Chances are if your album cover has budding skull flowers and a skeleton bird overlooking an ominous moon, you have some level of black metal going on. For Australian band Somnium Nox, you have a whole lot of black metal going on in the form of their debut LP Terra Inanis. Enveloping their atmospheric black metal in a wash of darkness and buried menace the band and album provide a spectral, haunting soundscape that reinforces Australia as a country to be reckoned with when it comes to extreme metal.
The sense of place and culture is a large part of the mystery in Somnium Nox’s sound. Their debut single/EP Apocrypha opens with the drone of a didgeridoo slowly rising in volume alongside synths and guitars until it crescendos into the main riff, which gallops from one passage to another – sometimes quiet and introspective, sometimes brutal and violent. Lyrically the focus is purposefully ambiguous: lines espousing the endless, bleak and oppressive nature of the world can work equally well as a commentary of the more remote parts of the continent even as it more probably echoes the nihilistic worldview that’s par for the course in black metal.
The takeaway here, though, is how the lyrics and music combine to express this sense of haunted bewilderment. Setting aside the fact that the EP is essentially one long song and the production is a bit too muddy to clearly illuminate the ideas set forth in the music, this is exactly the blueprint the band put to use to greater effect on the three tracks that make up Terra Inanis.
The fingerpicked guitar that opens “Soliloquy of Lament” lingers almost without variation for two minutes before the otherworldly tones of the didgeridoo come back to herald the onset of metal destruction on the first track. And although riff repetition has always been a calling card in black metal it’s important to note why it’s being used as more than a signifier of genre. If there’s one thing that’s clear in the aims of Somnium Nox, it’s to evoke mood, and that focus drives directly to how they construct the songs around mood rather than riff after riff. The aforementioned blast of metal that comes in after the didgeridoo lasts less than a minute before being subsumed again by the (even if only for a few seconds) primary idea of the almost underwater-like ambient passage.
Of course if it was only that, you’d have a hard time considering this a proper metal album, and Terra Inanis doesn’t want that at all. When things do kick in, Somnium Nox aim for a massive, blast heavy soundscape, the vocals pitched high and dense with reverb while the guitars blend into a buzzing complement with the music. The blending continues from one track to another, giving the impression of a single work both musically and thematically. “The Alnwick Apotheosis” works along a similar path, although there’s a more direct sense of brutality in its chugging blasts and tremolo lines before descending into a post metal conclusion that lasts for almost half the song’s length. The slower paced doom is embraced fully in closer “Transcendental Dysphoria” and works as the strongest track thanks to the almost meditative pull of the drums and vocals.
It’s always good to see a band push back on what’s typically meant by “atmospheric” in metal to really encompass a particular, well….atmosphere instead of just washing their music in reverb and some keyboards. Somnium Nox knows the value of being clear in their intent, and it doesn’t hurt that when the histrionics come into play it works within the context of the darkness they’re building. Terra Inanis is a strong debut and another building block in the gigantic tower that is becoming Australian black metal.