I like the beats and I like the yelling: Ordo Cultum Serpentis, Szary Wilk, Druadan Forest/Old Sorcery

Ordo Cultum Serpentis: Derej Najash (2021)

An extreme metal album with lavish ambient interludes is a fairly common thing. But what if someone came along and flipped this on its head? Why not write dark ambient music with the occasional foray into the metallic territory? As banal as such an endeavour sounds, there are many reasons why this has not occurred; everything from the scales of history being favourably tipped towards metal’s enduring popularity, to the blunt pragmatic facts of recording, and that it takes a lot more time to set up the equipment required to render a decent sounding piece of metal music, meaning that metal is unlikely to be treated as an afterthought on any underground endeavour in this area.

It may be premature to say that this the debut EP from Ordo Cultum Serpentis is the beginnings of a fundamental shifting of priorities at the borders of extreme metal, but there is something to this release that stands out in the sphere of blackened and funeral doom metal. This new duo, whose clientele are split between South Korea and Mexico respectively, have a unique if tentative offering to make, one yet to be brought to fruition as things stand however. Their debut EP, ‘Derej Najash’ is made up of two lengthy tracks, each offering a mirror image of the other; it is for all intents and purposes a new take on this particular experimental border of metal.

Maybe a more accurate description would be that it suggests a reorientation of compositional priorities. The backdrop to the music is minimal dark ambient, with distant groans and chants rising out of the empty gloom at semi-regular intervals; imagine Lustmord after a few too many ales. Out of this foundation arises dirty, blackened doom metal crafted from a meaty guitar tone, the simplest drumbeats possible, and distorted guttural vocals drenched in reverb. But these common elements are so minimal, so basic, that it’s as if zero effort went into their composition. But taken as a whole, the metallic elements appear as merely incidental to the real story that this EP wants to expand upon, which is dark ambient music.

The guitars and drums are utilised as merely another dimension of texture to the tense, empty soundscapes that make up the meat of ‘Derej Najash’. Of course, there are plenty of drone and peripheral black metal artists that have taken a similar approach. But there is something to the ridiculous simplicity of the doom metal passages found here that demands an ear. There are vestigial elements of musical conventions still present; a tempo, a riff, a transition. But in positioning itself as familiar-music-“adjacent”, it comes over as far more unsettling than guitar-music-as-ambience in its final form. Ordo Cultum Serpentis may not be sounding the revolution just yet. But there is certainly something in this subtle concoction that warrants expansion.

Szary Wilk: Wrath (2021)

The debut LP from this Polish outfit feels like a cry for a simpler time. A time when black metal was an experiment in frugality, both in terms of the raw sound that greets our ear on hitting play and the background philosophy. The opening track ‘Mortal’ starkly sets out this stall. It operates like an eight-minute-long finale. Mournful descending chord progressions with soaring harmonies, set to a marching tempo, with very little deviation in mood or technique; all amounts to a long farewell. With only the most minor adjustments to the music’s basic components throughout the album, that is what ‘Wrath’ comes across as taken in its entirety. A long, slow goodbye to the black metal that was as an isolated unit of culture, now that its engine room has been stripped and sold for parts by the relentless machine of the culture industry.

With that in mind there’s very little to say musically about ‘Wrath’. The production is raw, but carries plenty of clarity by black metal standards. The guitars are cold and harsh for sure, but the tone is nuanced enough to articulate the layered harmonies that most of these tracks rely on to obtain any longevity in the absence of overt musicality. Drums plod along with either simple marching tempos or basic blast-beats. They seem to subscribe to the Fenriz school of thought on the role of drums win black metal: “they just have to be there”. Vocals are harsh and ghoulish in the manner of early Graveland. In a different setting they would strike one as almost comical perhaps. But set to these cathartic riffs endlessly reaching for a cadence of finality, the strained rasping narration takes on an interesting significance.

It should be noted that as far as black metal that attempts to express a sense of pathos and melancholy, Szary Wilk certainly know what they’re doing. The simple, descending chord progressions are forever working to a final release that is never quite reached. There are moments when a more aggressive tone is struck, as with the track ‘Wilczy Taniec’, which attempts a more stirring, heroic posture. But one gets the sense that these deviations were strung together for the sake of contrasting with the laments that sandwich it rather than as an end in itself.

In this sense Szary Wilk remind me of Ireland’s Primordial: they’re both very good at doing one thing, but can never quite carry their ideas beyond a static moment. It certainly fits the bill if you are seeking a midwife for that feeling of loss that operates on a more spiritual or collective level. And black metal throughout the years has always been uniquely situated to convey this intangible emotion on a profound and sometimes overwhelming level. But the best of black metal tends not to stick with this for an entire LP. I’d liken it to an elongated sneeze. It certainly brings a sense of relief, but relief without contrast loses all meaning.

Druadan Forest/Old Sorcery: Split (2021)

Werewolf Records offer a balanced split from two artists well versed in the ways of epic and symphonic black metal in the tradition of Summoning. This peripheral territory to metal finds greater legitimacy in the tender craftsmanship of Druadan Forest and Old Sorcery; both offering elegantly minimal soundscapes that trade in enough harmonic character and melodic development to warrant existence for its own sake beyond the remit of a mere soundtrack. And both – in limiting themselves to epic ambient – prove to be complementary yet clearly distinct from one another.

Druadan Forest opens this ceremony with two lengthy tracks of heroic ambient music. The style is in keeping with their Summoning adjacent black metal works, although with a greater degree of fluidity and motion worked throughout each piece. The first track ‘Forever Wandering Towards the Shadowgate’ pivots on a simple central theme that morphs into a classical fantasy tone with the addition of gentle harpsichord, echoey, barely audible narration, and church organ tones. ‘Pale Sorcery of the Endless Moon’ follows by immediately taking a darker tone, with a slow burn intro that gradually solidifies into the triumphant with earthy synth tones giving way to soaring strings. All this gives the finished whole a much-needed sense of motion and journey.   

Whether taken as a template for music of greater complexity to be placed upon, or as a stark soundtrack to fantasy literature, the fact that Druadan Forest take a longform approach to composition allows V-Khaozm to develop ideas to complexity over an extended period. These are not just hints and suggestions at music yet to be realised but fully fleshed out minimalist compositions in their own right. They follow an internally logical progression, one that leaves open the possibility of greater complexity, but certainly loses nothing from simply being, with no further curator’s notes required to enjoy.

Old Sorcery take a busier approach. They also offer two lengthy tracks of fantasy based epic ambient, but the tracks themselves work more like groups of ideas collected together under one loosely connected concept. The mood swings rapidly from the dark and immersive to that of innocence and joy. The track ‘Statuesque Souls Locked in a Glowing Emerald’ jumps between these competing forces in a constant push and pull that unfolds at a surprisingly rapid rate. Soft synth tones form the basis of each passage, using gentle arpeggios to signal a new transition. It may be beneficial to view this as an act in a play then, as opposed to a disjointed grouping of mirco-tracks. It flows intuitively. There is an overarching narrative that connects the whole together, but many themes and tones are touched upon as the piece progresses.

‘Of Dragon’s Blood’ strikes a bolder tone, and works as a positively dramatic finale to the whole EP as low synthetic brass tones give way to heavy strings and more echoey spoken word. The swirling introduction of greater dynamic range and melodic playfulness is a welcome respite from the repressed minimalism of the preceding music. Both forces working to fundamentally compliment the other through the tried and tested methods of contrast. Old Sorcery make use of more instrumentation in the form of piano, percussive synth tones, and traditional strings, making full use of the inherently different qualities offered by a diverse array of timbres.

Old Sorcery come across as more at home in their chosen subject matter; being more playful and willing to spread their musical wings without coming across as overtly cheesy. But there is something compelling about the understated and obscure sonic journeys that Druadan Forest take us on that perfectly lends itself to act as a balancing force and primer for Old Sorcery’s half of this EP.

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