Zwart Vierkant: arty blasting BM / jazz / progressive rock fusion appealing to the head but not the heart

Grey Aura, Zwart Vierkant, United Kingdom, Onism Productions, ONISM006 CD digipak limited edition / vinyl limited edition (2021)

A tough and chaotic blast of BM / jazz / progressive rock fusion, “Zwart Vierkant”, the second album for Dutch atmospheric BM group Grey Aura, is actually linked to a novel De protodood in zwarte haren written by the band’s lead singer / guitarist Rube Wijlacker. The novel itself traces the path of a fictional painter whose obsession with Russian art movement Suprematism and the work of Kazimir Malevich (of “Black Square” painting fame) draws him deeper into a world of increasing abstraction away from traditional artistic concepts and the material plane. As such, you’d probably need to know the novel or at least be familiar with its themes, characters and maybe some of its settings to be able to appreciate this album to the full; for those not so inclined to read the novel and identify with the protagonist’s struggles, loves and temptations as he travels through Europe but just enjoy the album, for an extra little charge Grey Aura even offers a short book “Proto-Death: Essays and Lyrics for Grey Aura’s Zwart Vierkant”.

As you’d suspect with an album combining much experimentation with song structures along with the jazz improv, “Zwart Vierkant” is not easy listening and you’d need a few rounds at least to be familiar with its apparent cacophony. Opening track “Maria Segovia” suggests the hero / anti-hero artist’s journey begins in Spain with a sprinkle of liquid flamenco-styled acoustic guitar melody in the blackened whirlwind. Grey Aura’s sound is a little reminiscent of bands like France’s Deathspell Omega that rely on dissonant BM tremolo guitar chord structures, jazz and other prog-rock elements often jumping around on the same song, and there is a similar bleak atmosphere behind the songs. At least the songs themselves are not very long – the longest song is saved for last – and after a few hearings they’re actually less chaotic than they initially appear. While the music is intense and emotional, the singing anguished, and drama and power a-plenty can be found in the choppy and angular riffing and the blast-beat drumming, the general sound is not overpowering even when doom metal elements pop up here and there later in the album.

With songs building on one other, no one track really stands out for distinct musical motifs though piano melody, castanets and spoken voice samples can be picked out on “El Greco in Toledo” and “Parijs is een Portaal” goes overboard on symphonic drama mixed with melodic blues rock and even a little bit of cabaret. As the album continues, in keeping with its general narrative of its protagonist descending faster and further into his own hell, the last couple of tracks are the most texturally dense and emotionally intense works, with abrupt changes in pace, rhythm, mood and even genre within tracks.

While certainly an album commanding respect for its ambition and range of music styles covered, at the same time  “Zwart Vierkant” isn’t a work most people can warm to even after several listens. The narrative focus on artistic and intellectual movements that were esoteric even to most people ever 100 years ago to tell a story of struggle in a valley of sin and moral and existential uncertainty can and will leave potential fans feeling a bit alienated from the musical maelstrom. There is probably something to be said for including at least one or two songs with perhaps more traditional song-based black metal arrangements (with a bit less musical eclecticism) and a few melodic hooks into the album to help anchor listeners as they progress through the music. “Zwart Vierkant” can be appreciated on an intellectual level but as art appealing to the heart as well as the head, it’s much less successful and is likely to end up as the kind of coffee-table BM you put on display to impress your friends after you’ve dutifully given it a whirl a few times.