Ambience isn’t just slathering keyboards or reverb on something. We use it as a shortcut, but really ambience is the evocation of mood, of climate and atmosphere. Mastering a particular ambience in music is hard: “heavy” isn’t a mood, though millions of headbangers wish it were so. Throughout his myriad of projects, Dan Jackson has certainly mastered the “heavy” aspects of metal, but with Heretical Wisdom, the debut full length from his black metal hurricane Void Ritual, he also masters evoking the harsh winds and frozen landscapes of winter through a blizzard of classic and true black metal. From the first few seconds of “Cold,” the opening track from debut EP Holodomor it’s clear the driving force behind Void Ritual is Jackson’s worship of black metal, particularly early Bathory leading up to the second wave in Norway. There’s an icy feel to the thin production that accentuates the blast beats and wraps the vocals in a shroud that pays respect without being overly slavish to the genre. Handling every aspect of the music and production himself, it’s a marvel how good everything sounds, and how the structures allow the listener to anchor themselves to the guitars and follow each song through. 2015’s split with Barshasketh showed a thicker, more robust sound even as Jackson played with more dynamics: the drum programming is significantly beefed up, alternating between blasts, d-beats and even a flourish of straight ahead rock on closing track “Temple of the Sun.” The guitars are beefed up, too – riffs are pushed forward as the vocals become even more furious, getting buried in the thick mix adding to the compression and tightness of the music. Due to a number of issues (you can listen to Dan discuss the process here and here) it would be a few years before Heretical Wisdom would see the light of day and provide evidence as to whether the band would engage in a holding pattern or expand the sonic template a bit.
True to form, Void Ritual gives us a little of both. Heretical Wisdom kicks off with “The Flood,” a dizzying vortex of riffs and melodic lines clashing in classic black metal fashion, but then you see the changes: the anthemic stomp of the middle section, the interplay between clean arpeggios and sudden bursts of a power chord in the intro. The fury is brief but indicative that as much as Void Ritual is about the progenitors of the genre, there’s no fear when it comes to expanding the sound and varying things up a bit. There’s a crushing doom passage in “Breathing Ice” that gives the song room to breathe in the moments between cold blasts. The harmonized tremolo leads that open “A Mockery of Flesh & Bone” show a huge leap in not only the guitar playing, but in the songwriting. This is an album that is not afraid to let music stand out. It’s easy to bury your playing in a compressed fury that hides the content, but there’s no such masking anywhere on Heretical Wisdom: not only is everything very clear and present in the mix, but the melodies at work are the strongest Dan Jackson’s put out yet, on any of his projects.
There’s a consistency to the tracks, each one linking thematically to the next in structure if not in lyrical content. The title track continues the course of furious riffs played against a wall of aggression and spirit. “The Frozen Altar” slows things down a bit with some mid-paced moments where the chords are allowed to sound off and ring instead of simply pummeling you in the face. That stay of execution is temporary, however; the ominous low throated growl that opens closer “Nachzehrer” signals a final blast of old school fury. In interviews Dan’s acknowledged the Mayhem influence on the track, and between the moodier chord changes and vocal flexibility I’d be hard pressed to argue except to say I think he takes those ideas and runs off with them, making a song that is simultaneously bitter, evil, and epic. It’s a monster of a cap to a consistently excellent record.
How do you achieve ambience? How do you come to it honestly? It’s not a string gauge or a special firmware update to your effects rack. It’s coming with a respect for your past that doesn’t overshadow your unique imprint and take on the music. Over the course of four years and four releases (we didn’t even talk about the excellent odds and ends compilation Spirits of the Black Past that came out earlier this year) Void Ritual has not stopped seeking a way to express and acknowledge black metal’s past while endlessly pushing ahead. Heretical Wisdom captures both in a way I suspect folks will be talking about a lot come year end.
Heretical Wisdom is available August 18 on CD and digital from Throats Productions and cassette with limited edition art print from Tridroid Records. For more information on Void Ritual check out their Facebook page.