For all the writing and argumentation Prozak produced justifying the music he loved and the music he hated, the notion that if the music is that good it should speak for itself never really entered his head, or was never articulated. To contradict this now I’m going to drop some names and descriptions for a few of the best currently working within extreme metal.The intention here is to point to artists from the 2000s onwards that offer new and interesting directions for extreme metal, fashioning new creative space for the form to move forward into the decades to come. In no particular order and nowhere near comprehensive.
Nevermind guitar tone, never mind the amount of reverb on the snare, the addition of synth leads, the use of non-traditional percussion, the power of the vocalist, forget all that, because all that matters in ANUS world is brute composition, everything else is a bonus but not necessary, in fact more often a detriment. In theory you could listen to the repetitively mesmerizing three note riffs of Burzum or the dazzlingly complex jigsaw-riffs of Suffocation in eightbit, and it would still qualify as ‘approved’ music. Newcomers often get confused by the large majority of death metal albums, simply because thirty to forty minutes of the same unchanging guitar tone, punctuated by distorted vocals, amounts to a monotonous affair for the listener. Which is why, without any intention to pretension, one must train the ear to riffcraft, how the riffs shape the music rather than a predetermined verse/chorus structure, and how often the guitars will determine rhythm, freeing the drummer from the burden of time keeper, offering them an opportunity to be more creative than conventional rock and pop would ever allow. This is the ANUS way in any case. Now, I can see the reasoning behind looking past the superficial to the music beneath, I can even see the appeal in boiling music down to its most basic components as a study in the mechanisms behind the composition and structure. However, don’t kid yourself that all the flourishes on top are not adding to the experience. Even the most universal thing in metal, the use of guitar distortion, changes the experience of listening to metal at the most profound level. Of course, at the opposite end is the complete lack of any musical architecture at all, reaching its conclusion in pathetically desperate attempts at profundity in projects such as Sunn0))).
Somewhere in the middle, an equilibrium can be salvaged, and I believe the Ruins of Beverast have found that Equilibirium. Starting out on more familiar territory for an act that calls itself black metal, with their third offering, ‘Foulest Semen of Sheltered Elite’ in 2009, they carved a new path. The style was more aligned to atmospheric death/doom metal than it was to black metal. Initially I was put off by this effort and the follow up ‘Blood Vaults: The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer’ (2013). Both are bloated in length, reaching over an hour and ten minutes apiece. For this reason, like a few bands on this list, it takes a few listens to appreciate the story that is being told from start to finish. There are long passages of tremolo strumming and blast beats, the bread and butter of black metal, but the more muscular guitar tone, guttural vocals, and heavier drums all serve to give this a very different sheen. They also serve to provide the desired impact during the long, slow forays into doom, with clean guitar creating the aforementioned space, along with haunting choral passages further invoking the theological despair the music often calls to mind. There are fewer riffs, each played for longer, but each and every one serves a purpose to the greater whole through the album’s breadth and depth, and each one is perfectly placed to tell its story.
Atmospheric doom metal is a tag at massive risk of collapsing into a snooze fest, but when done right, with the musical architecture in place, it can be a monolith to behold. Prozak would call the cavernous space in between the music a waste of time, but empty space is an underrated commodity in metal, and if done right, and placed well, it emphasises the drama of noise, and adds another rare commodity in extreme metal circles: dynamics. This music indeed stretches beyond the bounds of the subgenre partitions of black, doom, and death, to fall once again back into a certain stripe of extreme metal.
I feel a particular bias towards this band as they are from my home town of Leeds. From album to album they have undergone a deliberate evolution from their early depressive black metal debut, gradually introducing psychedelic and progressive metal elements. Their mammoth second offering ‘Opportunistic Thieves of Spring’(2010) was written along similar lines, although massively expanding on the ideas of the debut ‘The Corpse of Rebirth’(2008). Each track can take up to 10 minutes to unfold, following a pattern of slow depressive riffs, punctuated with mournful violins or keys, vocals revelling in Victorian melancholy, following the black metal tradition of high pitched and distorted screeches, but also more manic and forthright in the mix. This will be followed by a series of deliberate evolutions, with drums rolling and filling underneath, often relied on to signal an approaching climax, and then a moment of euphoria is reached, where that trance like tempo and ritualistic mood takes hold, something good black metal can so often achieve. On the first album, each song followed this pattern, on the second, the album as a whole follows this pattern, taking much longer to unfold.
Then came offering number three in 2012, ‘A Shadow Play for Yesterdays’, and the style is suddenly crisp and focused, there are more tracks that hit harder immediately without the five minutes of instrumental introductions. Riffs are used less sparingly, with more thrown at us with more key and tempo changes, but what can at first seem random and unfocused is always tied together into a compelling finale. The mood is less depressive, more energetic, but with the same sense of existentialist despair in the vocals and lyrics. There are flutes, violins, keyboards, acoustic guitars, and clean vocals, but all are wonderfully complimented by engagingly original black metal riffcraft. Those that take brevity as a virtue will be drawn more to this album, as it achieves just as much as its predecessors in information transmitted, but without the bulky length and slow, deliberate builds.
Then in 2014, ‘Beware the Sword You Cannot See’ dropped, and perfectly amalgamated the two competing methods of building an album. One half is a set of complimentary but standalone tracks, all wonderfully composed in their own right. They are all fast, punchy, and are prone to sudden shifts of mood without being too jarring. 19th Century existential paranoia permeates the lyrics, with black metal screeches giving way to spoken word passages over an ever expanding repertoire of instruments. The second half of this offering is a suite of tracks, that reaches a climax, and a mournful finale serenading the realisation of despair and loneliness that inhabits the collective psyche in the wake of the enlightenment, humanity encounters the true breadth of the universe for the first time. What can seem a random, choppy, over produced swamp of ideas at first listen quickly transforms once one grows accustomed to it and what AFOS are trying to achieve. A melting pot of instrumentation, tempo changes, spoken word and screams, in lesser hands this would be a random and unsatisfying mess, but here they are wonderfully crafted into something more than the sum of its parts. Not prone to gigging all that often, I highly recommend you see them given the chance.
If the phrase‘one man ambient black metal project’ is uttered, it tends to invoke the same temptation to snore as ‘acoustic singer songwriter’. Although Burzum is the model for most artists in the form, North America has taken up the mantel of ambient black metal and produced enough tedious, over indulgent, bland messes to have sullied the name of the genre almost beyond repair. Such condemnation of America’s famously confused relationship with black metal is usually followed by a declaration of Europe’s rising stars and consistent hitters, with more bands than solo projects, more musical imagination, more innovation, more spirit, and more intelligence than their North American counterparts, these facts remain true, but for now I’ll just assert them without justification because I want to talk about Midnight Odyssey, who are Australian.
If brevity is the soul of wit, then this prolific Australian one man project has committed sin after sin. The EPs and demos are the length of albums, the albums are longer than a meaty feature film, and the gaps between releases are longer than the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree. Where this differs from most other artists under the same banner however, is a compelling use of melody, chord progression, the music actually does something, unlike lesser artists that will explore distortion and dissonance layered with reverb without pushing the music beyond two or three chords over ten minutes. Where these artists simplify the music of Burzum down to its basic components with none of the overarching purpose to the pieces, Midnight Odyssey actually take more cues from the life affirming sonic adventures of Summoning.
Lush synthesisers pervade the music over a heavily reverbed snare drum, distant vocals that often break into clean sung passages of a melancholy nature, with guitars serving to add depth and texture rather than guiding the music itself. Because everything is awash with reverb, what on first listen can seem like atmospheric overkill which detracts from the music, actually serves to slow down the transitions from one build to the next, meaning the music is a slow deliberate evolution of moods and locations. In some people’s eyes this may not serve to justify the bloated length of these pieces, but given the cosmic nature of the music of Midnight Odyssey, I believe the length of these pieces adds to the magnitude of the themes explored.
I will concede that this may be more of an acquired taste than other artists on this list, given the daunting task before the listener, but to the willing sonic traveller interested in compelling ambient black metal that attempts to evoke feelings of a celestial nature, Midnight Odyssey deserves a chance.
Once again operating in that ambiguous sphere of extreme metal, equal parts grindcore, primitive death metal, and ritualistic black metal, Teitenblood do their utmost to sound as ugly as possible whilst still using chords and rhythm of sorts. They take their cues directly from the early Finnish of the 1990s such as Beherit, Impaled Nazarene, and the legendary Canadian outfit Blasphemy. Just as primitive as grindcore, these artists offered short punchy songs, aggressive and direct, but the rhythm section was rooted less in punk and more in death metal, ranging between machine gun blast beats and mid paced marching rhythms with over exaggerated fills, marking the progession from one riff to the next in such a way as to compensate for the deliberate simplicity of this music. Vocals are also atypical, neither high pitched black metal screech, or the death metal grunt employed by more metallic grindcore outfits. They certainly sound monstrous, serving to invoke the occult.
Teitenblood take this style one step further. Offering levels of extremity that almost bring this music to the point of ambient noise, but the word ambient calls to mind feelings of relaxation and contemplation that do not do justice to the urgency and aggression of this music. But so distant is this from any notion of rhythm and melody that it seems like the only fitting comparison. Ritual metal at its finest.
And before this becomes an exercise in self indulgence, here’s a few more if your playlists have run dry just as worthy of attention, some deathmetal.org approved, some not, it really doesn’t matter anymore:
Antaues: Grindcore enthused black metal with an obsession for aggression
Blut Aus Nord: Atmospheric black metal with nods to industrial rhythms and percussion
Condor: Colombian death/doom metal with a creative sense of melody and composition, plenty of nods to 1970s psychedelia thrown in for good measure
Darkspace: bleak atmospheric black metal with appeals to the vastness of space
Desecresy: Finnish atmospheric death metal, slow and crunchy
Nokturnal Mortum: the perfect fusion of folk, black metal, and progressive rock
Sammath: Energetic militaristic black metal
Skinflint: Heavy metal attempting to explore new creative space in the style
Vektor: Technical thrash metal, riddled with complexity, but never random
Wodensthrone: Atmospheric black metal rich with texture and composition, sadly now disbanded
Winterfylleth: Creative atmospheric black metal
Wrust: Infectiously groovy death metal
Zemial: A direct descendant of the primitve black metal of Bathory, now evolved into cosmically understated progressive thrashmetal