Nine Circles ov… Colin’s 2023 So Far

We’re already coming close to the halfway point for 2023 and since I’ve had too much going on to actively seek out new music recently, I figure it’s time to highlight albums that have made some degree of impact on me over the past few months. Aside from one or two exceptions I don’t expect many of the albums here will join Enslaved and Dødheimsgard on my AOTY list; nevertheless, they deserve a shoutout, even if the wheel isn’t being reinvented.

I’ve made sure to select albums that haven’t been featured on the site yet (aside from popping up in our weekly playlist or mentioned on the AOTM podcast), so let’s dive in with a chronological look at what 2023 has had to offer so far.

Vanagandr started the year off right with Storms of Empire, a one-man black metal assault straight out of the ’90s. Existing in a realm that’s somewhere between 2nd-wave Norway and Eastern European pagan-inspired bands (minus the ill repute), the black metal here focuses a lot more on layered chords than crushing riffs; fortunately it doesn’t fall anywhere near the post-metal-inspired clichés you tend to get with modern atmospheric black metal. I think what keeps me coming back to this album is the songwriting chops on display, particularly in the second half of the album — the songs on Storms of Empire are consistently linear enough in their structures to remain engaging for anyone wanting a solid throwback to long-lost days of glory.

Can you name any atmospheric black metal albums that undergo a transformation into prog thrash by the end? I now can. The debut full-length from RABM solo project Iravu, A Fate Worse Than Home begins as spacey black metal in the vein of Mare Cognitum before concluding with blistering thrash, with only an ambient interlude separating the two styles. Both halves of the album share the trait of a heavily reverb-laden sound to cement the cosmic feel, as well as incredible melodic soloing that proves to be the highlight of this album. A lot of thrash is what we’d call Colin-poison around here, but Iravu manages to blend the styles very well.

Goofy lo-fi black metal/dungeon synth bands with a medieval aesthetic seem to be a dime a dozen nowadays, mostly thanks to Grime Stone Records and their flagship act Old Nick. I can appreciate what these bands are going for, but they tend to be too silly and painful to listen to (production-wise) for me. Calderum open the gates and fight back against the onslaught of mediocrity laying siege to this brand of black metal with a simple yet deadly weapon on Lord Cramridor: great fucking riffs! The synths on this album are definitely cheesy (just listen to the descending trumpets on “Forging Black Steel”) but they perfectly inhabit the Goldilocks zone between epic and silly in a way that many bands can only dream of.

If you’ve longed for Wolves in the Throne Room to return to the material of A Diadem of 12 Stars and Two Hunters, then this is the album for you. Severance is the debut album from fellow Olympians Returning, and their music does exactly that; not only do they return to the Cascadian black metal of 15 years ago, but there’s a very primal feel accentuated by ritualistic ambient and the utterly anguished shouting vocals that serve as the biggest differentiator between them and WITTR. Severance doesn’t reach the majestic heights of the aforementioned albums, but this is still a path worth treading for fans of the genre.

Aside from a few of the biggest names in the genre (Ahab, Bell Witch, etc.) I’m not much of a funeral doom guy, yet I was pleasantly surprised after deciding to check this out on a whim. Decemberance have put together a massive three song, 70-minute album with Implosions, hitting all the notes good funeral doom should; crushing yet mournful riffs, extensive guitar solos, and plenty of slow (and slower) tempos. What sets this album apart from others in this style is the inclusion of session cello not only in the two metal tracks that bookend the album, but taking center stage (with piano) in the middle instrumental. I may not have many reference points to determine the best of this style, but I can say this is a fine album.

Autumn’s Dawn, Winter’s Darkness came across my feed only a few weeks ago courtesy of Atmospheric Black Metal Albums — with the Albert Bierstadt artwork and name dropping of some all-time favorite bands in the Bandcamp description (Panopticon, Caladan Brood, WITTR) it’s safe to say my interest was piqued, but with heightened expectations considering the amount of epic black metal bands out there that don’t rise above the level of Summoning/Caladan Brood clones. I’m glad to say Fathomage exceeded my expectations in a way I did not anticipate by balancing the expected dungeon synth melodies and acoustic guitar passages with tremendously heavy riffage. Other artists might forgo heaviness for atmosphere, but there’s a beautiful equilibrium between the two on Autumn’s Dawn, Winter’s Darkness. This is another massive album at almost 75 minutes, but rest assured I will be revisiting this majestic journey for a long time to come.

Judging by the title and cover art you might expect Triumphs to be some sort of gym-friendly molon labe album about Spartan warriors; while Greek mythology is depicted on multiple tracks, Foretoken also lift tales from folklore as wide-ranging as Mexico, Ireland, Iran, and Japan. The duo play highly energetic symphonic melodic death metal with occasional ventures into more technical territory (without going full wank), adding touches of black and power metal to boot. Some guy named Hannes Grossmann does a great job on session drums as well! Melodeath is rarely my genre of choice anymore, but Foretoken might just be one of it’s new rising stars.

There’s never really been a traditional supergroup within the Icelandic black metal scene considering the huge amount of personnel overlap between bands, but Sól án varma is probably the best example we’ll ever get. Featuring seven current and former members of Misþyrming, Svartidauði, Naðra, Árstíðir Lífsins, Carpe Noctem, and more, this self-titled album was originally a commissioned piece for Roadburn 2018; it finally saw the light of day in April after being studio recorded ~three years ago. As expected from the musicians involved the backbone of Sól án varma is dissonant, oppressive black metal (with more than a few moments of triumphant melody), but this album also visits doom territory, improvisational noise, and dark ambience. I haven’t kept up with the Icelandic scene for a few years, so this was a great reintroduction and necessary listen for fans of any of the involved bands.

Hot off the presses is Porous Resonance Abyss, the first (and likely not last) release from Krallice this year. Continuing in the atmospheric vein of last year’s incredible Crystalline Exhaustion, the band have ditched vocals entirely and drastically upped the synths on this album. The incredible musicianship on display comes through in all aspects, whether it’s technical riffs backed by blast beats or the epic buildup in the 20-minute closing track. If equal parts spacey synthesizers and proggy black metal are your thing, go listen to this right now (there might even be a special surprise if you buy the album on Bandcamp). I’m absolutely loving this direction they’re going in, and I hope to see it further develop on upcoming releases.

Every act listed here (save for Krallice) are new to me this year, and I hope they’ve gained some other new fans as well. I’m counting on the rest of the year to bring more offerings just as good, and hopefully better.


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