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Ain’t Gangnam Style, that’s for sure: a snapshot of South Korean black metal

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A Brief Snapshot of South Korean Raw Black Metal

Now that I got your attention with repeating the words “Gangnam Style”, I’d just like to say this is a small survey of black metal music from South Korea. All the bands and their music mentioned here are on Youtube.com so if you want to check them out for yourselves – if only to make sure I ain’t making this all up! – just go to that website and enter the bands’ names and the particular songs that I mention. Once there, you’re sure to fall into the same trap I did which was to try and find out more about these acts. However, you’ll soon discover quickly enough that the bands are very obscure and in a lot of cases only released very limited quantities of demos before going into hiatus or deeper underground, or splitting up entirely. I suspect that in most cases where the bands split, it was because the members were called up for compulsory army duty after finishing high school. Equally, some South Korean labels that specialised in this music, notably Nerbilous Productions and its subsidiary Kerzakraum Records, and the sinister-sounding The Black 666 Production have either also disappeared, are in temporary abeyance or are just difficult to contact.

First up is a little demo from Wolven Howl called “Wolf of Blackheath” (released in 2004) with three songs, of which I found two, “Howling from Hell before the Bronzed Gates” and “The Mortal Warrior’s Dom”. The first song is an unbelievably raw piece of black metal noise might, starting off with a flubbery, shuddery guitar noise intro that could shave a mammoth twice over, such is the sharp edge of this particular razor blade, followed by a clappy rhythm and a harsh screeching vocal that recall Ildjarn at his most misanthropic. The beat becomes clearer and now sounds like an annoying metal chopstick continually struck against a porcelain by a hunger-starved toddler. There are two sets of vocals throughout and the higher-pitched one almost blends into the blizzard music. A glorious mess of guitar feedback chaos ends the track. By comparison the other track is not quite so demented: it’s still got the same rhythm and maddening beat and the vocal is farther back in the mix but the music is less abstract. A second vocal, so deep it comes over as muted grunts, gives the track the semblance of something from one of the more deranged of the Black Legions acts.

Next is Kalpa with “The Path of the Eternal Years”, an album released in 2002. The band’s style is less abrasive than Wolven Howl and has a better production, but is no less hateful and aggressive in attitude. There’s more melody too and there are definite riffs against the thrashy rhythms. “Hemisphere in Mortality” boasts varied rhythms throughout and some atmospheric synthesiser wash in an instrumental section. “Black Souls of the Full Moon” is a militant song with harsh screaming vocals and a pummelling rhythm mixed with a second rhythm and riffing guitars at intervals. Here’s proof that this act (it’s a one-man act) has the black metal template down pat 100%. The title track is the best and most varied track of what I’ve been able to download: at 15 minutes, it’s quite long and features acoustic guitar, cold ambient synth background, militant drumming and aggressive rhythms, gruff wailing vocals and even a plaintive Oriental-sounding flute. Kalpa have a bit more individuality than Wolven Howl whose style sounds very derivative.

Qrujhuk released just one album, “Triumph of the Glorious Blasphemy”, in 2006 before they split: if the song “Unholy Forest” is representative of the band, then those guys sure had a fair bit of potential as they have a good sharp if tinny sound and an urgent, aggressive attitude. The drumming seems a bit thin but that’s probably a fault of the primitive production of the recording. One member of the band had his own project Infinite Hatred which released “Hateful Spell” in 2006: it’s not very different from Qrujhuk in sound but the vocals consist mainly of screams and yelps and are merely another layer in the music which sounds quite weird. This is definitely black metal music but there’s a careening chainsaw industrial quality to it that makes it quite unlike any other BM I’ve heard. “Satanic Vortex” is the more noteworthy of two songs I’ve heard (the other is the title track) with a peculiar hammering rhythm.

I’d love to cover more South Korean underground black metal but this is turning out to be a long post so I’ll do one last act and this is Kvell who released four demos from 2001 t0 2003 and one compilation album in 2011. “Gathering of the Fatal Spirit”, from the fourth demo (“Damned Journey for the Unholy War”), is a furious and hateful track that all but spews bile at you from start to finish. The drumming can be remarkable at times (though it’s most likely programmed). “For the Great Throne” from the same demo isn’t much different but the vocal is more wailing this time and it’s reminiscent of Mutiilation’s Willy Roussel at his most lugubrious comic.

All the bands mentioned have entries on Encyclopedia Metallum and there are links to the entries that take you to other bands that share members: the guy in charge of Kalpa also had another project Bestial Hell Axe; and there are other acts rejoicing in names like Hell, Zerzyan Loathe, Gormantatinus, Jikeurind Blad (whose sole member died in 2009, probably from suicide but I’m not sure), Kryphos, Wolfhead, Age of Darkness and Freezing Night among others. Zerzyan Loathe, Gormantatinus and Wolven Howl shared a member and Hell shared a member with Qrujhuk and Infinite Hatred so the black metal networks must have had a fair degree of incest and it’s not hard to think that some of the bands formed a definite scene aping the French Black Legions who by now must have a lot to answer for. There’s a definite tinny quality to some of the music reviewed suggesting that the acts relied quite a lot on digital programming to create it.

All the bands reviewed or mentioned here are mainly from Seoul the capital; second city Busan also has some black metal bands. From the evidence here, the kind of raw underground black metal that’s been featured heavily on TSP had found fertile soil during the first decade of the 21st century in a country nobody would have thought would host such music, and while most bands featured have either split or gone dormant, they have certainly established a precedent that other Korean bands and bands in China, Japan and beyond might follow.

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