One of the things that distinguished Norwegian black metal from what had preceded it was its emphasis on storytelling: inviting the listener to not just observe, but be an active participant in discovering the meaning behind the work. The elements of composition were not, in themselves, the end goal of a song, but rather were tools used to convey the artist’s intention.
By using heroic imagery coupled with atonal yet melodic music, it went beyond the violent deconstruction of death metal by showing not only that the supposed progress of the modern era has been a sham, it offered an alternative: a return to an earlier age, a time when survival depended upon more than earning enough money to purchase antidepressants and microwave dinners.
This core of black metal was something that was increasingly lost as the genre became more popular, as newer bands overlooked this when attempting to understand how to play this genre of music.
As one of these contemporary bands, Profane Prayer plays black metal in the later Darkthrone style with an old school heavy metal influence. Indicative of its generation, this track (taken from their upcoming album) at first glance has all the elements of black metal: screaming vocals, pounding blastbeats, dissonant tremolo picking, and anti-christian themes.
However, what is lacking is the artistic vision the presages its creation. Although all of the individual components may be sound, there is nothing linking them together. Sections of the song are easily recognizable and there is care in how they are ordered, but the song does not challenge the listener to discovery. Like most black metal of its age, it’s not awful, but not particularly good either. If this band could couple their musical talent with a deeper artistic spirit, they would assuredly have a worthwhile composition.
Tales of Vagrancy and Blasphemy will be released via No Colours Records the first week of May.
Lost in the darkness
I fade from the light
Faith of my father, my brother, my Maker and Savior
Help me make it through the night
Blood on my conscience
And murder in mind
Out of the gloom I rise up from my tomb into impending doom
Now my body is my shrine
The blood runs free
The rain turns red
Give me the wine
You keep the bread
The voices echo in my head
Is God alive or is God dead?
Is God dead?
Rivers of evil
Run through dying land
Swimming in sorrow, they kill, steal, and borrow. There is no tomorrow
For the sinners will be damned
Ashes to ashes
You cannot exhume a soul
Who do you trust when corruption and lust, creed of all the unjust,
Leaves you empty and unwhole?
When will this nightmare be over? Tell me!
When can I empty my head?
Will somebody tell me the answer?
Is God really dead?
Is God really dead?
To safeguard my philosophy
Until my dying breath
I transfer from reality
Into a mental death
I empathize with enemy
Until the timing’s right
With God and Satan at my side
From darkness will come light
I watch the rain
And it turns red
Give me more wine
I don’t need bread
These riddles that live in my head
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is dead
Nowhere to run
Nowhere to hide
Wondering if we will meet again
On the other side
Do you believe a word
what the Good Book said?
Or is it just a holy fairytale
And God is dead?
God is Dead x4
But still the voices in my head
Are telling me that god is dead
The blood pours down
The rain turns red
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is Dead x4
Lyrically, it reminds me of “After Forever” but a bit more world-weary. Musically, it contains several allusions to past Sabbath and solo work by its members.
Thematically, it seems to me a response to black metal. Was Nietzsche’s target God, or our tendency to say nice things to each other and conceal the essential truth of the challenges before us? There are often many problems, but one root cause. If you don’t strike at that root cause, you get lost. If the problem is man, and not God, and society (collection of humans) instead of some external scapegoat, then we have a greater struggle than can be fixed by burning churches.
Black metal was purely Nietzschean in that it rejected the idea of a moral society and replaced it with the notion that the natural order of Darwinism produced better results. All of the Nietzschean tropes come out: praise of winter, of hardness, of privation, of wolves and of combat and struggle.
Black metal faltered in the mid-1990s when the bands realized that they might have missed their real target, which is something more like people socializing with each other and thus concealing unpleasant truths. While there are other intermediate and proximate causes of the problems we find it this world, the root cause often gets overlooked. That isn’t to say those other causes are good, or shouldn’t be fought in some form or another, just that they’re not the cause.
Black Sabbath is asking “Is God Dead?” and responding in the negative, pointing out that perhaps that last fifteen years of metal have been barking up the wrong tree. The first half of the song is questioning and self-centered, a personal drama. The second half, after the question is posed, is a thunderous rejoinder. The song splits on themes: the wine, the voices that fill the head (he cannot “empty his head”), the lack of any holiness outside the body that is the shrine, and the sense of a “mental death.” On the other hand, there is belief, a pervasive sense of something not fitting together with the narrative of the voices in his head.
Much is left ambiguous by this. “With God and Satan at my side” suggests a type of esotericism that mainstream Christianity will not embrace, and although there are references to the “Good Book,” a particular denominator has not been mentioned. However, the conflict between logic and intuition rises strongly in this song. On one side, there are empirical forces at work; on the other, instinct and a gut feeling. The song ultimately concludes with the idea that God is not dead.
And all of this happens under a banner formed of (a) a dour Friedrich Nietzsche and (b) a nuclear blast. This reminds me of not only black metal’s Nietzscheanism, but its apocalyptic viewpoint. In bad times, people start to get serious again about what they’re doing. Part of getting serious was, at least for black metal and probably for old Black Sabbath, rejecting what is popular and social.
Black metal is uncompromisingly against what makes people comfortable. In Until the Light Takes Us, musicians from Burzum and Darkthrone describe how they tried to get “bad” production for their music, to make it sound old and rotted. How they embraced evil imagery and acted out the most extreme things possible. This wasn’t a rejection of Christianity; it was a rejection of the social impulse behind civilization that prizes what looks/feels good to a group, to what is true — something that generally can be known by only a few, in the Nietzschean sense of the “apex predators” who have through natural selection risen above the rest and can see through a noble light how aggression is central to life.
Black metal may be anti-Christian, but more, it’s about the potentially mind-warping effects of socializing with others. Black Sabbath seems to be suggesting a new direction, which is less toward atheism and Nietzsche, and more toward sacrality, to which black metal might then respond that sacredness itself is what gets destroyed by socializing with others and obscuring the truth. This mirrors where a lot of the black metal guys went after the movement — Beherit to Buddhism, Darkthrone to cosmic space music, Varg to esoteric nationalism, the Graveland guys to folk music, and many others moving on to esoteric sounds like Jaaportit or Vinterriket.
Although they’d probably kill me for saying this, black metal people are generally the most religious people in the room. They believe that life is sacred, that forests are sacred, and that if nature is “red in tooth and claw” and life is “nasty, brutish and short,” that these are manifestations of the divine as well. Far from being “god is dead” people, black metal musicians strike me as being “we are worshipping the wrong god” people.
Hegel would argue that history moves through new ideas, their opposites, and compromises (synthesis). I would argue that history moves by the ideas created through a type of play acted out by characters representing extremes. In this, black metal shows us the antisocial, and Black Sabbath comes out for the sacred; the two will find common ground, because metal is ultimately sacred music. It worships power, death, nature and violence while others prefer pretty flowers and prancing kittens, but only one of those two perspectives embraces all of reality, while the other requires a social filter to merely exist. Black Sabbath and black metal are united in their dislike of that social filter.
Nostalgia is like going back to your rapist and asking for your first kiss. If I were a 2000s kid, I’d want to be part of those glorious days of the early 1990s. As a 1990s kid, I might want to “go back.”
Yet you can’t go home again. All you can do is re-heat and imitate the past, and hope that the magic comes back. But the magic came from the convergence of the time, what was going on in the world, and the art. That isn’t to say the music isn’t still relevant; it is eternally relevant. But what made it great was how it was organized in the minds of its creators, not the techniques they use. Trying to imitate the techniques is thinking backward, or going from the whole impression to try to recreate the idea it conveys, instead of finding that idea and using it to make another (not necessarily new, but more accurate) impression. I could buy ten truckloads of these retro-imitative albums and I’d still be in nowheresland, ready to trade my left testicle for the ability to buy Transilvanian Hunger or Pure Holocaust again and to experience the joy of discovering it again, like the very first time!
But it is not to be. We wouldn’t want it to be that way. Time marches us forward both toward doom and toward greater heights. Vemod adopts a mix between the Ulver-styled late Nordic material and the French-style barely-holding-on black metal of the wave after the Nordic black metal explosion. That being said, there’s nothing to criticize Vemod for. They play perfectly, many of these riffs are catchy, and they use extended interludes well. There’s just something missing at the center, sort of like there has been in modern life, where we wonder what the point of it all is. As it is, these songs leave us with a feeling of melancholy, having missed the bus to the land of adventure, and maybe a bit of dark loneliness. But after that, it is just decoration.
“I’m getting emails and telephone calls from people all over the world,” said Sammath guitarist/composer Jan Kruitwagen on the change that catapults them from a smaller metal label to worldwide distribution on par with Relapse and Nuclear Blast. The band is leaving its label of sixteen years, Folter Records, on amicable terms. “Joerg from Folter was actualy proud as fuck that we got signed to these guys and only wishes us well. It wasn’t easy telling him after 16 years on his label, but he understands.”
According to Kruitwagen, Hammerheart sought Sammath after hearing the demo tracks from the upcoming album and knowing the band for a long time. “The new tracks will destroy! Guido from Hammerheart knows what’s good,” he said. Believed by many to be the boldest step of the band’s career, Godless Arrogance combines the elegant melodies of Sammath‘s first album, Strijd, with the aggressive ripping death metal approach of their most popular work, Dodengang.
The band doesn’t plan to change a thing about their approach, which is old school technique and composition with an eye toward defiant independence. “We have lots of work left to do. All drums are recorded without triggers and everything is recorded live. Getting this all sounding like we want takes time. We do everything ourselves, no hands but ours will finnish this CD, except Peter Neuber for the master (Necrophobic, Revenge, Severe Torture),” Kruitwagen added.
Godless Arrogance will see release in “a couple of months at least,” but will not change its approach. “We need to make sure it all sounds up to mark, without losing the intense sound it already has,” said Kruitwagen. He added that despite a changing music industry, the band remains committed to its approach. He added, “let the music speak for itself.”
The tracklist for Sammath‘s Godless Arrogance will be:
1. Shot in mass
2. Fear upon them
3. Thrive in arrogance
4. Death (hunt them down)
5. This world must burn (hammer of supremacy)
6. Through filth and the remains of man
7. Nineteen corpses hang in the mist
As part of the burgeoning movement to understand metal and how it relates to the world, comes the first issue of Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory. Although the title of the publication may imply that it is a technical analysis of black metal composition, this is not the case. As the back cover states, “Not to be confused with metal studies, music criticism, ethnography, or sociology, Black Metal Theory is a speculative and creative endeavor, one which seeks ways of thinking that count as Black Metal events — and indeed, to see how Black Metal might count as thinking.”
The book consists of about a half dozen short essays in a contemporary writing style, with full sourcing, complemented by some photographs of black metal musicians and landscapes. Subjects covered in the book range from suicide, ecocide, self-discovery, and more. Rather than treating black metal as both the beginning and end point of the book, it is instead the launching ground for exploration of how black metal’s spirit can find meaning in a cold and modernist world. The flaw in this is that some essays form a rather tenuous link to black metal, often distorted by what the authors want black metal to be, rather than what it actually is.
Of note for exploring this style is the essay by David Prescott-Steed with the admittedly disarming title of “Frostbite on my Feet: Representations of Walking in Black Metal Visual Culture”
Walking can be understood as a transitional practice whereby a person steps into, and through, a complex set of spatial and cognitive relationships. An example of such a theory of walking can be seen in the act of stepping through the doorway of a Gothic Cathedral (Notre Dame, for instance). Entering the westwork has long held physical and religious significance for Catholic devotees, symbolising one’s departure from a world in which a conceived God is incomprehensible and indeterminable (a transcendental space) into a space of communion with that God (an immanental space). Each step into the vast and ornate interior space of the nave, and beyond, comprises a transitional ritual that puts the walker in dialogue with the sacred.
The link to black metal given:
Truncated by the public’s engagement with the spectacle of Black Metal, the less exotic practice of walking nonetheless remains an important practice within the genre.Its significance can be seen in two recent documentaries on Black Metal: Vice Broadcasting System (VBS)’s True Norwegian Black Metal and Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s Until the Light Takes Us. In the first instance, Gaahl (the documentary’s leading figure and the former frontman of Gorgoroth) insists that the film crew join him on a long trek into the Norwegian tundra. The hike draws our attention to the meaningfulness of the journey and speaks to the aura of solitude and endurance, of a confrontation with the unknown and human potential. Gaahl enforces: “I become what never fails, following the footsteps behind me.” In Until the Light Takes Us, slow-motion footage of Darkthrone’s Fenriz walking along a snowy forest path seems to evoke similar notions of the shadows of former selves seeking an obscured locus of self-authenticity. Both examples illustrate the capacity of walking to communicate a deeply planted Black Metal aesthetic.
This is indicative of the book’s tendency to have a coherent and intelligent view to convey in the essay, but have the given connection to black metal be suspect. A better idea would be to focus on the music, rather than aesthetics. (What’s more solitary than Transilvanian Hunger? Reference this instead.)
Other questionable choices include analyzing the compositions of Wolves in the Throne Room as being the last gasp of nature in an increasingly concrete world, the apparently transcendent lyrics of a band calling itself Make a Change…Kill Yourself, and how a slashed black t-shirt stuck to a wall is representative of “Ornament and crime (Hvis Lyset Tar Oss)”.
These flaws aside, the content of these essays can be interesting in itself, such as the idea that portable music represents a shield between us and a decaying word; where black metal heralds its deconstruction and the triumph of the wilderness, praise of the physical action of exploration, and how all worthwhile knowledge is achieved through struggle.
For people (like this author), who were hoping for a measured and academic analysis of black metal’s original music, meaning, and spirit, you will probably be disappointed. However, if one views the book as a collection of reasonably intelligent contemporary writers exploring unpopular subjects in the shadow of an often misunderstood genre, you will perhaps find something of interest.
With the arrival of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Darkthrone presented a new musical evil with the help of a new visual evil. The first four of Darkthrone’s black metal albums depicted a sole band member in a state of aggression, triumph and/or despair, in black-and-white photos stripped of all decoration, reflecting the intentionally unaesthetic music of the band.
This minimalist approach culminated both visually and musically with Transilvanian Hunger, showing a photocopied, grainy picture of Fenriz dehumanized beyond recognition, holding a candelabrum and presumably screaming his lungs out in the night. Some of its appeal lies in its ambiguity; feelings of futility, anger and power are intermixed, widening its significance.
Although Darkthrone’s visual idea was immediately inspired by Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, its monochromatic, Xeroxed quality also has an eerie resemblance to Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 from twenty years earlier and its anguished enigmatic quality to Edvard Munch’s The Scream even further back in history. The parallel is not entirely farfetched: it echoes the troubled mind of Fenriz himself, who reportedly loves art that comes from “the exhaustion of easy life”. To black metal fans the Transilvanian Hunger cover is presumably the one archetypical image of what “necro” signifies, much like The Scream is still very much considered the face of existential anguish.
The “necro” imagery, however, may have been unintentional: In Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Fenriz asserts that mere photocopies from the TH photo session were the only thing he could find at the time to send to Peaceville Records, implying that the same picture could have been reproduced in a more polished fashion. But it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that the use of a photocopy was inspired by Peaceville’s 1992 compilation album, Peaceville Volume 4, spoofing both cover art and title of the famous Black Sabbath album mentioned above and containing one of Darkthrone’s pre-TH songs, implying that the use was deliberate after all. (Rabid speculation is any fan’s right, right?)
In any case, the cover of Transilvanian Hunger effectively summarized its music by a single iconic image and was later emulated by hordes of lesser bands and is to this day worn on t-shirts by serious music lovers and the occasional hipster alike.
Tolkien ambient black metal project Summoning have unleashed their latest recording, Old Morning’s Dawn, via Napalm Records. The pre-order links are now active and the final product will be released June 27, 2013.
Napalm Records promises that “Despite the long break, the congenial duo Silenius and Protector did not stray an inch from their patch. Their distinctive melodies are the heart of all the songs on the latest longplayer, and bring the listeners directly into the fantastic world of Middle-Earth.”
Old Morning’s Dawn follows up on 2006’s Oath Bound, which united the epic spirit of power metal with the gentle melodic atmosphere and inner savagery of black metal, making the ideal soundtrack for medieval battle or spiritual occult warfare against the modern world.
Many know Absu as the band that transitioned from mythological death metal to heavy-metal tinged black metal to finally a progressive, jazzy, and eclectic blend of metal, Celtic folk and psychedelic fusion styles.
According to percussionist/vocalist Proscriptor, “We’re attempting to divide the concerts into two sections: the first act will showcase songs spanning from our entire discography, as the second act will focus on Phase Two from the album Tara: The Cythrául Klan’s Scrutiny. For the past couple of years, many of ABSU’s followers have requested specified songs from this chapter of Tara, so it is our aspiration to give the people what they want.”
The tour covers North America in the blood of the righteous, and gives Absu a chance to show off their psychedelic rock-metal fusion trilogy: Absu, Abzu and the upcoming Apsu. As always, it is expected that the tour will showcase fantastic musicianship, chaotic pits and manic scrambling of residents for talisman artifacts of protection against the summoned evil.
4/05/2013 Millcreek Tavern – Philadelphia, PA
4/06/2013 Roger’s – Chesapeake, VA
4/07/2013 Strange Matter – Richmond, VA
4/08/2013 The Windup Space – Baltimore, MD
4/09/2013 Middle East upstairs – Cambridge, MA
4/10/2013 St. Vitus – Brooklyn, NY
4/11/2013 St. Vitus – Brooklyn, NY
4/12/2013 El N Gee – Hartford, CA
4/13/2013 Theatre Plaza – Montreal, QC
4/14/2013 L’Agitte – Quebec City, QC
4/15/2013 Wreck Room – Toronto, ON
4/16/2013 Ace of Cups – Columbus, OH
4/17/2013 Mojoe’s – Joliet, IL
4/18/2013 Rocco’s – Milwaukee, WI
4/19/2013 Station 4 – St. Paul, MN
4/20/2013 Zoo Cabaret – Winnipeg, MT
4/22/2013 Dickens Pub – Calgary, AB
4/24/2013 Biltmore Cabaret – Vancouver, BC
4/25/2013 Highline – Seattle, WA
4/26/2013 Ash Street Saloon – Portland, OR
4/27/2013 Shinneybrook Creek Cabins @ Festum Carnis – Soda Springs, CA
We can only know the present by knowing the past. In the case of heavy metal, it is a murky past obscured by both the grandiose rockstar dreams of individuals and the manipulative fingers of a voracious industry.
Metal arose through a complicated narrative worthy of a lost empire, and by knowing this history, we can know more of the music we enjoy today.
Specifically of interest are a number of threads that interweave throughout the history of the genre, both as outside influences and later as internal habits, which influence its twisting path from something a lot like rock to a genre entirely separate.
This story then is a tale of how many became one, or how they found something in common among themselves, and how it has taken years of creative people hammering on the parts to meld them into one single thing, known as heavy metal.
However, no one really likes a lengthy essay. Instead, here’s metal’s history the best way it can be experienced: by listening to it.
1968-1970 — the origins
Three threads ran alongside each other: punk, proto-metal and progressive rock. All three are on the edge of being metal, since the type of progressive rock in question is raw and disturbing and not of the “everybody be happy love friends” hippie style. This is music that thinks our society is disturbed, and that therefore many of the values we reject are worth a closer look. Some is fatalist-nihilist, like the self-destructive tendencies of punk, where progressive rock is more clinical, and metal more epic (looking for meaning in the ancients, in nature, the occult and conflict).
Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King
1971-1981 — maturation
A lot happened here, but basically, metal became more like its ancestors (hard rock), progressive rock faded out, and punk got more rock-music-like. The punk from this era is more like normal rock music than the outsider stuff it originally was, but also gains some aggression from Motorhead, who may technically be metal but were born of a progressive rock band (Hawkwind) and sounded very punk and inspired the next generation of punks to be louder, lewder, etc.
Punk music arose from the earlier work by Iggy and the Stooges, but formalized itself into a pop genre that used guitars more like keyboards than like the guitar fireworks of conventional guitar-intense bands like Cream and The Who.
An exception to the metal of the period was NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). DIY and extreme for the day, it left behind the Led Zeppelin-styled “hard rock” vein of metal and got away from Sabbath’s detuned doom and gloom to make energetic, mythological but also somewhat excited-about-life metal.
Satan – Court in the Act
Angel Witch – Angel Witch
Iron Maiden – Killers
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
1982-1987 — the peak
Punk got its act together, in part inspired by the more commercial bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols. This is where hardcore punk really happened. That in turn spurred a revolution because music had finally left rock behind, and by mating the nihilistic (no inherent rules) composition of punk with the longer-phrase riffs of metal (derived from horror movie soundtracks), the riff styles of death metal and black metal were born, and the progressive song structures of speed metal evolved. At the same time, essentialist movements in punk hybrids (thrash) and metal (doom) emerged, sending many back to the roots of these subgenres.
Discharge – Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing
The Exploited – Death Before Dishonour
Amebix – Arise!
A second generation arose in the USA (all of the above bands are UK):
Cro – Mags – The Age of Quarrel
Black Flag – Damaged
Minor Threat – Discography
1983 — the big branching: speed, thrash and death/black
1983 is a crucial year, and so it gets its own entry. Metal and punk cross-influenced each other. The result was a lot more metal. If you’re familiar with nu-metal or more radio style metal, start with speed metal, as it’s the most like really violent rock music with influences from progressive rock in song structure. If you like messy punk (!!!) try some thrash. And if you’ve already given your soul to Satan, try death/black. With death/black, there’s also some influences from progressive rock, although they’re balanced with punk technique which makes for a chaotic spawn.
Speed metal took the complex song forms of progressive rock, the muted-strum guitar riffing of the NWOBHM bands like Blitzkrieg, and added to it the high energy of punk hardcore and came up with songs that kept getting faster and faster. This shocked people of the day, and was the primary reason speed metal bands were different from the NWOBHM that came before them, hence it was dubbed “speed metal.”
Metallica – Kill ‘Em All
Nuclear Assault – Game Over
Megadeth – Rust in Peace
Testament – The New Order
Thrash is a hybrid genre that takes punk songs and puts metal riffs in them. Its name arises from “thrasher,” or skater, and those were the people who embraced this style of music that was more extreme than metal or hardcore at the time. While it leans toward punk, it used metal riffs, and wrote short songs that in the punk style lambasted society but in the metal style tended to mythologize the resulting conflict.
In 1983, these bands contributed just about equally to the new sound. In the largest part inspired by NWOBHM like Venom and Motorhead filtered through aggro-hardcore like GBH and Discharge, the unholy triad invented underground metal to come.
Bathory – The Return
Once proto-death/black metal had occurred, people began to expand on the formula. One side decided to make it more technical, and riffy, and taking after Hellhammer’s “Triumph of Death” and the increasingly mind-bending riffing of Slayer, made it use mazes of mostly chromatic phrasal riffs. On the other side, some wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the simpler songs that Bathory and Hellhammer had to offer, but injected melody and loosened up the drums to keep it from being as clear and rigid as death metal. While that latter group went off to figure out black metal, the death metal team experienced a boom of creativity and excess during 1985-1995.
Necrovore – Divus Te Mortuus
Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
While death metal was just starting up, other bands were trying to figure out how to make melodic ambient metal, structured equally after early melodic metal and free-floating songs like Slayer’s “Necrophiliac.” The result had chaotic drums, deliberately bad sound quality to avoid becoming a trend or something which could be imitated, and high shrieking vocals to death metal’s guttural growl. Taking a cue from Bathory, Slayer and Hellhammer, it also embraced the occult and esoteric and rejected conventional social norms and religions.
As black metal matured, it moved into Norway, possibly inspired by the previous generation of melodic Swedish death metal bands who used high sustain through heavy distortion to make melodic songs which featured less constant riff-changing than the bigger bands from overseas.
Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism
Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Darkthrone – Under a Funeral Moon
This is just the beginning; there’s a lot more after this in all of the genres, which kept developing in their own ways. This is only an introduction to the history of it all, and is not designed to be comprehensive…
Von gained fame for the ultra-minimalist droning 1990s album Satanic Blood which raged forth in three-note songs that resembled air raid sirens of the soul going off in an infinite night of bestial darkness.
Returning after a long hiatus, the band conjure up Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves to bring us the greatest of rarities in metal: an honestly experimental album. Most “experimental” albums involve recycling avant-garde and progressive rock themes of the 1970s, but there isn’t anything at all like this album.
Perhaps recognizing that repeating the past would be tame, Von have instead chosen to make a form of ritual music that sounds like a collision between black metal, later Danzig and a horror movie soundtrack. The songs are just as simple but more musical, and are generally played more slowly but have a stronger sense of developing theme.
Like a soundtrack, these songs are designed to fade into the background and influence mood rather than command attention. Much like a few repeated notes signal a dark theme ahead in a movie, these songs use very similar melodies to horror movie soundtracks and presage a limitless and expanding fear. The mood is similar to Profanatica‘s Profanatitas de Domonatia or Demoncy‘s Enthroned is the Night. Much as in a horror movie we watch the characters go into the room where evil lurks, or prepare to yank aside the curtain covering what they fear, this album exudes a menacing sense of impending and inexorable threat.
Percussion works in a way that is rarely seen outside of opera. Its timekeeping functions are present when the music is uptempo, but for slower pieces it forms pure mood, a clomping footstep like the tread of an executioner. Guitars play very similar patterns repeatedly and nearly constantly, but are frequently overlaid with background chaotic noise that like distortion itself brings out submerged harmonics and gives the music added body and menace.
Melodies themselves sound like horror movie music tinged with the more listenable vein of occult or dark rock, sounding sometimes like Danzig’s later works and sometimes like the Sisters of Mercy. They fit together well and evoke moods clearly and strongly, which makes this album more interesting for repeated listens than Satanic Blood. The ritual nature of the pacing of song development, coupled with the uncanny ability that vocals had on the first album to trigger a sense of dread and despair by offsetting rhythm like an attacker outside the law, builds momentum behind this atmosphere.
Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves is going to take many by surprise. It’s sparse, meaning that it’s not a constant wall of sound; it is often slower and more theatrical; it is complex in that many simple riffs together tell a story more than cyclic complex riffs can. It is experimental, in that while this style could be called black metal, there’s a lot more going on, but unlike “kitchen sink” bands who throw in other genres at random, everything here is fused into one consistent and expressive style.
While this may not deliver conventional metal thrills, Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves shapes its minimalistic riffs into a changing atmosphere of morbid curiosity and onrushing fear. The result is overwhelming, like a vision of hell brought to earth, and with its convoluted and esoteric patterns shows us darkness revealing itself before our eyes, while we stare at the screen too scared to scream.