonant power chord riffs riding ‘Overkill’-style double-pedal bass grooves. This track and ‘Malediction Command’, with its militant, rolling rhythms, remind me a lot of Australian legends Gospel Of The Horns. Weregoat’s detailed, tightly played riffs benefit from a lot from a production that, though appropriately raw, gives the guitars a searing clarity. While I know that it’s impossible to match the sheer extremity and generativity of war metal in the early 90s, Weregoat joins their battle-brothers Diocletian as evidence that this subgenre is actually getting better with age.

Excommunion – Thronosis

(Dark Descent)

Excommunion released their first album, Superion, back in 2002, when their downtempo, old-school death metal was a lonely fire burning against the highly polished, drum-triggered speed-mongering that was popular at the time. After this, their sole full-length, they went dormant, biding their time. Meanwhile, death metal reconnected with its early-90s roots, drew on ideas from black metal and Isis/Neurosis, and generally regained its potential as crushing, organic, and avant-garde music. The time is ripe for Excommunion’s return, and yet, with Thronosis, they still sound cutting-edge. As veteran heads and master songwriters, they marry riffcraft and brute heaviness (two elements that are reciprocal, not mutually exclusive) in a way that the caverncore and avant-death bands of recent years have proved unable or unwilling to do. Of course, Excommunion have not been sleeping under a rock during the past fifteen years. ‘Twilight Of Eschaton’ is driven by the way dissonant, textural chords mesh with the anchoring chug, and the production is far more spacious than that on Eschaton. But the core riffing style on ‘Twilight’ as on potential hit-single ‘Nemesis’, blends chugging palm-mutes with elegant, slowly bending leads in a way that recalls the nastier Morbid Angel and Immolation stuff, but leads all the back to Celtic Frost. Of course, Excommunion have not been sleeping under a rock during the past fifteen years. In 2017 as in 2002, Excommunion’s profound rootedness in the old school is part of what makes their music forward-looking.

And this album is futural in another way. Like many of the pagan black metal records I’ve covered in this instalment, Thronosis looks towards the apocalypse, the turning-over of worlds, that we all know is coming in one way or another. Here, though, the perspective is Satanic and/or chaos-gnostic. Christbutcher’s chthonian declarations of intent, repeated like mantras –  “I am the enemy”, “I am the world-crucifier” – herald oncoming annihilation. Over the course of Thronosis‘ four lengthy tracks, each a journey in itself, Excommunion slouches roughly towards eschaton. The pace picks up on ‘World Crucifier’, building to the blastbeat hellstorm of album closer, ‘Blessed is the Epoch of Darkness and Strife’.

At four songs in a mere 29 minutes, Thronosis is the length of some EPs, but this is a fully realised album with absolutely zero of the bullshit filler that so many death metal bands are currently using to pad their releases. Its brevity and its rigorous structure means that it absolutely must be listened to front to back to be properly experienced. With a comeback this tight, fifteen years of silence seems like nothing.

Coltsblood – Ascending Into Shimmering Darkness


Liverpool trio Coltsblood play earth-caked, bloodsoaked death-doom that hits with the weight of accumulated centuries. Bands working in this vein tend to craft “negative” aesthetics, and look to certain troped sources of inspiration – zombie horror and undeath, Lovecraftian cosmic horror, crushing depression and general existential dread, etc. Coltsblood, on the other hand, delve deep into the myths, rituals, and wars of the British Isles, and look squarely at the terrifying heart of the heathen world. This is no romanticisation. Coltsblood bring us face to face with horror, but rather than recoiling in fear, they affirm it as integral to a life worth living, and challenge us to do the same.

This is obviously filthy, dark music, built on a foundation of rumbling riffs and bludgeoning drums, and punctuated by vocalist John McNulty’s wrenching black metal rasps. All this ties Coltsblood to influences like Grief (whose Eric Harrison does Coltsblood’s ghastly cover art), early Corrupted, and Winter. But Ascending Into Shimmering Darkness is also quite beautiful. Every riff on the album emerges from or responds to its unifying theme, a mournful but resolute melody that gradually unfurls over the first three minutes of the album-opening title track. Here, the interplay between guitar and bass lines is crucial, but it’s Jem’s soulful lead work that carries it into the realm of austere majesty. In a sense, Ascending is really a very aggressive take on “funeral doom,” with a depth of feeling that recalls Thergothon’s legendary Stream From The Heavens (1994), and Asunder’s underrated A Clarion Call (2004). This brooding majesty blossoms on album-closer ‘The Final Winter’, where austere keyboards fill out the higher end of the sound spectrum. There’s a long, underlying melody working itself out through the riffage, and unexpected lifts in the chords create a strange sense of hope – fitting, perhaps, for a song that aligns the last seasons of life with the oncoming Fimbulwinter and the dawn of Ragnarok. But honestly, for me, the highlight of the album is on ‘Mortal Wound’, where John repeatedly roars “VALHALLA AWAITS” over a dissonant, descending riff. This is one of those metal lyrics that has probably been sung/yelled/screamed a thousand times, but here it sounds absolutely anguished, like someone on the verge of death willing himself once more into the breach. And then the drums lurch into a d-beat.

Those interested in Coltsblood’s origin story, songcraft, and worldview are advised to check out this excellent interview by Jamie Grimes for Metalireland, where Jem and John give thoughtful, delightfully “in-character” answers to every question.

Harvestman – Music For Megaliths


Harvestman is the folkdrone project of Steve Von Till, better known as a core member and co-vocalist of Neurosis. “Folkdrone” is my label, not his, and it’s one of those made-up tags that can mean all sorts of things, but here it captures an aesthetic or feeling that runs through all of Von Till’s work under the Harvestman moniker, from the gorgeous psychedelic trad-folk of Lashing The Rye (2003) to the pounding Hawkwind/Skullflower grooves of In A Dark Tongue (2009). Music For Megaliths is Harvestman’s first drone album in the strict sense of the word. It is slow-paced and immersive, built up from tectonic bass tones and rich textures generated by the dread Grendel Drone Commander, and embellished with instruments from acoustic guitar to hurdy gurdy. This is highly expressive, melodic stuff, drawing on all of Von Till’s skill as a folk and rock musician, and in that sense is far from the bloodless exercises in “space” and “density” that are all too common in drone.

Like Coltsblood, Harvestman deals with the imaginative and intuitive reconstruction, and thus the cyclical continuation, of ancient ways of experiencing the world. Music For Megaliths, specifically, revolves around stone circles, menhirs, dolmens/cromlechs, burial mounds, and hillside chalk drawings – the colossal traces of cultures that spread across Northern Europe during the Neolithic age – and channels the faint ancestral memories that come welling up through these places of power. Where Ascending Into Shimmering Darkness carves a passage into Dionysiac horror, and beyond, Music For Megaliths leads us through a healing or cleansing rite. It moves from forest shadow (‘The Forest Is Our Temple’, ‘Oak Drone’) into fields of light (‘Ring Of Sentinels’, ‘Cromlech’, ‘Levitation’), and then from a nightlong vigil to spiritual rebirth with the rising sun (‘Sunset’, ‘White Horse’). The bone-shaking low end on ‘Oak Drone’ may be my favourite part, but it’s the tranquil midsection of the album that bears special note. ‘Cromlech’ is album’s epicentre, the heavy kosmiche counterpart to ‘Oak Drone’, but ‘Ring Of Sentinels’ and ‘Levitation’ each have understated drums (electronic and live, respectively) that give them an almost rockish feel. ‘Levitation’ even has a worldless, gently exhaled vocal melody amidst the warm buzz of synths. This whole set of songs reminds me of Slowdive, or Gravenhurst on The Ghost In Daylight. So while there are certainly some very Metal moments on this record, I also recommend it to people who are more into the Quietus art-rock canon, and encourage you to play it for your non-metal friends while you do mushrooms and stare at clouds.

(For more on Harvestman, on landscape and history, and on the deep common threads running from English folk to Mongolian throat-singing to Skullflower, stay tuned for my interview with Steve, which will run in another week or two.)

Other cool stuff to check out

Tenhornedbeast – Death Has No Companion(Cold Spring)

Heathen ur-drone from the lonely paths and high places of the North of England. Tenhornedbeast is rooted in Doom Metal and ritual industrial, but this is one of the project’s most austere releases yet. A darker counterpart to Harvestman.

Sovereign – Spirit Warfare Demo XXVII

Powerful, melodic, and multifaceted black metal of a Satanic bent. Reminds me of Gorgoroth at their peak filtered through American punk BM nastiness.

Windswept – The Great Cold Steppe
(Season of Mist)

Raw, driving return to form from Roman Saenko and co., recorded live in studio. Much more reminiscent of Hate Forest than anything he’s done in a long time, but still full of the lush, Romantic chords that became second-nature to him in Drudkh. Songwriting is uneven but in a “kvlt demo” kind of way, and there are many achingly beautiful passages.

Pillorian – Obsidian Arc
(Eisenwald Tonschmiede)

John Haughm, too, returns to form after the underwhelming end of Agalloch. Here, forcefully channels the brooding, folky BM of Aeternus, and links it up to the neoclassical wrath of Dissection. Vocals are pure spite, lyrics deal with elitism and the cruel forging of Will. Fuck yeah! I knew he had this in him!

Apostate Viaticum – Before the Gates of Gomorrah

Absolutely crushing downtempo death metal, filled with neckbreaking grooves, from Irish scene vets. Heavy Celtics Frost influence, lots of pinch harmonics, one straight up Pantera riff. Urgh!

Naudiz – Wulfasa Kunja
(Iron Bonehead)

Lycanthropic power-chord black metal from Italy (think early Mayhem and Urgehal). Ingenuity within a strictly limited formula. Ideology is “dark Germanic heathenism.” As an Odin/Thor guy this stuff is generally not my cup of tea, but the music is great, the lyrics are all about wolves, and hey, I guess someone’s gotta root for the jotuns…

Triumvir Foul – Spiritual Bloodshed

Ripping, dark death metal from a thriving Portland circle with an overall BM aesthetic (also includes Urzeit, who made my 2016 year-end).

Incendiary – Thousand Mile Stare
(Closed Casket Activities)

Sick metallic hardcore with catchy Killing Joke-type riffs punctuating the chug.

Temple of Void – Lords of Death

Top shelf chugging doom-death from Detroit, the nearest major city to me. High death to doom ratio, as it should be.

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