As the snow falls and the temperature drops it feels like a natural response to lay buried, hiding away from the pain that was 2016 and numbing the days away with the cold buzzing embrace of black metal. But in 2017 what is black metal? I can’t think of another genre that ignites the same level of ire over its definition, tenants, and practitioners. To corpsepaint, or not to corpsepaint? That is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of “KVLT” fanboys, or to take arms against a sea of Norwegian imitators, and by opposing, end them.
Thankfully we have Black Anvil to ring in the new year with As Was, another step in their continuous evolution and the next phase in their mission to broaden the definition of black metal and take arms against that same sea of metal oppression.
Everyone has touchstones. Bands and albums that signal a shift in the road we travel on our musical journey. Black Anvil’s Triumvirate was one of those for me. My black metal journey started with the heavily symphonic sounds of Emperor and Cradle of Filth, then took a step back in time to devour Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem…digging further into the noise to find the riffs and ideas that made the genre take form. When it was time to move again and find where things lay in the modern era, Triumvirate was one of the first albums I glommed onto. Mixed in with the more traditional elements of black metal was an intense focus on structure, technicality and progression that owed more to death, thrash and post-metal than the closer relatives of traditional black metal. This focus on musical exploration would only heighten on 2014’s excellent Hail Death, which added occasional clean vocals, even tighter riffs and rhythms, and a cleaner thematic structure to the whole album that alienated some listeners but put me completely on their wavelength, making it one of my Top 10 metal albums that year.
As Was pushes the band even further into the musical ideas explored on Hail Death, and it makes for one of the first essential metal releases of 2017. Opener “On Forgotten Ways” is the epic entryway, clocking in at over eight minutes and immediately setting a mid-pace stomp that gets you thrashing like an idiot. There’s a complexity in the song craft at work that’s subtle — you can easily just mosh and move as the song seamlessly moves through different moods — but a second (and third, and fourth…it’s that good) listen reveals smaller intricacies that elevate everything, whether it’s the abrupt shifts in styles, the incredible variety of the vocal performances, or the overall clarity in the production this is a massive statement to put right up front:
Black Anvil are not here to play what you want. They’re here to play what they want.
And thank the Gods of Metal for it, because As Was is filled with the earmarks that have served to identify the growth and precision the band have always brought to the table. The title track at times veers (beautifully) into an almost hard rock vibe, the clean vocals right up front and gorgeously layered into the riffs. It’s just another indicator of how ridiculously great the album sounds, whether it’s on more measured songs like the title track or the interlude “The Way of All Flesh” or on more full-barrel burners like “Nothing.” Between the two lay my favorite aspects of Black Anvil, and the progressive strains that infect “As An Elder Learned Anew” and “Two Keys: Here’s the Lock” show a potential future direction and emphasis for a band never content to repeat themsevles.
As the cold and snow begin to lay their claim on the start of the new year, black metal has always seemed like the go-to genre. But over the last ten years Black Anvil has continually redefined what it means to play and be inspired by black metal, and As Was is a fantastic touchstone for where the genre can do if left to grow unfettered by those who would seek to pigeonhole and restrict music to a few base components. Black Anvil has always been more than that, and let’s hope As Was points the way to another monstrous year in metal.