Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Black Metal Tuesday - Subliminal Genocide

Xasthur - Subliminal Genocide

The term "Atmospheric Depressive Black Metal" is fairly ridiculous, however it is a spot-on description of Xasthur's sound. 2006's Subliminal Genocide is his 2nd full length after numerous EPs and splits.This album is a truly visceral experience. It is deeply moody and tortured sounding, severely discordant, and absolutely exhausting. None of these terms sound complimentary, but Subliminal Genocide is a brilliant album. 

This North American Black-Metal-meets-Shoe-Gaze genre is an interesting movement. It embodies all of the lo-fi and independent ethos of the original second-wave bands, but it also asserts something completely unique and decidedly American. Xasthur is a one-man-band, in the Burzum tradition, but this music is vastly different from Varkines' heavily melody-based approach. Subliminal Genocide is more feeling than music, it's almost anti-music in a sense. Newcomers will laugh this off as mere noodling and aimless noise, but the properly initiated will find Xasthur's unique vision of bleak despair emanating through the desolate overtones of guitar fuzz, muddy keyboards, and distorted howls.  

This is not a style everyone can appreciate, and truly even I cannot listen to it all the time. But there is artistic brilliance in this truly suffocating and all-encompassing style. It is an art form that very few could effectively pull off, and for that it has my respect. Xasthur's soul-crushing effort deserves a 4 out of 5. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Black Metal Tuesday - Eld


Enslaved are another Norwegian band who were there at the beginning. They're also one of the few that have endured through the years, now playing a much more progressive form of the genre. 

Eld is their 3rd full-length album, and a bit of a transitional one. After the excellent debut, and the even better Frost, Eld takes things in a more progressive direction, starting with excellent 16+ minute epic, "793." The song is a journey from ambient beginning, folkish black metal middle, and thrashy ending. This song really has it all. After that track, Enslaved fall back into more traditional black metal fair with the high-energy "Hordalendingen," still completely in Norwegian. 

Enslaved have a good command of melody and smooth transitions, notable in "For Lenge Siden," a sorrowful melody flowing into a steady metal groove. "Glemt" is another standout - hitting some choice chords as well.

The one drawback in this album is a bizarrely mixed snare drum that sounds apart from the rest of the mix. Much of the music has that "far away" quality, but the snare sounds like it's right next to the mic - it doesn't fit. Also, the album seems to lose steam after it's epic opening track. The following songs have their moments, but they fail to match the quality of the previous two albums. 

Ultimately, Enslaved are another band that employ melody and riffs as the driving force behind their music. The atmosphere of the opening track does not necessarily carry through the rest of the album, but Eld is a strong and worthy effort. It gets a 3.5 out of 5. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Black Metal Tuesday - In the Nightside Eclipse (1994)


For our first black metal review, we'll tackle an easy one. In The Nightside Eclipse, Emperor's full length debut, is often cited as one of the strongest Norwegian black metal albums from the formative years. Amongst the crowd of essential releases from the "black circle," this one is the most instantly accessible, so it's a good place to start. 

Emperor were one of the first black metal bands to really incorporate keyboards as a main instrument, and not just for atmosphere. On their debut, the keyboards sit as a dark melodious backdrop for the fuzzy guitars and screechy vocals. This is a musically dense album with multiple changes in tempo, intricate riffs, and complex song structures. "Beyond the Great Vast Forest" is a good example - expansive ambient passages interspersed with an almost grindcore sounding blastbeat riff. 

The production of ITNE is what really sells it for me. Everything, and I mean everything, sounds like it is off in the distance. But somehow, every instrument is discernible and it doesn't become a muddy wash. This sounds like music performed by demons in the cold Norwegian forest - it's perfect black metal sound. 

ITNE is an easy album to get into, even for black metal noobs, because it is riff-driven and adheres to many metal traditions. The atmosphere is present, but it is not achieved through repetition which is a big complaint from people who struggle to get into the genre. The gothic-themed melodies presented here became the templet for mainstream black metal acts like Dimmu Borgir and England's gothic-themed neo-black metal act, Cradle of Filth. 

"I am the Black Wizards" is the best track on here, and it's also the funniest translation error in the black metal world that I am aware off. The main melodies in this one are fantastic, and quite infectious. It moves through transitions of heavy metal and gothic bliss and never lets up.

Emperor hit the nail on the head with this album - it is near-perfect. When the weather turns cold, it's one of the first albums I hit. It gets a 5 out of 5. 

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Black Metal Primer

The Black Metal Primer

As we prepare to study this fascinating genre, there are a few albums that will help us understand the context, and prepare for the cold winter. The Norwegian black metal bands are also referred to as "second wave" black metal bands. This is to differentiate them from the handful of foundation-setting bands called the "first wave:" Venom, Celtic Frost (aka Hellhammer), Bathory, Mercyful Fate, and Possessed. There are others, but these are the chief ones mentioned in most of the literature. It is also worth mentioning Slayer, as their brand of thrash was markedly different from everyone else in California (except for the aforementioned Possessed). 


Venom's second album was called "Black Metal," so let's start there. Venom are overtly satanic, to almost a comedic degree. Their simplicity and rawness separate them from many of the other metal bands of the day. They probably scared a few people back then, but Venom is decidedly the least scary of the first-wave bands. They have a touch of traditional heavy metal cheese (Ala "Teacher's Pet") at play here, so it's hard to take them too seriously. Still, the basic elements are here, and it's hard to deny their influence, plus - their album covers made great shock-value T-Shirts.


Celtic Frost's "Morbid Tales" is a completely different story. Tom G. Warrior's impact on the entire metal community cannot be overstated. Starting as Hellhammer, Celtic Frost's first full length album after name change is a heavy and raw offering that blends metal with the rawest elements of hardcore punk. Morbid Tales has both groove and speed in abundance. "Crypts of Rays, "Dethroned Emperor," "Circle of the Tyrants," and "Nocturnal Fear" are untouchable metal gems. One can detect similarities to Venom, but Frost has no hints of cheese, these guys are dead serious... Ooh!


Though heavily credited for death metal's origin, Possessed's "Seven Churches" album has detectable influences in the black metal world as well. Not only that, it's just a damn fine album. Did you know Primus' Larry Lalonde plays guitar on this? That's weird right? Florida's Death used this album as a blueprint for their "Scream Bloody Gore" album, and the rest is death metal history. 


The first time anyone hears King Diamond's voice, they are always dumbfounded. "Is this guy for real?" Yes indeed he is. Mercyful Fate's debut, "Melissa" inspired not only Metallica, but also the Norwegian "Black Circle." Though the influence may not be as instantly recognizable, the approach behind the music is key. The occult elements at play here are also undeniable. At times, this album is downright frightening. 

In terms of black metal's sound, no band deserves as much credit as Sweden's one-man-band, Bathory (aka Quorthorn). The eponymous debut is clouded in mystery and is so damn raw and scary, it has still yet to be equalled. Three minutes of wind and bells set the stage for an all-out attack cranked just a pinch faster than he can actually play. Bathory is about as cool as they come, and the first three albums are simply the shit. After that, Quorthorn singlehandedly started another genre - Viking Metal. Any fan of metal needs to check out Bathory, they are as fundamental to the genre as Sabbath, Motörhead, or Priest. 


Though Slayer’s entire body of work holds a certain amount of significance to the metal world, their debut and follow up EP (Haunting the Chapel), have a considerable influence in the early black metal. Slayer’s refinement would lead them to great success, but “Show No Mercy’s” raw aggression and Venom-esque undertones would put it in a class all its own. Though no truly Kvlt Norwegian black metal band would ever give props to an American band, the sound is definitely there, and hard to deny.


In the 80’s, the US had the “Big 4” thrash bands, and Germany had the “Big 3:” Kreator, Sodom, and Destruction. These three bands played a much rougher and unrefined style of thrash, appealing to those who would later play black and death metal. Kreator’s “Endless Pain,” Destruction’s “Sentenced to Death EP,” “Infernal Overkill,” and Sodom’s “Obsessed by Cruelty,” “In the Sign of Evil EP” all deserve further inspection from the aspiring black metal student. 

There are other bands out there that many consider to be legitimate “first-wave,” but it really is a select few. Important second wave band Mayhem’s first EP, “Deathcrush” good very well be considered a first-wave black metal album in 1987. But for the most part, the above list should prepare you for the journey ahead. Enjoy, and happy listening.

Black Metal Tuesday - Intro

As we enter the winter months, it’s time for Death Metal Tuesday to switch over to its more seasonal, and Nordic cousin, Black Metal Tuesday. Okay, for you casual metal fans, “What is the difference between death metal and black metal?” A fair question, and one that the uninitiated ear cannot easily detect. 

To understand black metal, we must understand the particular brand of death metal that they were playing in Sweden. You see, Norway and Sweden are like siblings too close in age, always competing with each other, and not-so-subtly criticizing each other. By the time death fever hit Europe in 1990, every musician in Sweden between the ages of 15 and 24 were starting to play an identical style of death metal -even to go so far as to be produced by the same guy and in the same studio. Naturally by 1991, the words Swedish Death Metal referred to scores of bands that sounded nearly identical to each other: buzz-saw guitars, punk beats, and guttural vocals. 

Across the border in Norway, a group of young musicians calling themselves the “black circle,” under the leadership of Euronymous from the Norwegian band Mayhem, developed an “answer” to the Swedish Death Metal saturation. They took the polished recordings, and muddied them up. They took the subtle thematic elements and ambient passages and brought them to the front. The drums became an inarticulate wash, the guitars, darker and more dismal. Instead of brutality and aggression, black metal emphasized evil and darkness.

At the onset of the Norwegian movement, the bands embraced and exploited Satan, like so many bands before them. As their death metal counterparts were taking stage as normal looking dudes in jeans and high-top sneakers, black metal bands were dressed in old school metal garb with black leather, chains, spikes, and make up / corpse paint. (Corpse paint is that white & black face paint popularized by the American band, Kiss, and then taken to an uglier and less clown-like level).

Black metal songs are classical based - not rock based. This means that they are not verse-chorus-verse type songs, they are like stories with a beginning and an end. The other important aspect of the “Black Circle” is they participated in actual crimes including mass church burnings across the Norwegian country side, and in extreme cases, murder.

This makes Black Metal the most extreme subgenre of metal, hands down. As a young child, I remember hearing that Ozzy ripped the heads off bats on stage, or that Alice Cooper stomped on puppies with giant boots. Of course, none of that was true. But with black metal, it was all legit. These were seriously messed up individuals, creating a music that reflected directly on the disturbed and clandestine lives they led.

Black Metal, when done correctly, sounds cold. It is a distinctly different genre of extreme metal that has since been watered down, mainstreamed, and commercialized in many forms. Thankfully, there are still plenty of bands playing legit (called "kvlt") black metal today, and to some extent, it still enjoys an underground status. The genre has evolved, splintered and surprisingly endured. In an age where so much of the metal genre is overproduced and completely sterile, black metal continues to supply raw, organic, and challenging music. Compared to death metal, black metal can be even more inaccessible and difficult, but consequently, it's that much more rewarding. So strap in and prepare for a cold and evil winter. Celebrate the darkness, don't be afraid.