This article was contributed to Death Metal Underground by Ludvig Boysen.
A lot of music claims to be metal without actually being metal these days. This music placed on equal footing with the classic metal masterpieces generates hostile reactions. But what if no one claimed that it was metal? How would we think of the music then? Would it be mislabeled good music or mere crap? That is what I try to find out with this review of The Mantle by Agalloch. I had a neutral and open mind while listening to it, not concerning myself with anything but the music itself.
Neoambient gains another stronghold. This genre — constructed of film soundtracks, Dead Can Dance style medievalism, neofolk and dark ambient with some structural ideas from black metal — rose out of the ashes of black metal, with bands like Beherit, Neptune Towers (Darkthrone), Lord Wind (Graveland), Danzig (Black Aria) and Burzum leading. On The Ways of Yore, Burzum integrates organic sounds like vocals and guitar into the cosmic ambient that defined the last album, Sôl austan, Mâni vestan.
The Ways of Yore creates within the same spectrum of music stretching between Dead Can Dance and Tangerine Dream that marked the previous album but with even more of an ambient feel. Songs rely on repetitive patterns with layers of instrumentation and song structures that shift to develop melody or make dramatic contrast enhance the imitation of their subjects. As in ancient Greek drama, poetry and music merge with sole musician Varg Vikernes‘ spoken and sung vocals guiding the progress of keyboard-sample-based music. Melodies refer to each other across the length of the album through similarity and evoke themes from past albums, culminating in “Emptiness” which previously made itself known as “Tomhet” on Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, the album that ended black metal by raising the bar above what others could imitate.
Somber moods prevail throughout this work which mixes melancholy with a sense of reverence for the past. Hearing Varg sing and develop harmonies with his voice shows room for expansion by this creative musician who previously let the guitars do the talking. Guitars show up on later tracks, distorted in the shuddering but mid-tone texture that gave Filosofem its otherworldly sound. Even though songs begin with simple note clusters, they expand to full melodies which match to a cadence and regulate atmosphere. The result demands attention through its conquest of empty space with the barest of sounds but over time reaches an intensity of expectation that resembles a ritual.
What makes people love neoambient is that it obliterates the pace of modernity and replaces it with a reverent, transcendental atmosphere. Burzum takes an approach that aims at a sound older than medieval, a primeval cave-dwelling primitivism that strips away the pretenses of developed culture. Its striking Nordic imagery, including songs to Odinn and Freyja, add to this mystery and the Burzum mythos as a whole. Escaping black metal, while controversial, granted Vikernes a chance to explore the development of melody in silence, and the result serves to expand atmosphere beyond our age to something that is both ancient and futuristic.
The movement that some are calling “neoambient” — a fusion of dark ambient, Conan soundtracks, and neofolk — generally arose out of the metal community. The classics of the genre converge on Lord Wind (Graveland), Burzum and Black Aria (Glenn Danzig). In addition, metal bands contributed to related forms of epic ambient, like Beherit (Electric Doom Synthesis) and Neptune Towers (Darkthrone). Newer entrants like Winglord and Hammemit explore different paths along similar directions.
But how do we trace the influences and evolution of this genre? Glenn Danzig (Misfits, Samhain, Danzig) launched a partial revolution in 1992 with his Conan-inspired Black Aria. Several years later, Burzum followed this with Daudi Baldrs and Hlidskjalf, both of which used Dead Can Dance-themed ancient world music to frame the epic nature of its compositions, giving it a feel not just of Conan-styled epic conflict, but of a cultural basis.
There’s another influence lurking just a few years before Danzig — affirmed by Rob Darken as an influence on his music in Lord Wind — which was the music of Clannad as used in the BBC series Robin of Sherwood:
It is one thing to become acknowledged within your genre as a leader. It is still another to reach outside that genre, and become more than an artist, but a sage.
A sage is part explainer of the past, part philosopher and part artist who makes the future seem full of interest and beauty. No matter how long someone labors in popular music, they will eventually desire to become the village sage, because that is a position above entertainer. It is a trusted voice that is a guide for culture.
Steve von Till rose to fame with Neurosis, whose music he took far beyond hardcore into the realm of psychedelic and experimental music. With this re-issue of his solo album from 2000, we can hear his voice develop from rage and ambiguity to a desire to reform culture itself. This acoustic guitar album shapes itself from simple melodies and muttered, droning vocals melded into slow atmospheric songs.
As The Crow Flies attempts to create a folk music out of the postmodern time, having let the ashes of dystopia fall. These songs are sentimental and emotional, but not in the cloyingly insistent way that pop must be. Instead, like the music of Tom Waits or Dead Can Dance, songs try to nail the feeling of a particular time in life and galvanize us toward both clarity and an amorphous desire to surpass the past.
von Till carefully paces the album so that songs appear in a varied order, using additional instruments sparsely to differentiate themselves, such that mood is not broken but slowly changes like a banner twisting in a nearly-becalmed afternoon wind. These are songs both unexpected and familiar which wring out of our decaying age a new reason to believe in the emotional power of living, and that makes As The Crow Files a success of a different color.