Tagged: Black Metal

Third Wave Holocaust: blackened noise industrial soundscapes too muddy to be truly scary

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T.O.M.B., Third Wave Holocaust, Black Plagve Productions, CD (2013)

One of a recent generation of black metal acts that combine BM, noise and industrial, this Philadelphia-based one-man band treats urban environments as his natural territory, perhaps more so than most BM bands treat nature as theirs. The tracks on “Third Wave Holocaust” have all been recorded in various locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that have some historical or emotional significance either to T.O.M.B.’s main man Jack Gannon or the people in the areas surrounding those venues: derelict buildings, decaying churches, places where people have died or have been murdered or places that for some reason emit negative vibes or have a dark and horrible history. Whether these places have good acoustics is another thing however – from what I have been able to find out about this project, it seems that Gannon chooses particular venues to record and gather field recordings of their sounds so as to imbibe something of the spirit or mood of that place and transmit or release that spirit and its energy through his music.

The result is an album of bleak cavernous space from which strange murky and often frightening sounds emerge. The album is best heard as loudly as you can stand to get the full sonic effect of all the sounds that come streaming (and often screaming) through the headphones or speakers. Sound quality varies a great deal and often the noises are muddy and blunted. Though the music is divided into 10 tracks, it’s actually best heard as one continuous work: there are no vocals, no melodies or rhythms so you might as well just let it all rip from Track 1 “Antagonizing the Unknown” onwards.

You can let your imagination take you where it will with this recording: “Electric Exorcism” is a journey through a vortex of harsh grating junk metal sandstorm noise while “The Great Venerat Insult” pops you into a slowly simmering and bubbling cauldron of initially cold liquid metal that will soon overwhelm and dissolve you molecule by molecule. Though Track 3 is a relatively quiet piece, the background is constantly alive with unknowable malevolent forces. A ritualistic element is introduced with sonorous chanting in “NA LA GORE NA” and for many listeners this might be the most terrifying track of all as the echoing disembodied voices are accompanied by a storm of withering, scraping noise drone that steadily erodes even the most solid granite and basalt. The rumble that is “Vulgarity” sounds like something the Japanese noise musician Merzbow might serve up with its crumbly textures that roam about looking for human victims to crush and gobble up, along with a foghorn sound effect and occasional sharp screechy skidding-brake tones.

Titles of the last four tracks suggest a celebration of a sinister ceremony with mass human sacrifices to dark deities as its culmination. The title track combines a repeating loop of washed-out ambient slash and a deep subterranean rumble. Later tracks bring more horror but very little that listeners haven’t already heard.

As albums of this genre go, “Third Wave Holocaust” is not bad but it’s a bit disappointing: while the sounds may be interesting and the darkness hinted at in several tracks is very deep and terrifying, those of us familiar with noise terror acts like Yellow Swans, Hair Police, Mammal, NRIII and Sutekh Hexen don’t hear much new that those and other bands and projects haven’t already delivered. Some listeners may even anticipate the ritualistic aspect hinted at by titles like “Electric Exorcism” and “VOM VOODOO”. The cavernous echoing ambience that’s present throughout has the effect of not only muddying sounds but distancing them from listeners and the album is not nearly as confrontational as it could have been. A record such as this needs one or two moments where the sounds become absolutely clean, sharp and close in a way that listeners only have to extend a finger out a little way and the noise could chop off the entire arm. Later tracks become quite monotonous in their samples and atmosphere. In a genre that I predict will soon be jam-packed with blackened scrap-metal industrial noise terrorism projects started up by every kid and their dog, T.O.M.B. (the name stands for Total Occultic Mechanical Blasphemy) needs to create much more distinct soundscape works than what it has done here.

Contact: Black Plagve Productions

Through the Fog: a hard plod through black doom music

Though the Fog

Longing and Silence, Through the Fog, Sylvan Screams Analog, cassette (2013)

Originally released independently as a demo in 2013, this debut recording of San Francisco Bay Area one-man band Longing and Silence has been picked up by the up-and-coming Sylvan Screams Analog label and turned into an album with an extra track. Now the full glories of LaS can be enjoyed by audiences far beyond the act’s homeland. Well, admittedly these “glories” might take some time to sink in as LaS happens to be one of the more miserable depressive black doom metal bands. Songs proceed at a slow dejected foot-dragging pace, the drumming is drained of life and energy, and mournful buzzing guitars chug away while the harsh rattling vocals sigh and scrape through the lyrics. The atmosphere is a deep black fug through which living things struggle to move or swim. The odd thing about this album is that the sound seems reminiscent of some of the ambient batty acts of the French Black Legions of the mid to late 1990s but that may be an effect, accidental or deliberate, of the quality of the production on the original recording.

Most tracks are fairly long with the shortest at just five minutes if you disregard the short opening track which is called … “Opening”. (Talk about a grand entry!) After this, the album begins its doleful journey in earnest. Tracks are repetitive to the point of monotony although if you listen to each track quite closely, you’ll be surprised at how much change and variation are present in the details of the music. There can be surprisingly melodic moments though they’re hardly likely to have you whistling or tapping your fingers. One track “Wasted Days” could even be a bit rock’n’roll if it were sped up a bit as the solid-as-steel riffs and melodies have a hard edge and their texture has slight crunch. The bass is dominant throughout most tracks which tends to make the music a bit less black metal in sound if not in spirit and concept.

The B-side of the cassette starts off in a more lively manner with bonus track “Sinking Vessel” placed first instead of at the end as is the normal custom with such pieces. A cold space ambience, courtesy of some discreet background synth tones, helps shape the song and provides mystery and depth. The music still plods but not as slowly as before. During instrumental sections, guitars and synth tones share equal time and the duetting is surprisingly affecting and emotional. “Sinking Vessel” could almost pass as potential singles material as there are some very distinctive slash-guitar riffs and the track is song-like in structure. The title track is another highlight here: it’s a  completely ambient piece done with synthesiser and acoustic-music tones and effects highlighted by wistful raindrop guitar notes.

The album could have been edited for length as the repetition and monotony in half the tracks are more off-putting than immersive. I sense that the artist was striving for something to absorb the listener’s attention completely and, since repetition has (too often) been the standard way of mesmerising listeners and opening up their consciousness, used minimal and repetitive music structures to try to achieve that trance result. If it weren’t for the bonus track, the album would be a dreary affair; as it is, there’s more depth to the music and the listener is led to think that there must be much, much more to this LaS act than meets the ear. I certainly think so. It’s too soon to tell with just this one recording whether LaS is rethinking the musical direction taken with this depressive black doom style or plans to plunge ahead farther into the thick dark clouds of melancholy and repetition.

Contact: Longing and SilenceSylvan Screams Analog,

Vestiges / Panopticon split: two portrayals of epic black metal grandness

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Vestiges / Panopticon, self-titled, The Flenser, LP (2013)

The phenomenon of split recordings where two or more acts in the same or similar genres release an album together – often in the form of vinyl LPs with one band on the A-side and the other band on the B-side – is common in underground metal circles, especially black metal, and the USBM act Panopticon has done his fair share of such recordings with other bands. Here he (or rather A Lunn, the sole member) teams up with Vestiges, a black metal / post-rock fusion act hailing from Washington DC. After the attention he gained with the release of “Kentucky”, one might think Panopticon doesn’t need to be paired up with other, maybe lesser acts to promote his music but there’s also something to be said for encouraging other acts to come forward with their work by joining it to his and sharing the expenses of production and recording.

Vestiges lead off with two tracks titled “VII” and “VIII” which are intended as two episodes in an ongoing narrative that started with their first album “The Descent of Man” and continued with a split recording with Indonesian sludge metal band Ghaust. “VII” begins slowly and majestically with quiet but insistent guitar twang riff loops, deep bass drone and soft ambient background wash. Gradually adding percussion that itself speeds up as the track goes along, plus ghost voices and a raspy vocal, the track constantly piles up volume, energy and emotion. The music quickly goes into “VIII” which breaks into a mix of rapid-fire tremolo black metal guitar with sometimes choppy drumming and of clean-toned melodic post-rock guitar flow that may take in influences from blues and sludge doom metal. The mood on this second track is sorrowful and tragic as it alternates between the two musical extremes of black metal and doom, both with a post-rock sheen. As “VIII” continues, the music becomes ever more intense, working in dark space and the volume dynamics within to create a mighty edifice of tremolo guitar scaffolding, a thumping bass / percussion foundation and towers of tone and drone that reach skyward and beyond. The music ranges over a wide territory of emotion and atmosphere and there is plenty of epic drama in the two tracks.

After Vestiges’ contribution, A Lunn of Panopticon has his work cut out matching the other USBM band’s effort in creating immersive ambient BM opera. “A Letter” begins well with a dark bluesy sound touched with reverb and a bit of distortion that add extra urgency to an already fast track. This sounds quite a different band from the Panopticon I know from “Kentucky”. The vocals rage continuously throughout, wrapped up in a swift-moving maelstrom of music. The bass / drum rhythms are powerful and drive the song with a lot of force. The mood of the track is oddly uplifting and even triumphant for the most part but mixed with a streak of longing and sadness. “Eulogy” is a surprisingly happy little piece with a definite pop vibe, though the harsh singing in the far distance gives the song bite. The slight echo and washed-out ambience bring enough gloom to give the track a complicated emotional nature: it’s as if it wants to skip through summer fields but then reminds itself that life isn’t always sunshine and bright skies, and greyness and depression could be just moments away.

Panopticon concludes its side of the split with a cover of the Suicide Nation song “Collapse & Die”, a suitably cheery piece to end on. The song is played as a straight black metal song save for a folksy section in the middle which features mandolin and a sing-along chorus.

After hearing this split a few times, I’ve got to hand the greater glory to Panopticon who might not aspire to epic grandeur as Vestiges does but who can certainly handle atmosphere and sound in ways that suggest more emotional depth and complexity than that act has a right to possess. There certainly has been considerable development after “Kentucky” where the music could be sometimes monotonous. That’s no longer a problem here for Panopticon. Vestiges give the impression of laying out all their cards upfront and not having much in store left to give while Panopticon keeps dishing out one surprise after another right to the end. It’s a mighty tall order to share a split with Panopticon and Vestiges do their damnedest.

Contact: The Flenser

Valonielu: a steady ride into the black metal psychedelic universe

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Oranssi Pazuzu, Valonielu, Svart Records, CD SVR 226 (2013)

This Finnish five-piece is on its third journey through the psych black metal cosmos and reaching out to the very edges of the known universe and possibly beyond, as suggested by the album cover art which might (just might – I’m guessing wildly here) have been inspired by the style of famous 1960s comic-strip writer and artist Robert Crumb. “Valonielu” is a very confident work refining the style set by debut recording and album “Muukalainen Puhuu” which was a real humdinger for its enthusiastic and colourful if sometimes demented music. Our citrus-loving demons wisely don’t try to top that album in excess but nevertheless the ride here is as mind-blowing and expansive in its own way.

The opening track is a tough rocker dominated by Jun-His’s inhuman croaking vocals barking in deranged Finnish while droning synths and effects heighten the sense of unreality and the impression that chaos and other dreamworlds are just a breath away. The psychedelic space journey proper really launches with the next track “Tyhja Temppeli” (“The Empty Temple”) with a thumping percussion accompanied by squiggly guitar chords, flashes of guitar tone and synth wash. Tension and suspense created within the song builds up. The band opts for a more relaxed, spacey, trippy ambient approach with “Uraanisula” rather than continue with the near-hysterical escalation of foreboding generated on the preceding song but “Uraanisula” has its own sinister charms, especially in those instrumental passages where guitar solo competes with ascending and descending space gurgle noises. It’s a fairly long track but with a riff that more or less runs right through its length, the song is distinct with a strong focus and direction.

There’s time for a breather and a look around the alien vistas with “Reika Maisemassa” (“A Hole in the Landscape”), a trippy little instrumental with tribal-sounding drumming and a sense of wonder and awe. The difficult second half of the album – this is where filler is most likely to be found – is negotiated well before “Ympyra On Viiva Tomussa” (“A Circle Is A Line In The Dust”), a monster track of atmospheric trance immersion, blackened rock-out glory and mind-blowing consciousness-altering space psychedelia, takes us on the final lap around the edges of the cosmos, always on the verge of falling right off and over into another (and perhaps more malevolent) universe. A war to dominate our minds is waged between a battery of tremolo guitars and death rays of while Jun-His sings over the battle. The sound is evil as though the forces of darkness are winning and the spacecraft carrying us listeners is doomed to fall into black void forever.

What makes this blackened psychedelic trance record stand out is a calculated attitude that drips with evil intent; the voyage to the stars and far beyond is a one-way journey into a cosmos that is indifferent and maybe even antagonistic and hostile towards those humans who dare to forget their place at the bottom of the cosmic hierarchy and venture out from their Earth prison. The album’s energy and focus are directed towards dropping us all into emptiness: the answer to humankind’s quest for meaning to life. As cosmic jokes go, this is devastating and “Valonielu” might serve as a warning to us all about human hubris. Whereas on the band’s first album, interstellar travel was fun, now on this trip the fun has been replaced by uncertainty and foreboding that we might be in for an unpleasant shock.

While the first half of the album is a tease with songs going off on different tangents from previous tracks, the second half pulls the strands together and from then on the ultimate aim is imminent. Early tracks can stand alone as potential singles (due to one riff or melody dominating throughout) which might explain why as a group they don’t seem unified and a bit of momentum is lost from one track to the next. The musicians keep monotony at bay with synthesiser melodies, atmospheric wash and effects which help give songs their distinct ambience and identities.

The whole recording works like a horror sci-fi movie in sound: all that’s needed are the visual backgrounds and maybe some stills of actors, and we’ve got ourselves a complete package.

Contact: Svart Records

Wargthron (Demo 1): channelling the spirit of primitive raw kvlt black metal

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Wargthron, Demo 1, Sylvan Screams Analog, cassette SSA018 (2014)

Channelling that good ol’ primitive super-raw kvlt black metal vibe here is a mysterious horde (of maybe one guy? or a couple?) hailing from the wintry ice-scapes of … Atlanta, Georgia, in the southeastern subtropical realms of the US. We-e-ell, I guess them folks down there experience a real light dusting of overnight winter snow in mebbe a hunnerd years. Thrumming steamy BM super-hornet guitars, barely-there percussion and deeply buried rasping ghost vokills along with monotonous rhythms and the most skeletal of riffs and melodies recall the early years of the French Black Legions or Norwegian BM legend Ildjarn on this debut offering from Wargthron.

The recording divides into two parts and repeats on the B-side of the cassette (so you never have to rewind it if you prefer one part over another). “An Ancient Fortress of Blood” – how kvlt is that?! – is a slowly menacing shadow creature, grimmmer than grimm, glacial yet unrelenting in pace, the percussion counting down to that moment when ice tendrils, making their steady and stealthy way, penetrate into the deepest parts of the listener’s brain and freeze it forever. The blood runs cold, the heart stops beating, skin turns an icy-blue colour and anyone foolish enough to touch the victim might suffer severe frost-bite in the finger/s that make contact. The music becomes more hellish and unbearable as it creeps up on you: guitars slash away repeatedly, demons roar and gloat in anticipation of possessing yet another human soul, and the atmosphere is so overpowering it leaps into another dimension to continue the torture.

“Bless the Heavens with Darkness” turns up the pace and intensity early on but ends up mixing the faster parts with slower music that might almost sound like a continuation of the first track. The guitars lollop faster and at a more shrill tone but the steaming buzz texture and dark murk are still present. The malevolent monster voices growl and roar continuously.

According to the sleeve notes, the songs were recorded in “utter darkness under shadow of the dead moon” on Christmas Eve in 2013 which might explain their repetitive nature: obviously if you can’t see what you’re playing, it’s best not to stray too far from the most essential chords, rhythms and beats in case you want to return to them but have forgotten the correct fingering positions. The Wargthron man definitely was not expecting or wanting any toys, games or the latest version of Grand Theft Auto from Santa Claus; this music would frighten the reindeer so much they’d bolt right out of the solar system and the fat guy in the red suit would be lost among the galaxies forever. The atmosphere reeks of ancient and evil corruption, the black void from which Wargthron appears and then disappears into comes across as infinite and gravid with deep hostility towards humanity and intent to wipe out this upstart anthropoid species forever. The music hums with a deep and intense power and this force, hungry and brimming with deep hatred, leaves a lasting impression in the imagination.

There’s only a very limited print run of 44 copies and I already have No 43 so you have to be really fast to get the last copy!

Contact: Sylvan Screams Analog

No Stars, Only Full Dark: a self-assured release of black metal fusion

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Windbruch, No Stars, Only Full Dark, Canada, Hypnotic Dirge Records, CD HDR-037 (2014)

On first hearing this album, the second by Russian one-man band Windbruch, hailing from Nizhnevartovsk in the Khanty-Mansi region in western Siberia, I get an impression of  raw and sometimes angry music, ragged and sharp in tone with a full bass backing, shaped into actual songs edged with delicate ambient sounds and tones that add touches of ice coldness.

Lone Windbruch member Iluzii Optice brings skill and imagination to craft an album of self-contained and clearly defined songs that feature as much cold space-ambient synth, field recordings of nature and what might be termed “soundtrack music” as they do raw suicidal black metal. The path “No Stars …” takes might not sound different for the most part from what other one-man or two-men BM projects have done but it’s perhaps ideal at this early stage in his career for IO to get the balance between a more commercial style of BM rock pop and his more abstract experimental tendencies right, and to gain the support of a loyal fan-base, before he starts stretching the formula to his own ends.

The album begins strongly with “No More Entry, No More Exit” (taken together, the track titles suggest an arc of being enticed by the city, ending up being trapped there, reaching one’s nadir and experiencing a crisis) which is actually the second track, the first being an extended introduction. The music is robust and hard-hitting; as the album progresses, more ambience, especially at the start and end of each track, and melodic keyboard are brought in, and the album becomes more post-BM in style. Vocals, where they appear, are upfront in the music and are deep and gravelly, almost death-metal in style. The tension builds up through each track and flows into the next; ambient passages relieve some but not all of the tension so the suspense and momentum are still present.

Later tracks like “A City on Fire” and “Only Full Dark” are ponderous and include cold, forlorn space-ambient melodies and spoken-voice recordings. There is a definite urban-blues / post-rock feel which might seem surprising for a Russian BM band, especially one so far away from Europe and North America. The latter track throws away actual music and becomes entirely experimental in most of its second half; its reliance on near-inaudible drone rumble beneath a Russian-language radio monologue is daring. “Neswa-Pawuk” has a dreamy shoegazer atmosphere, a bit like a harder version of Alcest. From this moment on, the album has a sunnier and more positive outlook even if its central protagonist is still stuck in a grim urban environment.

The album is very self-assured and demonstrates confidence in its combination of BM / ambient / post-rock. Most songs are well-defined with some allowance for experimentation. There is something to please most people here.

Contact: Hypnotic Dirge Records

Lake of Solace: black metal and rock meet Chinese pop culture influences

Deep Mountains Lake of Solace

Deep Mountains, Lake of Solace, Pest Productions, Digipak CD PEST046 (2014)

Deep Mountains is a Chinese black metal band and “Lake of Solace” is the musicians’ first full-length release (after an EP released in 2010). The band’s existence and the presence of other Chinese black metal bands in a small scene are testament to the spread of the music across the world since its emergence in Norway 30 years ago: in spite of being ignored or avoided by the commercial music industry, black metal can truly stake a claim to being an international music phenomenon.

The music mixes elements of epic melodic post-BM and what might have been called blues and hard rock in decades past. It’s almost as if Deep Mountains are compressing the history of rock and metal, stretching right back to the 1960s almost, into one package for the benefit of their audience. Black metal is just one of several influences that add flavour to the overall mix: it adds toughness and a sharp steely edge to the music and the raspy BM vocal brings harshness and aggression. The songs tend to flow into one another with barely audible breaks. An early track, “Wind and Stellar”, combines typical BM tremolo noise guitar and spidery BM voice with passages of lilting melancholy acoustic guitar music, desert-desolate lead guitar solo yodel and clean-voiced singing with some Chinese melody structures.

The guys do not forget that they are playing to an audience eager for foreign Western cultural fads: “Detachment” includes English-language spoken-word recordings about rebelling against being dumbed down and maintaining personal integrity and honour, and the music features pop-friendly riffing and melodies and some very pretty moments of introspective ambient post-BM guitar tremolo tremble. To Western ears, having to concentrate on the music rather than the lyrics (I can’t read Chinese), the song can seem very ordinary, almost as if a couple of musicians were sleep-walking through their parts.

The second half of the album, consisting of four songs, seems to be a unit in itself. “Lake of Solace (Part 1)” is a meandering, mostly acoustic-guitar instrumental with birdsong and other nature-themed field recordings: very pretty and pleasant to hear but at over 7 minutes in length, it’s too long and needs pruning here and there as there’s not a lot done in 7 minutes that couldn’t be squinched into 3 or 4 minutes. The second part is more bearable as it includes BM vocals and guitar-work but again there are long sections where the music seems to lose focus and dog-paddles aimlessly, and near the end the song descends into sappy syrupy music territory. “The Ballad of Nai River” seems to be an adaptation of a traditional Chinese song as the female vocal follows a Chinese melody and the only contemporary aspect is the acoustic guitar backing and the field recording of water drops.

For me the album doesn’t have much BM teeth and the band’s style is now better described as a rock and blues mix with some BM influence. The latter part of the recording emphasises more melodic and clear-toned music. While the album isn’t bad, it could certainly be improved with some editing for length on most songs. In the later sections of the recording, a bland quality is creeping in. I earnestly hope this isn’t a sign of DM bowing to pressure to satisfy the faddish demands of their home audiences.

Contact: Pest Productions

Heen Yadhar Al Ghasq: a surreal journey through black metal / Middle Eastern music fusion

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Al Namrood, Heen Yadhar Al Ghasq, Shaytan Productions, Qayamat-009 (CD) / Qayamat-010 (vinyl) (2014)

You’d think living in the heartland of fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam would deter most people from forming anything other than short-lived solo online bedroom black metal projects. Yet here’s a Saudi band that has already released several recordings including four albums. Al Namrood is the band’s name and the album under review, the trio’s fourth, came out early in 2014, demonstrating that this project is alive and certainly kicking!. And kicking – the percussion, that is – is what they do best!

The band’s style is a mix of crunchy melodic black metal, maybe some death metal / thrash influences and native Arab / Oriental musical styles and instrumentation. Generally the beats and rhythms are provided by Western instruments including a drum machine and those instruments that take the place of lead guitar tend to be native Arabian ones. Even the main melodies are of native Arab derivation and the band also employs chords and melodic or riff motifs with quarter-tones that lend a demented air to the general proceedings. Opening track “Estalahat al Harb” is a fine instrumental demonstration of this East-West fusion and its air of surreal, slightly chaotic confusion prepares listeners for what’s to come.

The sound isn’t as crisp as it could be to show off the richness of the sonic layers inherent in the music – I’d love to hear some of the jewelled tones of the oud and more of that resonant hand-drumming – but given the difficult conditions Al Namrood is performing under, the fact that this music even exists is a wonder so some technical imperfections in the recording are to be expected. What the musicians might lack in technical finesse, they more than compensate with energy, enthusiasm (maybe a little too much so: in some songs, the percussion is in danger of being punched right through), the most deliriously demented cartoon melodies and a choir of bloodcurdling guttural voices fighting for space in front of the mikes. The sense of humour these guys have is infectious and boisterous.

Some of the more memorable tracks include the brain-destroying, mind-melting “Youm Yakram al Jaban” and the flowing if more chaotic “Bat Al Thaar Nar Muheja”. “Um Al Qashaam” features the most thunderous beats and blast-beats along with almost laughably cartoony deranged quarter-tone melodies. Each succeeding song is crazier than the one before and I just wonder where and how the guys find the inspiration to think up the most bat-shit insane tunes and rhythms as each song wipes my brain clean of everything it thought it knew. I’m sure the musicians themselves can see the humour present in mashing together the most brutal metal rhythms and beats and Oriental tunes. For their part, Western listeners can experience something of the surrealism that folks in the Middle East have to live with, in societies at once ultra-modern and wealthy, yet still wrestling with an oppressive medieval political culture and the instability in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria.

As it progresses, the madness and the histrionics escalate further and the music threatens to drown under the sheer thunder and the almost-buffoonish melodies, rhythms and beats. Perhaps that chaos is part of what Al Namrood guys intend to say: that they live in an absurd world of unlikely pairings and polarities, and the only way to make sense of it all is to reflect some of that madness back at it.

The journey through the album is very exhausting and I’m not sure that I’d want to repeat it over and over. Maybe I’ll visit once or twice a year. I’d certainly recommend though that everyone who thinks they’re broad-minded about music, and music from the Middle East in particular, should listen to this album at least once.

Contact: Shaytan Productions

ION (self-titled): awe-inspiring and soaring post-black metal psychedelic transcendence

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ION, self-titled, independent release on CD (2014)

At the time of writing this review, I knew very little about ION apart from the fact that this trio is based in San Francisco and that this self-titled album is the band’s debut recording. The musicians’ days of being obscure may soon end if this album becomes better known. With each passing day, that happy state becomes all the more likely as “ION” is a soaring example of post-black metal psychedelic transcendence.

That the music is intended to be a totally immersive experience is apparent from the way the five tracks are linked together to form one over-arching work that encompasses many contradictions, dualities and polarities in musical structure, atmosphere and sound. Bursts of blast-beat aggression chaos give way to wide expanses of space interrupted only by squiggles of tone and echo background wash. Starkly sorrowful melodic riffs ebb and flow like waves upon a beach before dissolving into seas of buzzing guitar noise and frantic percussion. In short, the ION musicians range far and wide exploring their musical territory – and what a vast and varied territory that is, taking in wide plains of ambience, hills of frenzied tremolo guitar chord squiggle, chunky melody and rhythm mountain ranges and blast-beat torrents.

As the music progresses, the contrasts become ever greater: the loudest, angriest hyper-blasting black metal can calm and reduce right down to the softest acoustic-guitar twang, at times inaudible save only for reverb effects. Tones and effects may be suspended in a murky space, their connection to one another uncertain and occurring randomly, until with effort a melody may form as if from spontaneous generation from sound fragments. On occasions the music can be very pretty and shapely but this is not shoegazer post-BM: its ambitions are much grander and the path it must take tends towards high and low extremes in emotion and atmosphere.

Interstellar space ambience (“Embers”) proves to be no barrier to ION’s musical quest and aspirations; listeners may be confronted with the immense nature of the sonic universe looming in their heads and their own place within it. The music is at its most psychedelic, abstract, improvised and disorienting in later parts of the album where we are thrust into deep inner (or outer) space. As the space trip nears its destination, the guys exert themselves heroically to deliver an exhilarating and dramatic summation of all that’s gone before. The one thing that’s a little bit lacking here is a very thunderous percussion back-up as the drums at this point are a bit thin and tinny, and the guys have to rely on chunky guitar barrage and UFO lift-off and landing effects to make their way through the climax.

Fittingly for such an awe-inspiring musical landscape, there are no fewer than two lots of vocals, one typically BM-raspy and the other a deeper guttural death metal vocal. At this point in the band’s history, I am not sure what the lyrics of three tracks are intended to refer to and listeners are at liberty to interpret them as they wish: they hint at some dissolution of an individual’s material state to reveal that which is most essential about that person and whether s/he ascends to a higher plane of existence or something much lower, darker and baser.

The band that most often comes to mind for me when I hear this music is the UK-based Fen, especially in ION’s sound when the guys are at their most melodic and melancholy. Other bands that might be referenced as points of comparison include Altar of Plagues (their White Tomb phase), Wolves in the Throne Room for passion and drama, and other North American BM bands like Ash Borer, Fell Voices, Panopticon and Skagos who deliver strong BM with ambient elements and mystical, shamanistic themes or social messages. A non-BM band that springs to mind is Samsara Blues Experiment which engages in similar psychedelic space metal head trips but ION far out-strips that band for risk-taking. Fans of all these bands should listen to ION’s debut if they can get copies. At this time of writing, the album was self-released but Aquarius Records in San Francisco may still have some copies.

Contact: Aquarius Records, ION

Darkspace I: setting the controls aiming for the heart of the universe – and finding sheer dark space

DARKSPACEI

Darkspace, Darkspace I, Haunter of the Dark, CD001 (2003)

Finally I’ve been able to hear the first album in Darkspace’s trilogy of cold immersive space-ambient BM albums, mainly for the sake of completion. In comparison with the other Darkspace albums, this first set sticks closely to militaristic black metal, delivered a little too efficiently in the manner of machines inhabited and driven by an insane and malevolent spirit. That’s meant to be a compliment to the Darkspace trio of musicians themselves. All three recordings are inspired and powered by a vision of space and the cosmos as essentially indifferent, and maybe even hostile, to the existence of humanity; the message is that we are on our own and if we are to continue to exist, we must do so without help from external powers. A supreme God will not save us because such an entity does not and has never existed.

The beast is born in utter black cavernous emptiness amid shifting, groaning echoes, sighing whispers and cries of lost spirits. Suddenly the music jets off into the high atmosphere, all bristling noise and crunching jagged guitar battery riffs, eerie background synthesiser tones and a cacophony of gabbling demon voices caught up within the tight maelstrom. In the second track there is a sample of dialogue from the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey” in which the computer HAL is interviewed by the BBC and states that it looks forward to working with humans. As the track progresses, the music speeds up to a frenzied and extreme level, the screaming grows more demented, drums and cymbals are pounding away, and the synths sigh on as if in a frozen catatonic state.

The musicians concentrate in the main on building up an overwhelming, enveloping structure that sweeps up listeners and carries them aloft on an interstellar journey between their ears. You can’t help but be absorbed by it all. The evil and deranged atmosphere completely swamps you. Within the music, hideous beings converse and plot the course of the spaceship careening through the cosmos at multiple times the speed of light. One mistake, the ship lurches in another direction and the monsters scream and howl their lungs inside out and back gain. Lead guitar hollers away in a wormhole and drums bang on in a non-stop frenzy.

Admittedly the music is not varied and tends towards the obsessive and extreme in its single-minded focus. That’s the whole point of the recording: its very derangement and seeming lack of anything resembling human nature or anything organic mean that there is no concept of limitation where the music is concerned. Whatever direction is set for it, it continues relentlessly down that track. Everything takes place in a nihilistic universe; concepts of good and evil are neither here nor there. You’re not asked to love the music but you have to admire it anyway for its pure nature, steeped in what we would consider evil and malevolent.

It’s only in Track 1.6 that we get the first hints that the music might be slowing down just a little and a certain despair, a moment of bleak desolation, appears beneath the layers of compulsively grinding guitar texture. But these hints lead nowhere as the maelstrom moves with a force even it can’t control. On and on it goes, and even when the album appears to wind down and the music fades away, there’s still a sense of a never-ending journey into infinity and beyond.

Nevertheless whether this journey ever has an end or not, it is a journey worth taking for those brave enough to question the nature of the universe in which we live and who want to know more beyond what they’ve been taught to believe and found wanting.

Contact: Haunter of the Dark