In Dante’s Inferno, the second circle begins the proper punishment of Hell, a place where “no thing gleams.” It is reserved for those overcome with Lust, where carnal appetites hold sway over reason. In Nine Circles, it’s where we do shorter reviews of new (ish) albums that share a common theme.
In case it hasn’t been apparent in the (holy shit) six months since I started writing for Nine Circles, I love black metal. The scope and variety of tone it can encompass without losing that ineffable quality that qualifies it as “black metal” is amazing to me, and so today’s Second Circle turns its light on Vanum and Druid, two bands working on opposite ends of the spectrum yet still to these old and tinnitus-afflicted ears hewing to the cry of the black. So pancake on that corpsepaint and let’s dig in.
Considering the foundation that makes up Vanum (Ash Borer and Fell Voices) the biggest surprise coming into new EP Burning Arrow is how much melody is emphasized in the tracks. It was there on 2015’s debut Realm of Sacrifice, particularly in the slower moments of “Realm of Ascension” and “In Immaterial Flame” but the lines running through the march-like cadence of opener “Watcher in the Eastern Sky” stands out and anchors the majestic doom that follows. Even when the double bass kicks in and the tremolo picks rears its head the song progresses in an almost stately manner. As the song moves through its various permutations the focus never wavers off ensuring every component works in service to the song.
In fact that’s the other standout piece of Burning Arrow: there’s no evidence of excess on the three tracks, which are notably shorter than what Vanum (and its progenitor bands) have written before. Although the doom elements are seamlessly integrated (check out the ending of “Immortal Will” and tell me you don’t want to hear an all-out doom project from these guys) there’s no falling back on endless repetition to get the point of the songs across. This is epic, modern doom-laced black metal that refuses to bury its strength under tricks and cliches, and shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re looking for something to accompany the coldness in your soul.
I’m going to guess that for every black metal band that’s embracing the new modern, there’s at least half a dozen who worship at the altar of the early Norwegian sound, looking to find the purity of a buzzing guitar, of a blast beat and a buried caterwaul of anguish and blasphemy. Springfield, MA band Druid finds that blackened purity without being overly slavish to it on debut EP Cill Dara, three tracks of “classic” black metal that still manages to pull out a few tricks even as it revels in its devotion to a very specific sound and style. The 12 minutes that comprise the opening track “Fair Shining One” illustrates both sides of this: buzzing power chords pair furiously with blasts, sure, but then things drop back a bit around seven minutes for a psychedelic solo and phased out vocals that fit in without compromising the sound they’re going for.
The two remaining tracks keep close to the theme of blasting out straight classic black metal that pays homage to the old school. “Bones to Ash” is probably the most traditional, keeping the tempo and roars raging until the final seconds, while “Vessels” at close to 15 minute is the epic closer, alternating between different shades of dark, opening up some space to let the instrumentation stand out a bit more than it can in the tight, high end pummeling required for the faster moments. The ending moments have some particularly nice bass work, playing around the riffs instead of just reinforcing the root. It’s devotion done right, with a sense of individuality and spirit that rings true even if they’re not posing in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness.
It’s cold, grey and raining as I write this. If there’s a better time to listen to some black metal I don’t know what it is, so until next time polish your bullet belts and keep your forest torches ready for lighting.