Crown of Asteria, North, Red River Family Records, CD 025 (2013)
Crown of Asteria is a one-woman black metal project headed by one Meghan Hill that plays a mix of black metal, ambient and folk. “North” is CoA’s debut full-length instrumental meditation on nature and its wondrous, transcendental mysteries. This is a recording worth hearing in its entirety without regard for individual tracks: it’s a gorgeous work of atmosphere, acoustic folk and thrilling BM riffs and melodies.
After a brief introduction of nature-themed field recordings that transport us listeners in an instant to the CoA universe, we’re wrapped in shimmering keyboard / guitar tremolo drone wash. It’s as if we must undergo a ritual bath to cleanse us of the toxins of the urban world we left behind, so that we are ready to receive more of what CoA has in store.
“Through the Birch and beyond the Lakes” is perhaps the first real black metal track: it starts out with a shrill spiky tremolo guitar lead and has a dreamy, trance-like quality. Clear reverberating guitar-tone chords duet and perhaps duel with the black metal guitar background. There is a sunny feel that I usually associate with shoegazer BM and fans of that genre might be interested in checking out this album. The track develops into something more crunchy and hard-edged and the introduction of percussion adds a sharp crispy edge. A lead guitar solo is a late crowning glory for this piece.
The title track gets off to a slightly slow start but makes up for lost ground quickly with warm shimmery guitar noise textures and a pounding percussion beat that is all but swamped by the guitar work-outs. Licks are thrown out here and there. The real highlight of the track comes with an extended passage of folk acoustic guitar melody, accompanied by a faint but interesting rhythm in parts. The music is soft and has a strong hypnotic effect; the mood is at once dreamy, a bit lonely and melancholy, naively hopeful perhaps and uplifting overall. The transition from quiet and soft folk ambient back to assertive BM is gradual but once this is complete, the music has an exhilarating, triumphant attitude. This is one of the most intense and exciting moments I’ve experienced in listening to BM. CoA lets the moment linger for listeners to savour to the full.
Four minutes of mostly monotonous strumming acoustic guitar with a late melody follow: “Wildflowers” is a pleasant pause for breath but for what it does, it’s too long and could have been slimmed down to 2 – 3 minutes. Final track “These Stars hang from the Boughs of Firs” is a great finale, though again there are parts that are just a bit too long and repetitive. Admittedly the percussion throughout this album isn’t great but on this track its deficiencies are amplified: the drumming is too soft and needs to be a bit more upfront in the mix with a strong thumping sound. On the other hand the acoustic guitar melody loop is a welcome warm contrast to the generally grim black metal.
Without a doubt this is one of the most beautifully atmospheric BM recordings I’ve had the privilege to hear, a tremendously immersive musical experience with deep sincere emotion. The first half of the album has a slight edge over the rest, being more attentive to creating a definite atmosphere of beauty and wonder, inspired by the artist’s contact with her woodland surroundings. The later half of the album has rather less emphasis on maintaining atmosphere; maybe the work seems that way because there’s much more acoustic music and how it just absorbs Hill’s attention (and ours) to the full, but some of the early lushness seems to disappear. The production is crisp but not too clear: it allows a dream state, in which meditation and inner journeys of exploration become easy, to dominate.
The drumming is the main weakness here – it’s soft when perhaps it should be loud, hard and energetic. There are long passages on this record that cope very well without any drums and perhaps an entire album done only with guitars and atmospheric effects is something CoA should try.
The album is a rich audio experience of folk, ambient and black metal elements and natural field recordings, all the more so because the music is not heavily layered: by that, I mean there are no strata of guitar textures overlaid with excessive effects, Nadja-style, yet what few ambient effects CoA deploys seem to be used to their utmost, with all the nuances of meaning they bring to the recording. Pure-toned music is crisp and brimming with feeling and context. This debut album deserves to be better known and in time might be considered a classic of its kind.