Friday, 21 December 2012

Feature: Black Solstice: Ten black-metal classics

Today marks the Winter Solstice, and that put me in the mood for some black-metal. Fortunately, I've been thinking of making a list of some black-metal classics for some time, and there are more of those than the casual observer might be lead to believe. Today I've tried to go beyond the entry-level of the genre, and bring to you all a list of some of the lesser-celebrated, but equally deserving of recognition black-metal albums. Some are from the early nineties - even as old as the foundations of the genre, whilst others instead are more recent, but have turned heads.

Without further ado, lets venture into the cold, misty landscape which exists just beneath the dominant, and most accessible forces within the genre. That isn't to say that the bands listed herein will be obscure to a high extent - far from it, many will be known to all but the most inexperienced enthusiast for the genre. To put it another way, this list is for the fan who has listened to Mayhem, Burzum and Darkthrone, and isn't sure where to go next.


#10: Thorns - Self Titled: Snorre Ruch, the man behind Thorns is, quite possibly one of the unsung heroes of the early Norwegian black-metal scene. Under the name Blackthorn, he contributed his guitar playing and even material to Mayhem's landmark De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas album, as well as being closely tied to the scene as a whole at that time. Thorns is now Snorre's main project, and is the first experience many will have of industrial black-metal. The album flawlessly combines the neat, angular pulse and rhythm of industrial music with the cold, caustic riffs which Snorre excels in creating, which are among the finest in black-metal.

#9: Sigh - Scorn Defeat: Quite possibly one of Japan's very first black-metal bands, Sigh's "Scorn Defeat" album of 1993, released on Euronymous' Deathlike Silence record label, can equal or surpass anything that Norway was managing to conjure at the time. It's darkness and sheer oozing ferocity really being a point to notice throughout the record.  At the same time, the album manages to incorporate various extraneous styles, particularly elegant synth use in places,  a sign of the avant-garde leanings which would shape the band in years to come, and would lead the band to continue to release fresh and novel releases since.

#8: Summoning - Minas Morgul: Black metal has always had a penchant for fantasy themes, particularly the universe of Tolkein. Few bands can rival Austrian outfit Summoning on the matter; with lyrics almost entirely devoted to Lord of the Rings, the bands second album, 1995's Minas Morgul is a classic, and thoroughly indicative of the bands overall style; soaring keyboards and tremolo riffs weave hypnotically around thundering sequenced drums, generating a sound which is hugely evocative and beautiful, favouring a majestic and epic style, compared to the typical darkness of black-metal.

#7: Windir - Likferd: Windir disbanded after the tragic death of Valfar, the bands mainstay. Their final album, Likferd, manages to be scathing, cold and windswept, with all of the accompaniments one might expect on an album with such an atmosphere. At the same time, however, Likferd is extremely dynamic, with a great deal of variety, and memorable melodies, from synth, guitar, and occasionally haunting clean vocals. This creates a fantastic balance of the acidic, fierce side of black metal, and it's more majestic side, evoking images of mountains, and the sound of the north wind, both harsh and beautiful.

#6: Gehenna - Seen Through the Veils of Darkness (Our Second Spell): On this album, Gehenna certainly manage to adequately encapsulate a variety of black-metal's most enjoyable styles of atmosphere, combining beauty with a dark and evil chill. Gehenna excell in creating the twisted, occult sound which can often transform black-metal from being good to being absolutely great. Seen Through the Veils of Darkness is definitely an unsung classic of the Norwegian black-metal scene, and there is no doubt that it can hold its own against any other albums released that same year, Norwegian or otherwise.

#5: Leviathan - The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide: The US doesn't have the best reputation for black-metal, but once in a while a genuinely great band emerges. Leviathan, like many bands in the US scene, are deeply rooted thematically in depression, and a human, emotional darkness, instead of in the hellish demonic clutches which many European bands lyrics are in. To put it bluntly, Leviathan's sound is truly venomous - filled with loathing and vitriol, as articulated by dynamic and heavily distorted riffs, and inventive song-writing; the album is full of surprised, but even more filled with misanthropy.

#4: Blut Aus Nord - Ultima Thulee: Blut Aus Nord are particularly known for their incredibly atmospheric and experimental albums, but sticking with the relatively pure-black-metal nature of this list, I'm focusing on the debut album Ultima Thulee, which is a fantastic album in its own right. Even in 1995, when the album was released, it was no doubt apparent that the band were going to do something unique, and the Norse spiritual exploration that is Ultima Thulee is certainly a testament to that fact, with primitive but expertly played synthesizers meeting atmospheric guitar work and an ingeniously creative ethos. The result sounds like no other.

#3: Drudkh - Autumn Aurora: Drudkh have been around for about a decade now, and have a work-ethic which is nothing short of impressive, having released nine albums in that time. Autumn Aurora is one of their early works, and is very much a landmark album within atmospheric black-metal, with a chaotic but extremely beautiful sound - distorted but at the same time carrying great tranquillity and the spirit of the forest with it. The album takes the listener on a winding and contemplative musical journey, which passes through both intense but at the same time thoughtful black-metal, punctuated by beautiful acoustic passages.

#2: Primordial - A Journey's End: Primordial are one of those bands the listening to of which is never a question of "if" but always one of "when". Combining Celtic folk music with black metal in a ratio which guarantees an epic atmosphere, with melancholy and epic songs, as opposed to merry or over-the-top ones, Primordial certainly represent the combination of folk and metal done precisely the right way. There isn't any beer or dancing in sight, merely atmosphere. Clean vocals soar hauntingly over the mix, creating a sound which, while not very caustic by black-metal standards, is extremely powerful and strong.

#1: Rotting Christ - Thy Mighty Contract: Rotting Christ are among the stalwarts of black-metal, having consistently and regularly released albums since 1993. While not as abrasive as many black-metal bands, and not exactly producing anything remotely akin to a wall of noise, Rotting Christ's epic atmosphere, memorable guitar riffs, and powerful, rhythmic beat makes them replete in majesty, atmosphere and energy. While I've not listened to the band for as long as I've known some of the bands on the list, I can safely say that with each of theirs album I listen to, the band prove themselves as a consistently reliable cornerstone of the genre.

Merry Solstice


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