The more I listen to black metal, the less I find myself caring about about things like rules or categorization. I’m not looking for black metal to change my worldview, or adhere to a set of parameters that maybe made sense over 20 years ago, but mean little now. I want the music to align to what I need at a given moment, and whether it does that via second wave lo-fi buzzing guitars, symphonic sweeping tremolo lines, or post rock shoegaze, it doesn’t matter in the end. I don’t need it to educate me, I need it to carry me – a weird thing to say about black metal, but there you go. And Garabontzia, the latest from Hungarian band Hænesy does that nicely, channeling post black metal whipped through a haze of reverb and ambient keyboard to deliver a spacious wave of noise that crashes in ever softening reverberations.
Are we still talking about black metal? Does it really matter?
The primary tones dominating Hænesy’s sound is doom and atmospheric black metal, but as evidenced as early as “Gloominess,” the opening track from their 2017 debut EP Mortals, there’s an unsettled fury lurking beneath the more solemn moments. It also shows a band unafraid to experiment a bit: the vocals interchange between the more common screech of buried black metal and a more ominous, manipulated roar that brings some much needed variety to the overall sound. By the time of their 2018 full length Katruzsa the band (now a duo) expanded further, allowing the open moments to be more varied and stand alone between the crushing weight of the more traditional metal elements. Though the vocals remain resolutely unintelligible, they act as a separate instrument, working in tandem with the music to enforce the themes of solitude, depression and the impact of the Hungarian hills and mountains. The slow but steady evolution of intent continued with a split in 2019 with the Russian band Moondweller ands now here stands Garabontzia, even more fleshed out with live drums and a focus that shows the unwavering commitment to chasing a particular sound.
That commitment is fully realized on opening track “Fate of the Depth,” which after opening with some requisite acoustic playing, dives into the metal with a maelstrom of drums and buried screams. The keyboards lay down a bed of atmosphere that’s reminiscent of Alcest, but it’s really more of a tonal bed to let the guitars and drums do their work. Using live drums (courtesy of someone known only as T. who also contributes additional effects) for the first time really helps to drive the music even harder, and when it breaks again for another acoustic interlude, those drums feel all the more live, breathing with the other instruments.
The production adheres to what you would expect from this kind of music, but it always makes sure to give everything enough space so it’s not a mash of sound where the nuances of the melody get lost. It’s something that could have crushed a song like “Sinking Deep for a Hidden God” but thankfully (and especially on a solid set of headphones) the separation of tracks allows even the subtle acoustic strumming to come through nicely centered between the electric guitars panned hard left and right. It’s an early highlight of a record that consistently pays off by not straying from its purpose. Which is to be a beautifully melancholic metal record.
While it’s safe to say the entirety of Garabontzia is consistent, that touch of faint praise doesn’t do justice to how strong the songwriting is, particularly “Path to the Weeping Hollow” which at the time of this review is the standout of the album. As the main guitar theme slowly swells in volume there’s a single guitar lick that feels so much like the Cure it’s almost distracting, but as the song kicks into gear it becomes apparent that lick signifies all the emotion and contextual heft that’s to come in the song’s body. It reaches the same sonic landscape as Alcest’s first and still best album Souvenirs d’un autre monde, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel like imitation as much as honest inspiration from similar influences.
In a year where it feels like the music coming out has felt less and less impactful – specifically in the black metal space – it’s heartening to find a band like Hænesy pushing music that feels tangible and unencumbered by expectation. Since discovering Garabontzia I’ve been playing it and the rest of the band’s discography a lot, and finding that it’s able to bring a meditative peace in even its most aggressive moments, and that makes all the difference.