Welcome to Secret Steel, the fifth chapter, “Black Metal 1: An Unholy Union”
Glorious Melodies from the Frozen North
After Valfar’s unfortunate and untimely (yet still ironic) death, the members of Windir split into two new bands, Vreid and Cor Scorpii. While Vreid’s output has remained steady throughout the years, Cor Scorpii have been dormant since releasing their debut in 2008. Now, 10 years later, Cor Scorpii are finally back with their sophomore effort, Ruin. Storm left the band in 2010 and joined Vreid but everyone else from the debut is on this new record. Despite the extended absence, the band’s sound remains pretty much the same, which bodes well for this new album.
Cor Scorpii’s sound much more closely resembles Windir’s than Vreid’s so fans looking for that sound will find plenty to like here. There are plenty of good riffs on here, most of which are tremolo picked. There is also plenty of melody packed into those riffs, making them more dynamic. The pacing of these songs varies regularly with plenty of fast sections interchanged with more intricate, mid-paced sections. Interspersed with all the tremolo picked riffs are some heavier, groovier riffs that give the album some variety. “Hjarteorm” undoubtedly contains the best riffs on the album with its blistering ¾ pace and heavy sensibilities. The fastest riffing on the album by far is in “Ærelaus,” which is a blistering track that also contains a couple riffs that are heavy as hell. If you like pure speed in your black metal, this track is definitely for you, even if this album may not be.
Ole Nordsve shows plenty of variety in his drumming style on this album. His primary mode is like most black metal drummers, play a bunch of blast beats at a rapid pace with double-kick thrown in for good measure. The nice thing is that while he does this often, those sections do not last that long before he goes back to striking solid beats at different paces. Take “Fotefar” for example. It starts with a rapid-fire blast beat section that lasts about 20 seconds before switching to mid-paced beats for about 30 seconds, throws in a short burst of fast beats with double kick and then goes back to the mid-paced beats. This back and forth continues for about a minute before a groovy beat comes in and just to keep you on your toes, they bring back the faster section to switch with the groovy beat. Ole also showcases very nice cymbal work and great rim drumming on tracks like “Helveteskap.”
If you enjoy a healthy dose of keyboards in your black metal, you will find a lot to like in Cor Scorpii. The keyboards are a really strong presence throughout the album but the opening and closing tracks, “Svart Blod (Hovmod står for fall)” and “Siste Dans,” respectively, are the biggest standouts, providing wonderful added atmosphere. The former contains a lovely little pipe organ section toward the end of the song and “Siste Dans” features an accordion that actually sounds good and works for the song. “Skuggevandrar” has some grand symphonics and some great piano style keyboards that further add to the album’s atmosphere. The vocals are a bit of a tricky business to pinpoint on this album because there are a couple different styles performed by a couple different musicians. Thomas’ harsh vocals are very well done although the lyrics are not very intelligible. They are the typical black metal high-pitched screams but they fit Cor Scorpii’s sound rather well. The clean female vocals add some nice variety to the vocal approach, especially coupled with the war chant clean vocals from Gaute. There are also some really visceral black metal growls on “Helveteskap,” which harmonize surprisingly well with the clean vocals, even if only for a moment.
Comeback albums after prolonged absences can be inconsistent or fail to measure up to a band’s earlier works. Luckily, that is not the case with Cor Scorpii as they have come back better and stronger than ever before. Ruin is a very strong sophomore album of melodic black metal glory, with plenty of riffs, great drumming, an interesting vocal approach and tons of compelling melodies and keyboard lines. It may not quite live up to the glory of Windir but Cor Scorpii have firmly established themselves in the Norwegian black metal scene with this album. Hopefully the world will not have to wait another 10 years for a third opus because the genre could use fresh blood.
Rituals of Impending Darkness
Hoth is the icy planet with ton-tons where Luke Skywalker gets stranded in The Empire Strikes Back. It is also the name of a melodic death/black metal band from Seattle with you guessed it, Star Wars themed lyrics. Hell, their logo is the shape of a TIE Fighter, which should tell you how big they are on Star Wars. Astral Necromancy is the duo’s third album, and the first in four years. Star Wars nerds have speculated that the album is about Darth Plagueis given the lyrical themes of immortality. Regardless, it sounds cool and this band makes great music.
The riffs on this album are pretty awesome and there is plenty of variation to keep the listener on their toes. There is a ton of ¾ paced tremolo picking but it has plenty of melody packed into it to make it stand out more. This album also packs plenty of heavy, hard-hitting riffs as well as the fast pace you would expect for this style. You can find them all over the album but “The Gathering of the Accursed Artifacts” wraps it all up in a blistering package of extreme darkness. This track has hard-hitting riffs, fast tremolo picking, heavy riffs played at a blistering pace and so much more in the span of less than six minutes. The melodies on this album are excellent and fit the dark atmosphere very well while also being quite memorable. “Citadel of the Necromancer” is the best example of this as the recurring melody is fantastic and a total earworm. There are a number of great solos throughout this album as well as two very ominous interludes. There is an excellent one that serves as the intro to “The Gathering of the Accursed Artifacts” and another great one in the middle of “The Void Between the Stars.” This fits with the band’s desire to make an album befitting the end of all creation. The end of all creation will feature one final blaze of glory before the impending darkness wraps its icy essence around the universe, overtaking what little light was left. Then, the universe will simply be complete and utter darkness. This album may not achieve that level of supreme darkness but it certainly tries. Oh and if you have any doubts about the riffs on this album, listen to “Passage into Entropy” and those doubts will be cured.
The vocals on this album are exactly the kind of raspy black metal screams you would expect from an album that just seeps darkness. It is actually kind of an old school approach as the vocals are very harsh but the lyrics are actually quite intelligible. In a lot of ways, the vocals are actually very reminiscent of Abbath’s approach but a little harsher and raspier. Interestingly enough, there are some clean vocals mixed in on this album. They do not appear very often but they resemble a war chant and the stark contrast to the harsh vocals makes them extremely effective. Take the chorus of “Journey into the Eternal Winter” for example. The clean vocals come out of nowhere but the fact that it is a chant elevates the song to another level.
There are some really ominous keyboards on this album, like the outro of “Passage into Entropy,” that really add an extra sense of impending doom to the album. There are other examples but that outro is the most striking one. There is a ton of variation in the drum patterns and style of drumming on this album, making for an incredibly dynamic, standout performance. People like to say “there is something for everyone here” but Hoth actually accomplish this with the drumming on this album and it is a beautiful thing. There are a handful of punchy fills on here along with excellent cymbal work and a really progressive section in “The Void Between the Stars.” This album has plenty of rapid-fire blast beats and double-kick drumming for the speed enthusiasts and slow, pounding drum beats for those who admire skill and technique over pure speed. All of this amounts to one of the best all-around drum performances on an extreme metal album in recent years.
The production on this album is predictably lo-fi but the individual instruments are clear as day and so is the overall mix. This provides a great balance for what is definitely one of the best extreme metal albums of the year. The fact that Hoth is shrouded in mystery only adds to the sense of impending darkness created by black magic on this album. They are a duo and although their identities are no secret, their specific roles in the band are a complete mystery since they do not play live shows or tour. The real mystery will be where this album lands on year-end lists.
Unfurl the banners of absolute contempt.
Since the 90’s, Greece has been a world power in extreme metal, starting off with the legendary classic releases of bands such as Rotting Christ, Necromantia, Varathron, and Septic Flesh in the black metal category as well as latter day acts such as Acrimonious, Thy Darkened Shade, Spectral Lore, and Macabre Omen. In recent years it has turned its eyes towards the more sepulchral and savage genre of death metal with the legendary Dead Congregation becoming one of the most infamous of 90’s styled bands and a flagship for the oldschool revival. Bands like Soulskinner, Necrovorous, Crucifiction, Abyssous, Cthonic Aura, War Possession, and Resurgency would gain varying degrees of recognition in their wake but none of them were able to have the same impact as Graves of the Archangels or Promulgation of the Fall. After Dead Congregation guitarist Abomination Virginborn’s time with them, Embrace of Thorns morphed from a more calculated take on war metal into a blackened invocation of heresy and mortality. Making greater usage of melody and varied tempos to take riffing normally at home on an Archgoat album, they turn bestial primitivity into morbid majesty and create a distinct voice of blasphemous contempt refined through meticulous and insidious songcraft. After 2014’s lackluster Darkness Impenetrable, Embrace of Thorns have unleashed their strongest album to date and fully capitalized on all their congealing strengths since 2007.
Compared to much of the death metal out there today, Embrace of Thorns are definitely old school in spirit but they come from a much more different lineage than much of what is associated with the term. Incantation comparisons (groan) are understandable to an extent but while they do feature a number of slower sections and longer tremolo phrases, they avoid the tunnelling rhythms and fractured songwriting of that band and their recent disciples. These Greeks use a greater degree of melody in the vein of older Greek black metal with broader strokes of abstracted riffing, merging quasi-ambience and vicious primitivity of first wave black metal into the disciplined structures and over-arching narrative patterns of death metal’s recent elite bands. While it’d be a mistake to call them a technical band, there’s an impressive level of content in each track all coordinated with superb precision, moving through intricate and highly varied compositions at the level of the classic American death metal greats in their capability to handle a complex set of ideas yet using a blackened approach to harmony and riffing progression that helps it to avoid feeling very convoluted. All instruments benefit from a well separated and very clear production job, letting one better hear nuances and shifts in thematic patterns and how pacing suitably accommodates. While the older albums weren’t slouches in this department, they basically are a completely different band having essentially flung themselves light years into the future by comparison.
At the same time, there’s enough grit and meat on each member’s attack, from Rampike’s dense basslines to Archfiend DevilPig’s wet and bile-filled howls, making this the band and perhaps the 2018’s most well produced extreme metal album to date. Special commendations must be given to veteran drummer Maelstrom’s performance, laying down laser precise and avalanche-like rolls with a tenacity and speed reminiscent of Axis of Advance’s James Read. His performance on the last two albums by Greek astro-grindcore adventurers Dephosphorus hinted at his full potential but here he is perhaps the true star of the show handling tempo changes and adding extra percussive muscle to riffing that for most bands would feel as if it was floating unconcerned and unaffected by the frenetic drumming beneath. Herald of Demonic Pestilence has also unleashed his finest riffing thus far, imbuing an ominous sense of melody into devastating chord progressions and layers of angel-flaying riffs that in the hands of lesser bands would be too atonal to hold interest for long. His playing also hints at classic heavy metal influence especially when he unleashes his soloing though it’s closer to Thy Mighty Contract and His Majesty at the Swamp than Painkiller or The Number of the Beast. This avoids the uplifting radio friendly aspects that frequently happen when NWOBHM makes its way into extremity by purposefully choosing eerie and mournful intervals heralding an utmost damnation from which none escape.
With all of this in mind, the strongest and most important upgrade to their arsenal of intransigence is with their compositional skills. Their older albums used simpler, brutish structures to convey their invocations of hellishness but with Scorn Aesthetics, Embrace of Thorns shows a genuine maturity in their sound without any compromise of their roots, easily becoming the equals of bands like Cruciamentum, Obliteration, Denial, and Verberis. A whirling series of acerbic riffing comprises each track, utilizing a varied set of tempos and phrasings in order to advance themes in highly varied theatres of boiling conflict and the thunderous resolution that ensues. It is simple enough by itself but in the context of each song, individual portions build on one another gradually to unveil distinctly organized over-arching melodies whose forms become clearer as songs progress and their feverish atmosphere intensifies.
It is most noticeable in the previously elaborated lead guitar department, utilizing shimmering melodies not just for additional flair but also to demarcate individual portions of each track. These serve as checkpoints throughout the song and respond directly to the feverish intensity. However the band also convey this through the subtly shifting tonal character of the riffs themselves, utilizing varying lengths of picked segments or strummed chords that further alter songwriting direction while homing in on increasingly distinct melodies, searching not for sheer barbarity but an increasing sense of clarity and morose majesty. It’s a synthesis of death and black metal compositional strategies and technique that goes beyond a purely aesthetic mixture of extended blast beats and blizzard-in-the-background tremolo ripping. You have the labyrinthine and ever shifting mindset of a death metal band but tempered with the broader strokes of compositional motion and sweeping melody of black metal.
At only seven songs, the album feels considerably shorter than the rest of their discography even if in terms of overall length it is actually their second longest. However, there are very few filler moments with the band at their strongest on a riff-per-riff basis, all in the service of the most well-crafted songs in their career to date. Save for a few eerie non-metal intros, every track has a consistent sense of motion but never feels rushed or hurried, unveiling waves of putrid and mournful riffing all of which balances itself out with careful usage of changing pace and technique. The album at its heart hearkens back to the grimier, uglier, and truly ancient sounding parts of the underground realms of extreme metal yet while playing spot-the-influence isn’t hard, as a whole it sounds like a distinct statement of something that could only happen today. Scorn Aesthetics is not an ode to past greats and Embrace of Thorns are no longer merely a solid band with moments of promise. It is the work of two decades worth of dedication to the abyssic interstice where the virulent threads of early death and black metal meet and demonstrates a successful progression from a their early years as a feral monstrosity to the sorcerous masters who now would rule over large swathes of the burgeoning black-death realm. Highly recommended for fans of the finest works of bands such as Prosanctus Inferi, Doombringer, Lantern, Crucifier, Imprecation, and Charon.
Larry breaks down each album by the German industrial goliaths to decide which one sits on top.
Interview with Mikko Aspa of Clandestine Blaze
Conducted by Colonel Para Bellum of Blackdeath.
Larry rounds up all the decent (and some not-so-decent) thrash releases for the headbang-happy year of 2017.
This was a banner year for death metal by any measure.
Here are some of our favorite death metal releases from 2017.
The diverse spectrum that encompasses metal music’s many sub-genres could be likened to various mythical races united under two opposing banners, staring each other down as they make ready to charge and turn the field red with the other’s blood. From one year to the next, the advantage may tip from one side to the other, but in the grand scheme of their eternal conflict, the forces of light and darkness have tended to be equally matched. 2017 saw the forces of melody and order take the advantage in the eyes of the reclusive bard that tells this end of the year tale, though naturally his is not the final word on such things, and other codices in the grand archives of metallic exploits deserve your consideration. Still, these are the 50 acts of heroism that defined the year, because too much has occurred to settle for a mere 30.
2017 has proven to offer up the tightest race we have seen in a long time in the quest for the gold! So without any further ado, here is the creme de la creme of the year!
December’s still a month, right?