NokturnalMortum and The Ruins of Beverast both released an album this year. Beyond that there’s not much connection between the two outfits other than their status as masters of post 2000 European black metal.
The Ruins of Beverast have been releasing material fairly consistently both chronologically and qualitatively over the past few years. Starting with a form of black metal uniquely capable of calling to mind humanity’s helplessness in the face of theological and apocalyptic despair, despair vast swathes of the genre attempt to convey, but often fall short. More recently mastermind Alexander von Meilenwald, has moved his project into more death/doom territory. I believe this to be a welcome development, despite albums bloated in length and ambition, they remain almost entertaining whilst also being artistically engaging. A rarity for music that is hell bent on dragging itself out for as long as possible, unapologetic about the time it is taking to state its case. Many feel that the newer style is a self-indulgent, failing to provide the riffs and intrigue that albums well over an hour long would need to justify such lengths. Whilst I do not agree, I can sympathise with this opinion. Undiluted doom metal – when mistreated – is a uniquely boring affair, and without sufficient imagination it can infect other styles it is mixed into with the same dull brush. For The Ruins of Beverast to navigate these treacherous waters and still come out on top is an achievement in itself.
But with all that praise, I will concede that the previous two releases have suffered from lack of focus at times. There has been a marked difference between passages of quality and stimulation, and ones that meander and fail to retain the listener’s attention. So with the release of ‘Exuvia’ this year there was pressure to build on these releases and consolidate the style somewhat, or else completely reinvent the sound. Given that Meilanwald’s work thus far has been a slow deliberate progression through different takes on the form, the latter option was the less likely, despite 2016’s EP ‘Takitum Tootem’ giving the impression that something risky and new was on the cards.
Away with the violent shift in tone, away with a deliberate attempt at something new with each album, away with ‘progression’, and away with experimentation for the sake of it, most artists that attempt this fail in the most self-indulgent and irritating way imaginable. Exuvia is the perfect articulation of what Meilenwald has been trying to achieve on the previous two releases. The overall feel remains the same. The production is similar in its cavern spanning vastness. Many of the effects, synthesisers, and use of choral passages remain. Even the length is similar although it does not feel like it upon first and second listen. What is achieved with the same means is a story, a narrative arc to the album, the patience and attention span to pull off a work so vast that was sometimes lacking on previous efforts is present on Exuvia, Meilenwald never loses site of the bigger sonic picture he is trying to create here. Despite the doom laden texture of previous works, the transitions from fast to slow and slow to fast passages was at times jarring. Here that is not so. The noise flows and ebbs in a seamless tapestry of meditative noise, laden with chants, growls, and clean vocals.
I guess the point is that everything serves its purpose to the greater whole. The trying of new things is not done for its own sake; there is no self-indulgent experimentation more enjoyable for the musician than for the listener. There is no wacky Native American instrument shoe-horned in because it sounded cool. Everything is there for a reason.
Everything just said about Exuvia could be said and some in regards to Nokturnal Mortum’s 2009 offering ‘The Voice of Steel’. The community at large is in agreement regarding its status in the modern cannon of black metal. There have been many attempts to combine black metal with regional folk music of many stripes, and classic progressive rock, not least of which by Nokturnal Mortum’s prior releases. But it has always fallen short of what these disparate styles could achieve undiluted. With The Voice of Steel Nokturnal Mortum raised the bar of what extreme metal can achieve in such a way not seen since Burzum’s ‘Hviss Lyset Tar Oss’.
8 years on, with such praise heaped upon their shoulders, it could be assumed that the anticipation for the next release was unfair to say the least. However the fans are not stupid, nor are they unfair. They have seen The Phantom Menace. If anything, such a universally loved album as The Voice of Steel took the pressure off Nokturnal Mortum somewhat, as if it could not possibly be expected of any musician to recreate such a feat. Despite this, there was something of a buzz about this year’s release, ‘Verity’. A split with Graveland last year yielded mediocre results, but this could be attributed to the material maybe being castoffs from previous full lengths, half completed ideas cobbled together and released simply to remind people that NM were still a thing. The real energy would be spent on 2017’s Verity.
And what to say of Verity? For any other band at any other time it would be a triumph, a cornucopia of musical delights and ideas, always offering something new both in texture and tone. But the unfairness is the name of the game here. And it falls short of the impossible standards we will inevitably be reviewing this by, the strength of their previous work. By comparison Verity is unfocussed, occasionally monotonous, lacking variation in tempo, rhythm, intensity, and ideas. All the component parts that made The Voice of Steel are still there, but they are there all of the time, in equal measure throughout the album. What made The Voice of Steel so powerful was its variation, its impact through the power of contrast. But most importantly its focus and patience considering the wide variety of instruments and influences that it calls upon, the composition, the structure, the mood and the goal are never forgotten by musician and listener alike. By comparison Verity seems too eager to please; too keen on achieving an easy high and not losing it throughout the hour and a bit playing time, to the extent that we are left bloated, confused, and fed-up by the end. All the component parts are there, and there is much good music that I will enjoy for years to come, but the focus that makes The Voice of Steel and Exuvia sonic pillars of their time and place is lacking.
There is much to celebrate in both these works. And to some extent the fact that one is a hit and one is a miss is simply down to precedent. The Ruins of Beverast took their style and made it into something I always hoped and knew it could be. Nokturnal Mortum took their style and hesitated on where to take it and ended up taking it nowhere. In a much broader context, taking into account all their contemporaries as well, they both remain among the best extreme metal has to offer. The real shame is not to do with any contrast one wishes to draw between these albums, but more that few acts are following in their footsteps, taking their cues from random and jagged messes like Deathspell Omega, modern Enslaved or worse…North American black metal