Nine Circles ov…Black Metal in 2021

Sometimes it takes a little distance to bring you back to something. I spent a lot of 2021 listening to music that brought me back to simpler, less depressing times. “Harsh” wasn’t something I craved as I struggled with mental and emotional health – something I’m sure many of you did as well. So black metal wasn’t on my radar as much; not a problem when you have so many other writers on staff that have the genre covered. Leave the discovery and call outs to others; I’ll be content sitting back and nursing the wounds of the world with lighter fare.

But of course something that played such a large role in my development both as a musician and a listener couldn’t be totally ignored, and I found myself over the last few months slowly seeing what the world was listening to when it came to black metal. Unsurprisingly, they listened to a lot – and a lot of it was not only good, but very, very good.

I won’t pretend I’ve covered the entire spectrum with these nine picks – you’ll probably notice some very large omissions here: some are getting covered in my annual End of Year posts starting next week; others I may have missed, or just didn’t connect with. That’s okay. These kind of posts should always be a conversation, a chance to learn, to engage, and to share what turned you on music-wise, even if the picks I have here didn’t do it. One more note before we dive in: I don’t know how often music blogs pimp each other…we really should be holding each other up more. So consider this my contribution: one of the best places I’ve found to discover black metal has been over at Last Rites, particularly the writings of Ryan Tysinger, who has been KILLING it with his recurring Black, Raw, & Bleeding column focusing on the unpicked corners of the genre. Sometimes I was introduced to something new, sometimes I had a band or album confirmed, sometimes I was challenged to re-engage with something that didn’t connect previously.

In the end, that’s all I want.

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ancient mastery - chapter one

Austria’s Ancient Mastery put out three releases this year, but what hooked me was their full length debut Chapter One: Across the Mountains of the Drämmarskol. There’s something about atmospheric, melodic black metal wrapped in a gauzy lo-fi production that works to draw you deeper into the world sole member Erech is creating. Awash in keyboards and orchestral interludes there are moments that border on dungeon synth, but it perfectly complements the more traditional black metal passages to create a completely satisfying experience I’ve returned to time and time again since picking it up.

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begotten - nothing worth remembering

DSBM has become a tricky tag as of late, with bands slowly turning away from the traditional sounds I came to associate with the sage through bands like Forgotten Tomb and Arkona. Begotten feels like a rolling glacier of hopelessness, inevitable and beautiful in its march to oblivion. The three tracks that make up their EP Nothing Worth Remembering undulates between that slow roll and a more roiling, tremolo attack that would define the sound of the second wave. If I were doing a Best of the Year EP list for 2021 this would definitely be on it; as it stands its one of my most listened to records this year, prefect for putting on and drifting away.

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This one came from in-house: our own Zyklonius has been over the moon with the chameleon like shifting of France’s Creature, who emerged after the more symphonic bombast of last year’s Ex Cathedra with the industrial/nu-metal (?) leaning of Eloge De l’Ombre. From the opening section of “Venin” into the Slipknot riffing of “Conscience Mécanique” Creature, the brainchild of Raphaël Fournier are absolutely fearless in their kitchen sink approach of using whatever is necessary to get the feel they want in their songs. Repeated listens continue to confound as bands as disparate as Korn and Meshuggah blend into more traditional black metal elements. It’s an earful in the best way.

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It’s no secret some of the most vicious black metal is coming out of France. Ferriterium was a recent discovery through some YouTube channel I can’t remember, but as soon as I played the dynamic whirlwind of opening track “L’Apostasie” I was hooked on Calvaire. This is straight ahead brutal melodic black metal, pummeling you bloody with blast beats and bending tremolo riffs with a thoroughly modern production that loses none of the razor sharp melodies of Raido, who also plays in Karne, Malevolentia and Heimsgard. I haven’t checked those bands out yet, but I did dig back to Ferriterium’s previous two records Le Dernier Livre and L’Heure du Grand Passage and was properly floored.

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grima - rotting garden

Everyone needs a friend like our Master of the Mic, Buke. When he’s not interviewing some of the best and brightest in metal, he’s constantly sending me recommendations of albums he thinks I would like. Grima out of Finland fit that bill perfectly. Rotting Garden is the band’s fourth full-length, continuing the trend of atmospheric black metal beholden to nature and the unforgiving cold of the North. After listening so long to the Cascading black metal of bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and Falls of Ruaros I forgot how different in tone the Scandinavian sound was, and Grima served as a great reminder through songs like “Cedar and Owls” and the sprawling title track that sometimes you need to go back home to where it all started.

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Just take one look at that cover art and tell me you can’t instantly imagine what Këkht Aräkh sound like. Pale Swordsman is lo-fi romantic black metal in all its glory, from the raspy vocal approach to the cavernous drums and reverb that makes it sound like its coming from the bottom of a well. And yet…everything is crystal clear, a testament to the songwriting acumen of “Crying Orc” which is even more hilarious now that I’m writing it in this post. What’s not hilarious is just how effective the music of Këkht Aräkh is at reminding me why I gravitated to this weird, alienating genre in the first place. If I had discovered this just a little bit earlier you can frost assured it would have made my EOY list.

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It seems like everyone and their brother were raving about Im Wald, the 2020 release from Swiss one-man black metal project Paysage d’Hiver. I didn’t get it then, and a few more listens didn’t change my mind. Geister, however, is a different story. There’s something about the icy production combined with more punchy songs that make this feel more coherent that past efforts, with the black and roll aspects turned up a notch. There’s no denying that at 70 minutes Geister (translated to “Ghosts”) can feel a little long in the tooth, especially considering the repetitive nature of the music and the lack of practically any bottom end, but as a reconsideration of a band I could not for the life of me understand the accolades for I wanted to include it here.

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mntu

When a band is able to tread that fine line between lo-fi brutality and clarity in their songwriting it’s an instant win for me. Mntu, the debut from First Nations band Ushangvagush does just that. Another internal recommendation (thanks Vincent!), this is knuckle bruising black metal that doesn’t shy away from the punk and rock and roll influences buried under the primal screams of tracks like “Siguapatign” and “Amasia’s Letter” or the more doom-laden offerings like “IV.” Bonus points for being the first album featured here where black is not the dominant color.

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Another great outlier to show you how black metal has truly become a global presence, Brazil’s Vauruvã put out another of my favorite black metal releases this year. Manso Queimor Dacordado is filled with small touches that more traditionally ground bands wouldn’t think to color their sound with. There’s a progressive touch to “À Sombridão” with its lack of repeated phrases that’s indicative of the entire album: a challenging, open and inviting record despite its rough production. You can easily get lost in the amount of musical ideas working through each song, and that more than anything else is a mark of a great album.

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Like I said, this is just a taste of some the black metal that I came back to in 2021. I’m sure there’s a lot more I missed that might connect in a similar fashion so sound off in the comments on what else I should have checked out this year. There re few more entries coming in my annual year-end wrap up, so stayed tuned, stay safe, and as always:

Keep it heavy.

Chris


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