by Joe Scibelli
Black metal is one of few genres that over the years has remained transgressive in its aesthetics and its politics. In a cultural landscape wherein ostensibly subversive art unfailingly ends up reproducing status-quo neoliberalism, black metal has remained resilient, though certainly not without challenge. In essence, black metal is radicalism above all else – both in its form and its substance. As is often the case lately, this radicalism is rejected without engagement if it eschews marketability or causes friction with bourgeois decorum.
Music journalism is notably silent on the ever consistent trove of fantastic new releases that drop each year – refusing to cover anything shrouded in a layer of moral ambiguity and anything that challenges their own beliefs. The result is overwhelmingly a celebration of mediocrity, praising those who wear their half-hearted ideological commitments on their sleeve and ignoring those with an unwavering dedication to black metal as an artistic form. That a music journalist like Kim Kelly would earnestly suggest listening to a low-effort novelty project like Neckbeard Deathcamp puts on full display the total artistic bankruptcy of black metal journalism and the obvious limits imposed by shunning all acts that don’t present a market friendly brand of anarcho-liberal politics.
Decades of Dirt is a new column at Mute Presence which seeks to tap into the original ethos of black metal – and present offerings that channel its true, unrelenting spirit. I seek to take an honest look at the cultural, political, and social perspectives offered by these increasingly exiled acts, situating them in their proper context and contrasting them with my own Marxist frame of analysis when necessary. Furthermore, I seek to showcase acts who rightfully celebrate the often raw and primitive form of the genre, an element of which tends to alienate a larger audience, whether intentionally or not. To begin, I’ll be going through my top black metal picks for 2020:
Prior to the release of the Final Sins LP, Starcave was a criminally underappreciated project from Finland’s Rauta – usually known for his inimitable solo project Kêres, the Ride For Revenge-worshipping Venus Star, or the the post-punk tinged Circle of Ouroborus of whom also released a fantastic record this year. Following its gestation period wherein the project developed across a four song demo tape and 7 inch, Final Sins was birthed, and promptly carved out a unique space within Rauta’s discography and the greater Finnish black metal scene.
Final Sins performs a delicate balancing act between sounds that are cosmic and otherworldly yet simultaneously inquisitive and ambiguous. In that sense, Rauta never leans too far into a “spacey” sound and therefore eludes the sci-fi campiness often lent to that type of aesthetic. This balancing act is aided by the visual presentation of the record which somewhat dilutes the nature of its instinctive atmosphere. The cover art is adorned with depictions of mysterious relics, enigmatic in their intent, while the lyric sheet portrays a silhouetted figure seated atop a citadel of stone.
By eschewing a distinct focus on “outer-space” per se – we are treated to a record that, by contrast, simply sounds spacious, and therefore evokes a similar intrigue one would hold toward the vastness and emptiness of space. Harnessing melodic tremolo-picked riffs and harmonies, the guitars sit distinctly in a narrow upper register, often shared with a subtle synth layer – the two of which meld into a distant, reverberant cacophony. Bass melodies are intricately woven into the remaining space, capturing a sense of synergy that is often lost when one person handles all the instrumentation in a project. Through each mid-paced section, the pounding toms echo throughout the hollow expanse, propelling each section forward with cryptic intent and marching endlessly to a destination unknown.
The totality of these elements is a substantive atmosphere that is deeply engaging and interpretive. Final Sins deftly avoids the classic pitfall of sacrificing riffs in service of atmosphere and instead employs an ornate sense of harmony in its instrumental interplay. The record is grandiose on the surface, but pervaded by an impalpable clandestinity. Through arcane aesthetics and artful songwriting, it comes as no surprise (as is usually the case with releases on the Goatowarex label) that the vinyl has quickly become so sought after.
Vothana – Biệt Động Quân / Commando
(Darker Than Black)
If you’ve ever heard a Vothana record then you know exactly what you’re getting into with any of his newest output. Alongside no shortage of hilarious antics, Lord Nebulah has been pumping out some truly top of the line material with this project since its inception around 2003. Throughout this period, Vothana has been guided by unfaltering principles and an adamant, rigid approach to creating black metal. Through typo-laden screeds on inserts stretching from the private release tape era to the recent 2xLP demo reissues – Lord Nebulah has made his cult-like mentality toward black metal quite clear. For Vothana, black metal is a state of mind – one of passionate hatred and uncompromising elitism. As declared so eloquently and empathetically in the insert for Vothana’s fifth demo: “the ideological preference of the Black Metal Elite are far superior to the modern, the new-generation transexuals who infest BM with their brand of emo shit. Not to mention the jewish acts from labels as of late…”
Commando is yet another manifestation of steadfast propaganda – a declaration of war on those who have attempted to, in Lord Nebulah’s perspective, poison the sacred art form of black metal. While I of course wish his hatred of global capitalism was rooted in something more real than Jewish conspiracy, I have the utmost respect for the way in which he deifies black metal as an artistic form. There is no shortage of projects which are constantly trying to push the envelope of the genre – but Vothana takes the opposite approach wherein the classic Vothana sound that we’ve been hearing since 2003 is carefully refined to perfection. Nothing on Commando sounds drastically different from the beloved Demo IV, which came out some 15 years ago. In contrast, he’s honing in on the sound he’s been slowly developing with precision and distinct intent.
From the moment the introductory Vietnamese military hymn is finished playing, it takes only a minute or two to glean some insight into what Vothana is all about. Per usual, Commando is an absolute masterclass in black metal guitar playing – churning out 10-15 minute bursts of some of the best triumphant, melodic riffing that the genre has to offer. Drawing from absolutely zero outside influence, Vothana channels the true uninhibited spirit of black metal, evoking a warlike, unvanquishable energy that is undeniable from start to finish. These qualities are accentuated by his signature raw production which (at least on the CD version) is mastered so loudly that many of the different elements blend together into a pummeling fury – a feeling which, after long sections of relentless blasting and retching, releases the listener in a state of dissociated fervor.
Commando very well may be Vothana’s strongest work so far – a particularly illustrious gem atop his otherwise perfect discography. At the very minimum it rivals some of the cherished early demos which are thankfully seeing reissues as of late. There are few projects out there that present such an unwavering dedication to their craft – something I find deeply admirable in spite of obvious ideological disagreements.
In the last ten years or so, there has been somewhat of an influx of black metal projects which are focused around the history, culture, and mythology of native american and indigenous groups. Bands from southern California’s Black Twilight Circle were often at the forefront of this – projects like Blue Hummingbird of the Left with their focus on Aztec theology, among others like Volahn and Tuukaria of whom focus on their own facets of Amerindian history and mythology. More recently, projects like Pan-Amerikan Native Front paint an authentic portrait of colonialism through visceral depictions of military conflict between American settlers and the Native American tribes resisting their encroachment.
While there is no sense in fetishizing the indigenous nature of these projects as being somehow subversive and interesting in itself, some of these projects do offer an interesting historicity and commentary on issues relating to imperialism and colonialism. This authentic commentary is something that feels very lost on bands of the recent “Red-Anarchist Black metal” scene – who for the most part are engaged in phony radical posturing, vague appeals to bourgeois morality, and utopian larping (and who, along with their pitiful attempts at transgression, are typically just not very good).
Of the current wave of native/indigenous black metal projects that are popping up as of late, this is one that I find to be criminally underappreciated. Ûkcheânsâlâwit, which means “archangel” in the native language of the Mi’qmak, is a relatively new solo endeavor hailing from Canada. With no lyrics available in the record or online, the listener must project his own sense of the history being told through their debut record Tekipûk. Unlike some of the previously mentioned projects, which exist in specific historical contexts – Tekipûk remains ambiguous, forcing us to rely on our instincts and our (possibly nonexistent) knowledge of the plight of the Mi’kmaq people to draw any historical meaning from its wistful hymns. The result is a record with an air of warrior spirit, one that is more contemplative than militaristic, more subtle than others whose heritage is placed at the forefront (and more genuine than those whose heritage is a purely aesthetic embellishment).
Across this stunning debut record, Tekipûk concocts a lush, melancholic atmosphere that is incomparable to anything else I have listened to this year. The warm, bassy production bestows a dreamlike quality upon the wintry, glacial textures – the stark contrast creating a unique sound that bleeds both sorrow and serenity. Sheltered in a lonesome cabin, just barely separated from the frostbitten expanse – a slowly dying ember enkindles a comfortable warmth as the backdrop for a spiritual introspection. Tekipûk conjures a warlike spirit, one that reflects not an active conquest but a reminiscence of a somber history of indigenous suffering. In the distance, the vocals are like howling gusts of wind that cut across the air, piercing the stillness of the forest before being buried under the heavy snowfall. The ethereal synths in tandem with the aforementioned production style holds together various textures as a cohesive, enthralling ambience. Much of the synthwork on this record sounds straight out of a Lycia record – an influence notably shared with Xasthur’s Scott Conner. And while I would hardly compare Ûkcheânsâlâwit to Xasthur or most other DSBM projects, the project does bill itself as “native depressive black metal” – which I would assert has more to do with its overarching spiritual and emotional quality rather than the specific stylistic components of the DSBM subgenre.
Through a careful equilibrium of riffs and atmosphere, Tekipûk manages to stand out amongst a torrent of bands working with similar elements. Ûkcheânsâlâwit is not some Paysage d’Hiver clone nor is it a run of the mill atmospheric black metal band with a myopic focus on sounding cold and desolate. On the contrary, this is carefully crafted and eschews direct comparison to any one single project. Shrouded with an impenetrable air of esotericism, the record becomes a vessel for interpretation, inviting repeated listens.
Oldowan Gash – Hubris Unchained
As is typical in black metal, this year has seen true excellence amongst solo projects, and USBM act Oldowan Gash is far from an exception to this phenomenon. An undeniably passionate entity, Oldowan Gash is driven by an utter disgust for humanity. Following two stellar demo tapes and the addition of a session drummer, this project quickly blossomed into an eminent force within black metal. The debut LP Hubris Unchained is an unrestrained rebellion against our crumbling circumstance – a radical condemnation of the excesses of man.
This is the impetus behind Oldowan Gash – the inevitable nature of humankind to destroy itself. Since prehistory, when we were bruised and savaged by primitive stone tools, Hubris Unchained suggests that we’ve been steadily uncovering new avenues of self-destruction – poisoned by vanity and suspended in decadence, cloaking our undoing in the veil of progress. In that sense, the record captures a radical individualist ethos – comparable in essence to someone like Julius Evola, who posited that “no idea is as absurd as the idea of progress.” In analogy to the classic tragic hero narrative, Oldowan Gash reasons that pride is our hamartia – eschewing sophrosyne in favor of a narcissistic sickness.
With a sound that is conquering and victorious, Hubris Unchained elicits comparison to the triumphant style of 90s french bands such as Seigneur Voland and Kristallnacht, while equally recalling the mid-paced USBM stylings of bands like Bone Awl. Each song is carefully structured, and the riffs are often seasoned with subtle changes that allow for plenty of repetition without redundancy. Tracks will comfortably approach lengths of 6 minutes using only 3 or 4 riffs – minimal in form but still significantly captivating. The guitars’ relatively light overdrive bestows a degree of clarity, enough to hit hard when locked in with the tight rhythm section, but not too much as to clutter the mix. Marching riffs charge forward between rebellious blasting sections, striking a careful symmetry of these rhythms without leaning too heavily on one or the other.
One of the most definitive elements of the Oldowan Gash sound lies in the vocals – wherein the typical “evil” black metal shrieks are traded for a fiery, cathartic howling. Lines such as “an atavistic urge, finally answered, my feral heart set free” are declared with relentless fury, their delivery reflecting the searing vitriol of the record’s lyricism. Without explicit commitment to any particular ideological tendency, Hubris Unchained makes no concessions in its ruthless critique of a seemingly crumbling society. Whether this decadance is an affliction begotten by society or intrinsic to human nature remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that one can only escape the iron grip of his circumstance in death: “no longer marred by the weight of a world which wants my blood.”
Jordablod – The Cabinet of Numinous Song
(Iron Bonehead Productions)
The coalescence of black metal and psychedelia is becoming increasingly common nowadays, but few seem to distill these two like Sweden’s Jordablod. The Cabinet of Numinous Song falls somewhere between two of the most popular current takes on this genre combination – less ambitious and modern than the spacey, avant-garde Oranssi Pazuzu but more firmly rooted in the black metal tradition than something like Black Magick SS, whose connection to black metal is fleeting at best. Jordablod’s fusion of black metal, hard rock, and heavy psych also integrates a gothic atmosphere set in the old west frontier, with contrasting southern gothic lyricism.
From the record’s onset, the intricate layering of quivering tremolo guitar, steel string acoustic, and expressive slide guitar set the stage aesthetically – calling to mind the classic film scores of composers like Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. This feeling is replicated in the title track with its cinematic, foreboding stillness as well as in tracks like “To Bleed Gold,” which conjures a western gothic sort of atmosphere not unlike Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, before eventually bringing in riffs which wouldn’t feel out of place on a record by The Doors. The aesthetics of the record are somewhat amorphous in that the western sound crafted by the slide guitar and other musical elements is contrasted by a southern gothic, Faulkner-esque lyricism wherein religious imagery is ubiquitous, portraying the archetypal struggle of heaven and hell, of sin and virtue. “The highest heavenly being, or the lowest form of fiend. The driving force of transgression, or the holy work to praise the name.”
Another defining factor of the Jordablod sound lies in the specific manner in which they adopt the timbres of their influences into a black metal context. Trails of metallic spring reverb echoes closely follow the roaring overdriven riffs – the clashing open strings and distinct brightness recalling the screaming tubes of classic “vintage” amps like a Fender ‘65 Twin Reverb. The bass often takes electrifying melodic leads, cutting right through the harsh, trebly guitars and complimenting their melodies in a sort of mutual symbiosis. By embracing the well-known timbres of these genres, Jordablod effectively absorbs and reproduces the spirit of psychedelia and hard rock.
In spite of these distinct timbral differences from the band’s contemporaries, the songwriting of The Cabinet of Numinous Song remains embedded in the Black Metal tradition. Rather than simply adorning these tracks with extraneous elements, the outside influences are seamlessly dissolved into both the riffing style and song structures. This extra step in integrating these sounds really distinguishes Jordablod from others who try to work with a similar palette but end up doing so in a manner that is either phoned-in or overly ambitious. The aforementioned gothic aesthetic and cinematic textures that are present in many tracks present yet another unique layer to the Jordablod sound. Nevertheless, through its stylistic idiosyncrasy, the classic black metal sound still manages to force its way to the forefront. There’s certainly no shortage of driving, pummeling double kick and blasts, and throat shredding screams, among other well-worn black metal signifiers.
There have been some complaints about the mixing on The Cabinet of Numinous Song, and while it perhaps lacks a degree of clarity, it hardly takes away from this record’s appeal. Though it is undeniable that had this record been professionally produced on top of the line analog equipment in much the same way their psychedelic forebears did, it could have been taken to another level. Regardless, Jordablod’s sophomore LP remains an easy favorite of 2020 and one of the most refreshing black metal genre fusions that I have heard.
It’s difficult to present a holistic view of this year’s black metal as so much excellent material flows through the underground each month. However, there are plenty of LPs that qualify as honorable mentions, as well as a myriad of demos and EPs.
Obvious credit is due to Paysage d’Hiver’s monumental double album Im Wald, easily their most comprehensive work as of yet. Imperial Triumphant’s Alphaville LP was a similarly monumental statement of avant-garde, modernist black metal with their opulent, jazz-infused madness. 2020 also granted us fantastic comeback LPs: Hate Forest’s Hour of the Centaur ended the band’s nearly 17 year hiatus, and Finland’s Ymir released their self-titled LP after 16 years of silence. Additionally, the Judas Iscariot-worshipping Cold Earth released their fantastic debut LP Your Misery, My Triumph and Carved Cross gave us another cold, hypnotic work with their new LP Embittered Amidst the Ashes. Wagner Ödegård of Sweden granted us the years most refreshing mixture of black metal and punk with their Om kosmos och de tolv järtekn LP and brand new Norwegian project Moldé Volhal released their epic debut Into the Cave of Ordeals… Ebony Pendant, a relatively new project, released two immaculate new albums, the Incantation of Eschatological Mysticism LP as well as a split with the Hawaiian, Ildjarn-influenced Kūka’ilimoku.
For demos, Vaamatar’s Evil Witching Black Metal was a notably fresh slab of 2nd wave worship, and Reliquary Ash, a new project from Nächtlich member Ukeparaave, released their debut demo Agonal Hymns of Fullmoon Majesty. Blood Magic released a stellar debut demo on the brand new Spiritual Disease label and the sorcerers behind Blood Tyrant debuted their new project Tirgûl. Oldowan Gash side project Desert Eagle unleashed a new demo on his Feral Heart Productions label, alongside another excellent release from Sordid Crest. Lastly, the incredible project Trhä dropped their sophomore release novej kalhnjënno, showcasing an inimitable style of symphonic, over the top black metal.