Best of 2015: Conor’s Top 50 Releases of the Year

Best of 2015 by Conor Fynes
Prev1 of 5Next

How to define a year? Cramming any year into a few words would do a disservice to the number of things that went on, and 2015 is certainly no exception. With regards to progressive rock in particular, I might call 2015 a slower year than others. If the way my year-end list turned out waxes any indication, it was far more a year for metal. And what a year it was in that department.

Prog Sphere readers looking for a more purely progressive outlook on 2015 may feel slighted with this list. I do think some of the most interesting (and, indeed, progressive) music coming out today stems from the metal sphere. Of course, it’s inevitable many would disagree with that statement, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Proggers looking for a more specialized recommendation should check out The Tea Club’s Grappling, an incredibly challenging prog rock record that kept me busy for many nights.

Of course, this is by no means a definitive list of what shined brightest in 2015, and I would never want to brand it as such. As such, I am sure there are a ton of great albums I didn’t get around to hearing. If you have something you think I may not have heard, you can drop me a line at [email protected]

50. Vanum – Realm of Sacrifice

At a point now where labels are no longer essential support for a band to be heard, signing with a label becomes a mark of kinship as much as a financial contract. Boutique labels are often curated according to their founder’s personal taste, so a band signing on with a trusted name becomes a recommendation of sorts. So it is for Profound Lore, at least. From Agalloch through to Mitochondrion and Leviathan, I know to trust the label whenever I’m looking to hear a fresh sound from the North American extreme metal landscape.

It is via Profound Lore’s roster that I first heard the name Vanum, and the label’s endorsement that first made me interested in checking them out. For what it’s worth, I don’t think a better label could have been chosen to distribute Realm of Sacrifice. This is a four track hulk of atmospheric black metal, with a lean on beautiful minimalism that reminds me of Drudkh‘s own debut, Forgotten Legends. Add to that, a liberal helping of post-metal oriented distortion, a bent for sad melodies recalling a slew of bands labelled as ‘dark metal’, and a fiercely organic production job with due emphasis on that most clandestine of black metal ingredients– the bass guitar. Mix these together and you get a laundry list of go-to traits for the melancholic corner of American black metal. Vanum are making music drawn from the foundations of many of their longer-standing labelmates. It may have been a recipe for real mediocrity, but Vanum know how to wring the best out of the ingredients they’ve used on this album.

Vanum may be a relatively new name, but the two guys involved are fairly seasoned. Both are members of Ash Borer (another Profound Lore act) in varying respects, and drummer Michael Rekevics is a primary force in Fell Voices as well. Vanum is a fitting partnership it seems, stemming from a school of bands that affirm Weakling‘s enduring influence in the ‘American’ sphere. Although anyone who has heard something of Ash Borer should have a fair idea what to expect from Vanum, I would say the bands these guys are most associated with leave a stronger mark than this. As stylistically similar as Ash Borer is (full-bodied sound, long minimalistic songs, you know the drill) there is an elemental force to that band’s music that makes it feel vital. In the case of Fell Voices, I’ve loved the way they would contort the Cascadian formula with murkier sound experiments. As for Vanum, then? It’s American black metal alright, but Realm of Sacrifice doesn’t really come through with a sound the project can call its own.

The first time listening through Realm of Sacrifice played like a who’s who of familiar traits from familiar sources. As I mentioned previously, Drudkh‘s Forgotten Legends was the first album that came to mind as I put the album on. The organic tone and central riff of “Realm of Ascension” is strikingly similar to Forgotten Legends‘ own opener “False Dawn”. Although nowhere as atmospheric as that classic, the association should offer a point of reference as to the angle Vanum are playing from. The mainstay of their playing time is structured around long reaching structures, with major emphasis placed around a few major riffs. While Vanum‘s songs are certainly blown up with the help of minimalistic repetition, there’s a calculated sense of dynamic in the compositions I think a lot of atmospheric black metal tends to lack. Some of the slower sections recall post-metal in the shade of Altar of Plagues, and lead-driven moments are comparable to Wolves in the Throne Room or even Agalloch.

I suppose if you’re going to be drawing from the shared aesthetics of other established acts, it’s best to go for the best. In this sense, I’d say Vanum have great taste. The ingredients used on Realm of Sacrifice really does sound like a patchwork of the Profound Lore roster. If it’s better to judge Vanum instead for the way they’ve organized those sounds together, they may fair a bit better under the microscope. The rises and falls in their songwriting are commonplace for post-black metal, but the predictability doesn’t totally belie the effectiveness of these tricks. In truth, the ideas on Realm of Sacrifice are actually very solid, and for the life of me I wish I could enjoy them as much as they might deserve. Alas– each time I’ve put the album on, the music strikes my ear like a composite of USBM bands; powerful and well-crafted in its own right, but otherwise lacking a void of its own.

49. Tsjuder – Antiliv

Tsjuder have long crossed me as– how shall I put this lightly– a band someways behind the forefront of innovation. By the time they released their debut Kill for Satan in 2000, the Norwegian Second Wave had arguably given way in part to a ‘Third Wave’; Ved Buens Ende and Dødheimsgard had brought black metal out of the shadows and into the depths. Compared to a band like the similarly traditional and rock-influenced Taake, I wouldn’t say Tsjuderhave ever excelled in purely conventional terms either, arguably outside of the excellent Desert Northern Hell a decade ago. At a time now, where the strange and the groundbreaking are considered ‘normal’, Tsjuder has stuck with an old and familiar way along the course of their career, and they’re not looking to change that with Antiliv.

With all that said, I would argue there is a timelessness to conventional black metal that ultimately outweighs most flavour of the day experimentation. Tsjuder have only once ever stood out from the crowd in this regard, but for a band that delivers exactly what you’d expect, they can’t be faulted for a lack of consistency. The all-too familiar Second Wave sound is rife on Antiliv, and I’m not surprised it’s only made mild ripples upon its release, but I think Tsjuder have proven here once again that music need not necessarily be exceptional to be enjoyable. That is probably a less-than-tender way to summarize my thoughts towards Antiliv, but each time I hear it, the words ring true. Tsjuder are just as immersed in the Second Wave lore as ever, and Antiliv makes ample use of the traits the Norwegian A-list were realizing around the time these guys were forming their first demos. And you know, it’s not something that transcends any expectations, but Tsjuder to a solid job of retracing past steps here.

In saying this, it should not be inferred that the music on Antiliv could somehow masquerade as an early 1990s album. All their essential ingredients are being drawn from that common source, but Tsjuder‘s post-reformation work sounds like they’ve tried to join the modern world with higher production values and a busier approach to their riffcraft. In some reserved way, I am impressed that Tsjuder have remained true to their chosen conventions in spite of their development. The production is almost blasphemously crisp compared to the albums that influenced them here, but Tsjuder still manage to invoke a classic atmosphere. Obvious black n’ roll signposts are abundant on Antiliv (check “Demonic Supremacy” to hear what I mean) but the resulting atmosphere never sounds like something other than true black metal, coldly pure and straightforward.

While the songwriting on Antiliv itself doesn’t stand out (“Krater”, for example drags on too long, and other songs blend too close together) Tsjuderestablish themselves as very solid riff writers. The whole black n’ roll approach usually comes up dry to my ears, but in Tsjuder‘s case it boosts their present black metal atmosphere with a renewed energy. Knowing whether or not a band truly ‘gets it’ has much to do with the execution of the material, and it’s for the performance I find most of Antiliv‘s enjoyment derives. AntiChristian’s drums beckon frantic fills whenever the opportunity unveils itself, and Nag’s extremely conventional rasp is surprisingly effective when it comes to conjuring the dark atmosphere.

Tsjuder do nothing to tempt new levels of extremity in any avenue of their music, but I think it’s all too easy to overlook the inspiration needed in really nailing down a sound, no matter how familiar it may be. Antiliv retraces the classic formula sans refreshment, sure, but I could name just as many or more bands that fall far short because they don’t truly understand what they’re setting out to accomplish. For what it’s worth, Tsjuder really gets it, and for that it’d be impossible to dismiss Antiliv purely on the grounds that it’s something we’ve all now heard before.

48. An Autumn for Crippled Children – The Long Goodbye

My feelings towards the ‘blackgaze’ trend are admittedly forged upon the grounds of contradiction. When the fusion began to consolidate sometime around 2010, I immediately loved the uplifting analog to DSBM brought on by bands like Alcest and Heretoir. In the years since, I’ve become increasingly jaded, at least in theory, to the concept and implications behind blackgaze. Beyond the semantics qualm regarding whether an inclusive, ‘positive’ variety of black metal is a direct contradiction of terms, the genre was quick to stagnate; the overwhelming praise for Sunbather was cringeworthy, and I’d hesitate to say the style has produced another masterpiece since Écailles de Lune. I should like to think I don’t like blackgaze. I find myself temporarily brought back to the fold whenever listening to An Autumn For Crippled Children however, a band so demonstrative of blackgaze aesthetics I might recommend them first to whomever was intrigued in discovering the style.

An Autumn For Crippled Children have stayed true to the blackgaze paradigm throughout their career, navigating that wispy medium between depression and melancholic hope, with understated screams, upbeat rhythms and wave upon wave of melodic noise to stay their course. With relatively little change from album to album, it’s almost shocking to think The Long Goodbye is their fifth full-length. For an act with six years of prolific history who drape their genre-tag over everything they do, there’s very little novelty or surprise to the band’s work at this point. Admirers will continue to find themselves lost in the aquatic haze, though some may find themselves beginning to tire. Detractors, as always, will no doubt regard it with the same soporific apathy AAFCC have always tempted. For my own stake in it, however? Should I hold their stagnation against them; do I love them for their consistency? In most cases where the mind draws a blank, the heart knows. The heart is ultimately what AAFCC mean to infiltrate with their music, and with some of the songs they’ve offered with The Long Goodbye, they manage to infiltrate right to the core.

An Autumn for Crippled Children have capably continued the sound off their past albums, most recently Try Not To Destroy Everything You Love from 2013. And again, to describe that sound would be to define blackgaze en toute. Where many fusion-centric acts emphasize one half of their blend over the other, AAFCC are so indicative of the style for the fact they like to stay fixed in the very middle. Though The Long Goodbye is arguably best described as a metal album over all else, every sharp edge inherent to black metal has been rounded of. Some of the negative feeling remains from the original recipe of course, but even that is tempered by hope and ultimately benevolent intentions. Where depressive black metal functions as catharsis via submission to negative energies, AAFCC resists negativity without resistance at all. The guitars are murkily distorted, but otherwise devoid of distortion; their songwriting is gently guided by consonance and melody alike. Even Mchl’s vocals– the most traditionally ‘kvlt’ ingredient of all– are quietly embedded in the mix enough to subvert their power. The Long Goodbye is a peaceful album, and it dare not provoke whomever listens to it.

This description undoubtedly bears negative associations, and indeed, in the majority of cases, a band that had sought to declaw themselves to such an extent would tempt immediate dismissal from my listening diet. If there’s anything that keeps AAFCC from excommunication however, it’s that they actually achieve what they set out to do– the feelings of forgiveness and uplifting warmth, that is. I certainly hesitate to call it black metal of any sort, but as I’ve listened to The Long Goodbye, I’ve noticed a quiet longing emerge in my stomach. That’s the sort of gut reaction I’d have when thinking of loves long lost, or sad films. The truth is that An Autumn For Crippled Children are very, very good at crafting their soft noise. Though it demands absolutely nothing of the listener, they hide gorgeous melodies in the mix just deep enough to make repeated listens worth the time. “A New Form of Stillness” is arguably the best composed track of the lot, but no part of the album establishes my last point better than “Only Skin”, where cloudy synth tones beautifully emerge through the guitars, but just barely, as though they’re making the most of their last, gasping breath to shine a light through the fog of the guitars, and guide the listener home. Or something like that.

The Long Goodbye is a pleasant album, and in the future, it’s probably something I’ll put on while I’m writing, or trying to relax before sleep.  In a broad sense, An Autumn for Crippled Children have actually reinforced my cynicism towards blackgaze. I am not challenged or awestruck by any of the music here, and The Long Goodbye would much rather hinge upon the band’s past advancements than its own. But I cannot help but acknowledge the immersive beauty they’ve crafted again with this album. Like I said before: the heart doesn’t lie.

47. Outre – Ghost Chants

Between this and the new Mgla and Blaze of Perdition albums, Poland has been really impressing me with its black metal exports this past year. Compared to those two, Outre is a relatively new name, having only released the EP Tranquility and a split with Thaw before unveiling Ghost Chants in 2015. To be honest, my first impression when I heard the band name was to recall the like-titled album by Portal,  and though the two bands share little in common musically, I think it was right to prepare for something twisted and ugly nonetheless.

I have heard Outre described as progressive, or even experimental. From the get-go, it should be stated that Ghost Chants is a more conventional album for its time than the spastic performance and dissonance would seem to suggest. Many of the album’s traits would have been considered avant-garde in 2006 when Fas – Ite Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum was released to the world, but at a point now where everyone is trying to be avant, it’s necessary for the definition of the word to change. What Ghost Chants is, is a nicely solid album in the vein of Deathspell OmegaOutre don’t quite excel with it the same way Blaze of Perdition and Absconditus have in recent memory, but at a time where I’ve been thirsting insatiably for this sort of black metal, it scratches the right kind of itch.

If the lyrics are any indicator, Ghost Chants was a well-chosen name for this album. Outre are transfixed on the question of that cloudy, liminal region between life and true death. Compared with some of their contemporaries, Outre delivers a fairly straightforward treatment of the subject matter, and the approach works. Vocalist Stawrogin (notably here only in a guest capacity, apparently) sounds like a man who is legitimately terrified of “the unknown” and “heaven’s loss.” As a loose concept binding the album together, this is more emotionally compelling than the predictable display of metaphysical mad-libs you see spouted by other bands.

In contrast with the “avant-garde” bands they’re likened to, Outre‘s musical approach shares this discipline for relative straightforwardness. Ghost Chantscan be sonically overwhelming, but most of the craziest elements they offer here are accoutrements to benefit the atmosphere: an errant scream in the background, a dominant bass presence, a multi-layered vocal burst. These are the sorts of things that could have conceivably been done without, but Ghost Chants really benefits from the careful execution. Strong musicianship is easy to take for granted these days, but it should be noted that Outre have got it where it counts. In particular, I’m impressed with Maciej Pelczar’s tireless assault on the drumkit. Much like the band as a whole, he isn’t painting with unfamiliar strokes in his blastbeats and rolling fills, but he’s nonetheless executing them with a passion that should be clear to any who hear it.

I find that, in the case of technique or atmosphere-based music, the value of strong songwriting tends to get downplayed. Consider that doubly so when the music in question is atmospheric and technical. While I enjoy Ghost Chants a fair bit, I know for certain it’s not a result of their songwriting. Outre are as good as any band at layering up their arrangement with eerie bells and whistles, but I don’t think there’s a point on the album where I find myself surprised or intrigued about where the band has taken a given song. Many of these riffs are solid in of themselves, and I do think Outre shows flashes of brilliance in what they’re writing, but the compositions don’t take a life of their own. The averageness of their songwriting didn’t strike me until listening to the album a few times. For what it’s worth, Outre are a band that put atmosphere ahead of anything else, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find lots of it on Ghost Chants.

I do not think this band has made the A-list of their style the first time around, but I think Outre excels in enough areas to warrant putting them on the map. This style of DSO-derived black metal has long since reached its saturation point, and I do think it’s had the effect of making the merits of bands like Outre seem less vibrant than they should be as a result. But given that this is the popular trend currently, I would hope to hear something altogether fresh thrown in with the familiar. That remains true, even if the band in question executes the latter admirably.

46. Akhlys – The Dreaming I

I like to think I’ve been around long enough to have doubt towards hype, especially when said hype is being veered towards a relatively new artist. As a rule, hype is fickle more times than it is substantive, and it never lasts for long. All the same, when there is more worthwhile music out there to hear than could be heard in several lifetimes, I’ve come to believe there’s always a clear reason why this band might be getting attention in the place of others. The hype may be justified (see: Cult of Fire or Bolzer) or even contrived (see: Myrkur) but hyped albums do, in large part, define the musical dialogue for a year.

That I saw people decry Akhlys‘ The Dreaming I as potential AOTY material when we weren’t even halfway into 2015 should have been met with a dismissive rolling of eyes, but the fact that this praise was coming from people who really knew what they were talking about got me excited about it. That excitement was intensified when I saw the surreal artwork, and intensified further still when I discovered the project’s association with Nightbringer. Considering Akhlys‘ history as a dark ambient project (whose debut Supplication was purely ambient) it makes more sense that The Dreaming I is far more based in atmosphere than Nightbringer, and indeed moreso than the majority of black metal I’ve heard this year.

The specific choices in style on The Dreaming I make the album a bit tricky to review. Although there is a solid sense of composition and melodic undertones to the vast pieces here, just about everything about Akhlys has been geared to the specific atmosphere; one clearly meant to evoke a sense of dreamstate. And I can easily see why this album has been so praised by some. For what it’s trying to accomplish, Akhlys has nailed an aura of dissociation. The production is clean, yet simultaneously muddied to the point where it sounds like the album is being heard from a great distance away. Quite like a dream, in that sense. Akhlys has been inspired in their pursuit of a surreal vibe, but I find the atmospheric choices have limited the music in other ways.

It’s a difficult and rare thing in a review where I am forced to mediate between my enjoyment of an album, and my perception of its actual quality. It’s only ever happened a few times– the times I go against the popular grain don’t count because I’ll usually think the album is overhyped– but where do I go with The Dreaming I? I have no doubt that Akhlys knew full well what they wanted to do with this album, and they certainly achieved it. But there must be good reason why it does not strike me with some degree of life-altering awe. So, with my review and rating, I’ve decided to let my subjective opinion have the final word. To their credit, I am very impressed that Akhlys have created a distinctive sort of atmospheric black metal on this first attempt. And I think any disappointment I have is a result from the fact that I know that this music is being conjured by the hands of potential masters. Their pursuit of atmosphere is very convincing, but the band’s distant, muddied sound feels underwhelming, almost like an integral point of the album’s design.

The guitars and drums, as cleanly produced as they are, are mixed into a murky jumble, and though all the ingredients are more or less audible, they lack the punch I’d hope to hear from these compositions. The vocals make a thin whisper-like delivery, as though a demon were trying to communicate with you via a dream. With “Breath And Levitation”, the effect is initially intense and profound. The use of melody amidst the murk and surrealism is powerful on the album’s opener, and I was convinced I was hearing one of the year’s best albums from this first track. While “Breath And Levitation” still strikes me as one of the year’s best black metal songs, I don’t get the same sense of awe from the rest of the album. Particularly on the overbloated “Consummation”, the concrete elements that gave Akhlys‘ atmosphere a backing of force have faded away into the background. The atmosphere remains, but gone are a lot of the things that would keep the music engaging in other ways.

The more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve come to regard The Dreaming I almost like an ambient record. The presence of eerie guitar leads on all tracks but the actual ambient closer “Into the Indigo Abyss” dare to argue this impression is inaccurate, but I do think there’s a certain sense in approaching The Dreaming I as a soundscape piece rather than a concrete composition. In truth, it is both. I don’t want to say that Akhlys should have eased up on their atmospheric bent however, because the very thing that underwhelms me about them is the thing that makes them stand out in my mind. Is The Dreaming I a great album? I think, like all truly surreal art, any interpretation is open to extreme subjectivity, and I think it’s better that way.

45. The Drowned God - The Ebony Void

Under the best circumstances, a good EP will act as much a teaser for future works as it is an experience of its own. I’ve heard countless pre-full-length EPs from bands before– most names of which I’ve long since forgotten– and I’ve come to realize that the best of them are ones that offer some sound I’ve never quite heard before. Given that the amount of music out there for digestion has never been so wide, it’s much easier said than done for a group to find their own niche. Thankfully, The Drowned God are one of the few that do. Although it’s clear they’ve left themselves some room to improve on the way to a full-length, The Ebony Void demonstrates a firm grasp of a style that should sound fresh to most of us hearing it.

In The Drowned God‘s case, they’ve furnished an amalgam of all things ‘post’ and lapped a Game of Thrones reference onto it for good measure. I wouldn’t say The Ebony Void is the first time I’ve heard post-metal paired with post-hardcore (Bosse-de-Nage nailed it with their own All Fours earlier this year) but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a blend like this. Where most of the post-hardcore dives into atmospheric metal tend to exploit the former’s penchant for angsty aggression and speed, The Drowned God build their compositions around well-calculated, methodical minimalism. It’s the sort of angle heard in a lot of ‘djent’ bands these days (Cloudkicker came first to mind listening to this EP) but The Drowned God offer none of the same palm-mute worship. The Ebony Void rides on its contrast between its calculated, austere instrumentation and its vocals, which are anything but. The screams here are arguably the only thing that might imply a fusion of styles, but the adolescent howl sounds completely unfamiliar in a sound palette usually paired with beefier growls.

Regardless how this style came together, know that sounds unique. It sounds like the sort of thing only The Drowned God could do, which- given the project’s relative infancy- is pretty high and mighty praise. I think they pull the style off really well too. The musicians’ experience is obvious in the way the guitar switches riffs seamlessly, the way the drums generally stick to a marching mid-tempo and manage to keep it sounding fresh. Above all, my strongest impression towards The Drowned God is regarding their atmosphere. The three songs here feel too packed with riffs and ideas to really sound like memorable tracks individually, but the band conjures a pretty rich atmosphere throughout the length. The Ebony Void feels advanced beyond the inaugural demos most bands put out; despite its length, it does sound like this EP was written as a single piece of music, and it should be listened to as such.

By the end, I think The Drowned God could have done with adding a little variety to their formula. Within twenty minutes, the sound starts too feel more familiar than it should. This is especially true for the vocals, which operate within a very limited (albeit angsty) spectrum. But flaws are to be expected with a first EP. I think The Drowned God have proven themselves more than worthy with this latest step. While I think they’ll need to do something to widen out their sound, the grasp of style is enough to make me think they’ve got what it takes to make a great debut when it comes time for such things.

44. The Unravelling – Tear a Hole in the Collective Vision

It is the ultimate irony with industrial music: Artists will use the sounds and timbres of the modern world as a means to ultimately condemn and criticize it. So it is, at least, or The Unravelling. Theirs is a somewhat tragic story that lends weight to their latest album. Their debut, 13 Arcane Hymns dropped a few years ago, and reception was warm. It looked like The Unravelling were on the cusp of some success when a bout of cancer in vocalist Steve Moore forced the group to go on hold.

It’s sobering to think about the way life can hinder and even ruin someone’s potential to express their art, and makes it all the more triumphant that The Unravelling finally came back together to release a follow-up. Even if you weren’t aware of the album’s backstory, I think you could pick up on the strain and tension in the music. Tear a Hole in the Collective Vision carries tension about its neck like an albatross. This is a work where it’s clear the two musicians threw all of themselves into it. The oppressive textures and dystopian atmosphere aren’t exactly new to industrial rock, but The Unravelling‘s passionate attention to focus makes the album work.

I think it’s really interesting that The Unravelling are a duo. Barring the fact that it’s rare to see two people making rock or metal on their own, the music here is one of the few cases where I can approach a band , without having known much of them beforehand, and hear individual personalities clearly at work. Steve Moore’s vocals run the spectrum from quiet and brooding, to scathing and theatrical, and widely pessimistic throughout. Where Moore is direct and visceral with his anger, multi-instrumentalist Gustavo De Beauville takes a more reserved route to the same ends. For an album hanging somewhere in the liminal space between Tool and Nine Inch NailsThe Unravelling‘s instrumentation remains aloof throughout. Even when they’re getting to their heaviest and angriest (see: “Master Drone”) Gustavo’s futuristic guitarwork and industrial percussion sounds meticulous and cautious. Combined with Steve’s brooding aggression, The Unravelling make a dynamic pair, and the complimentary differences between the two account for a lot of the album’s greatest successes.

Gustavo De Beauville’s careful arrangement is quite possibly the best thing about The Unravelling. There’s nothing in the way of showy musicianship here, though I get the feeling the music would have been worse off if there were. Instead, the talent is apparent in the way the sounds come together. Most impressive of all is De Beauville’s drum programming, which goes to great lengths to exploit the opportunities of electronic drums compared to the live alternative. As cold and dystopian as The Unravelling‘s direction obviously is, there’s surprisingly an organic warmth to the production that’s immediately pleasing to the ears. Very seldom has a band nailed such a warm sound in the digital age, and it’s all the more seldom to hear that warmth in a genre normally will seem to negate it.

Like Trent Reznor, I get the sense that Steve Moore is naturally a softer singer, but has way too many things to be pissed about to stay quiet for long. Most, if not all of the tracks on Tear a Hole in the Collective Vision showcase a range of his expression, ranging from the brooding to the fierce and maniacal. Screams aren’t beyond his repartee either, though they’re not always used to the best effect. As a frontman, Moore is always best when he sticks to being melodic. Not only is his voice arguably better suited for the melodic stuff; it offers a better contrast to the mechanical, texture-based instrumentation. When The Unravelling pair their instrumental heft with strong melodic writing, there’s magic to behold. “The Hydra’s Heart”, “Lucky Me” and “No One’s Song” all stand out for that reason. The effect is a lot less palpable when Moore veers for the edgier side of his vocal palate. His atonal croak leaves me dry; it doesn’t do anything the instrumentation didn’t already accomplish.

While I’m still not convinced by every facet of their sound, it’s plainly visible that The Unravelling feel their art as hard as they play it. While personal hardship may have snubbed their original potential for success, Tear a Hole in the Collective Vision may very well be proof that second chances can happen, and could be the ticket they need for greater things in the future.

43. Bureviy – Concealed Beyond the Space

There is an inherent connection between nature and the celestial. Pagan thought is usually quick to embrace both in a symbolic sense at least, and given that paganism is hinged on perceivable surroundings, it is little wonder that many in the faith would look to the skies for inspiration. While pagan-black metal tends to remain grounded (in more ways than one), my first impression towards Bureviy (or Буревій) was how complimentary they were able to make the two spheres, evoking space without losing any of their hearty folkish warmth. Upon my very first glance of the album cover, I thought I was looking inside a nebula. Were it not for the trees scattered throughout the bottom half, it may not have been so obvious that it’s actually a snowstorm. Certainly more predictable territory for a pagan-black metal band, but the celestial implication still weighs heavily on me every time I look at it.

That Concealed Beyond the Space isn’t quite as promising as its gorgeous artwork is little matter; Bureviy may not be treading outside the genre’s norm like the grand space-pagan fusion I may have been expecting, but for what they are and have set out to do on their debut, I’d say the Ukrainians have started on a noble path for themselves. I suspect many potential fans may come upon them for their links to their Darker Than Black labelmates Kroda– Kroda‘s live drummer Jotunhammer performs on the album, and their former bassist Beralb has also been a part of Bureviy at some point. Although I might say the association should bring some fans their way who will have an existing taste for Bureviy‘s music, it would go too far to say the two sound alike. Bureviy is considerably cleaner sounding, more melodic, and lacks the ambient whistles and synths that run heavily in Kroda‘s and most other pagan black metal. There’s still something to be said for a band that sticks to a strictly bass/guitar/drums instrumental unit, when the common trends lean otherwise.

For a debut, Concealed Beyond the Space offers some impressively well-rounded material. Although they’re cautious to extend much past the comfort of five minute song structures, the material nonetheless has the feeling of much vaster compositions. It rarely sounds like Bureviy are in any hurry to get their composition from points A to B. The material on Concealed Beyond the Space essentially manages to condense the experience of longer pagan-black epics into smaller sized doses, without compromising the ingredients themselves. Although there’s not a great deal behind the interlacing of acoustic guitars and sweeping melodic harmonies that serves to stand out from many of their peers, they know their way around composition, and write to suit their genre pretty well. Whether they go a step further and rewrite some of the book themselves remains to be seen.

The most striking element on Concealed Beyond the Space, undoubtedly, are the screamed vocals. Bureviy‘s music actually employs the use of two vocalists; one clean, the other harsh. Nemezis’ resonating baritone is virtually indistinguishable from the typical use of cleans in pagan metal, but White Fury’s howl is something else. It is the kind of tortured scream that might only sound comfortable in the most self-agonizing depressive black metal. It made sense of learn that White Fury is actually a woman (as is the band’s bassist, ValkyriAnn); from the very beginning, her vocals gave me the strong impression of a banshee, screaming blasphemy from the depths of the forest. Although Bureviy hits the expected marks in other areas, White Fury’s high-register howl will be a likely bump in the road for some. From where I’m listening, it adds a shade of individuality to Bureviy that might otherwise have been unfortunately lacking here.

Ultimately speaking, Concealed Beyond the Space is a solid statement from this new band, and while Bureviy may have a hard time distinguishing themselves with such a familiarly pagan palette, they’ve already demonstrated their potential in several ways, not least of all the chilling screams of their frontlady.

42. Gnaw Their Tongues – Abyss of Longing Throats

Every genre has natural limitations, and black metal is no different. As time goes on, an active scene will continue pushing a certain genre towards increasingly extreme heights by way of outdoing their predecessors, progressively amplifying it to the point a style either stagnates or risks transforming into something else entirely. Were it not for the fact the project’s sound itself has been fairly stagnant, I might say Gnaw Their Tongues represents black metal at its breaking point; vile, depraved and atonal to the point where it may better be described as noise or industrial than anything related beneath the rock and metal umbrella.

Abyss of Longing Throats is little new to Maurice de Jong’s distinctive output, but I can’t hold sticking to one sound against the man when he’s been operating in a league of his own. Gnaw Their Tongues is easily one of the strangest one man black metal bands ever to grace the sonicscape. It’s incredibly common for solo musicians to nonetheless specialize in one instrument and place the burden on that one skill. For nearly all of these musicians, the guitar is their key. For Herr Mories, the real instruments take a backseat to his talent with crafting noise. Even if Abyss of Longing Throats fails to impress as a black metal album, the dreadful, electronic-induced ambiance Gnaw Their Tongues evokes here is dominant and extreme enough to obliterate an unwitting listener.

Even if black metal is just considered by most as a niche interest, Gnaw Their Tongues should come with an added disclaimer. No matter how much is said or spoken about Mories’ extremely extreme music, whether you enjoy it will be determined by a fairly immediate gut reaction. If you’re new to Gnaw Their Tongues, you may love Abyss of Longing Throats for its depravity and frightening liberation from tact; you may hate it for the very same reasons. I can  admit my own bias in that while this album isn’t the first I’ve heard of GTT‘s sound, it’s the first album I’ve really chosen to dive in and give proper time to. It’s been said many times before (often in an openly critical context) that de Jong hasn’t switched up this horror atmosphere throughout the band’s existence. With that, it might stand to reason that some long since worn thin on the enjoyment. Having given his past work more regard in the time since, I could see my excitement being a fair bit dimmer if I’d be hearing this directly following the others, but I think this may well be the most musical demonstration of Mories’ sonic madness to date.

Abyss of Longing Throats practically unfolds like a symphony from some alternate reality. There’s very seldom a real break between these tracks, and there’s the overlying (albeit obvious) impression that the album is solely intended to be listened to from start to finish. For some, this may be more of a challenge than you’d expect from a 40 minute album. When the guitar does get its chance to flourish amid the electronic noise and horrorshow ambiance, it’s usually just as unfriendly and atonal as the rest of it. A handful of the tracks here (most notably “Through Flesh”) sound purposefully structured to some extent, but Abyss of Longing Throats isn’t intended for someone looking for experimentation bolstered with concrete means or reasoning. By this point in Gnaw Their Tongues‘ history, Mories knows exactly what kind of despondent, expressionistic horror he wishes to incite through his music, and his nichey set of skills have been developed around those ends.

Considering every black metal soloist is required by mandate to try his hand with ambient (and usually failing in the process), it’s actually refreshing to hear someone approach it with a master’s touch and a real heart of darkness. Abyss of Longing Throats‘ production may suffer from a cloudy mix, but I reckon this was a predictable flaw in the face of all of the sound injected into the music. Harsh noise tends to come in similar shades of static, but Gnaw Their Tongues shows atmospheric brilliance in its mastermind’s ability to pair this off with convincing industrial atmospheres. “Through Flesh” is my favourite example of this on the album; Mories isn’t beyond filling the sound with blanket noise in parts, but he balances it out by filling other parts with choral samples (akin to the wailing of sirens) and looming electronic horns. Beyond this, there is a monotonous chugging violin motif to keep up the song’s rhythm, as if to give the vulgar sound a dose of high class or sophistication.

It takes a fairly extreme project to make lighter moments sound like revelations. Maurice de Jong was clever to add more of them on Abyss of Longing Throats than usual. “Abyss of Longing Throats” (the title track) exemplifies how  Gnaw Their Tongues‘ sound can feel totally refreshed when he injects it with the more common parts of music. Using a deceptively uncommon guitar lead, he paints an air of human beauty atop the industrial depravity. It’s still far from what anyone would consider to be ‘pretty’ in the traditional sense, but it sounds a damn sight more distinctive than his familiar noise experiments. Abyss of Longing Throats is a potentially shocking album, even if repeated listens have become gradually less engaging as the initial novelty wears off. If you haven’t heard Gnaw Their Tongues before, hearing this album may be a revelation or else a nightmare to hear; either way, you’ll find it memorable. If you’re already familiar with it, you should already know exactly what to expect.

41. Fattener Viskar – Settler

It is interesting that the most controversial thing about Settler is its spacey album cover. It’s actually the reason Vatnett Viskar‘s latest album was brought to my attention, framed as the brunt of a joke by a friend for looking a sight less conventional by a black metal rubric. Of course, the means are justified by the artwork’s concept; inspired by a photograph of astronaut Christa McAuliffe in training shortly before dying in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. She looks happy in the photograph. Of course, anyone who sees that photograph knows more about her fate than she did at the time. With that, there is little wonder a single image could stir mixed, complicated feelings in anyone. That is the fundamental basis of melancholia, and I think looking at the artwork not for what it is, but what it represents, ties well into the feelings we’d hope to hear a band like Vatnett Viskar stir up.

I’m not interested so much with whether Settler constitutes as proper black metal, so much as that it is good, and that it nonetheless explores a darker range of feelings I would look for in black metal. Cursory listens to their debut Sky Swallower a couple of years ago were enough to put them on the radar for me, and it is good to hear them develop into a band that is driven largely by their fascinations. For whatever good describing them as sludgy post-black metal does (and that does peg their sound well) I distinguish their music, like the art, for what they’re trying to evoke with it. Vatnett Viskar are in awe of the universe, and my enjoyment of Settler stems in part from the fact they make me feel that sense of wonder while I listen to it.

Settler does not evoke space in an overt manner as with the cases of Darkspace or Mare Cognitum, but the fact that the music evokes the appropriate feelings is more than enough. Vatnett Viskar may not have changed the game they are playing with this album, but I always have time for an album that is elegantly written and passionately played like this one. I’ve heard scores of albums like Settler, and it’s easy enough to combine sludgy riff-centrism and black metal without raising much suspicion. Where I think Vatnett Viskar succeed where others struggle lies in their songwriting. Settler isn’t eclectic by any means, but the songs distinguish themselves on emotional grounds. If we’re to look at Settler as a single body of work, these songs could be seen to represent different stages of awe. Given the complexity of the album’s source image, it wouldn’t make sense to be painting exclusively in shades of darkness; the same applies even moreso to the blackgazing new guard who draw near-exclusively from the light side.

For Vatnett Viskar, they acknowledge the best way to evoke feeling is through contrasting different emotions against one another, like a subjective show-and-tell. These emotions range a great deal from song to song, but their songwriting is not beyond splicing feelings within the same track. Take “Colony” for example, which bursts open with liveliness, only to devolve into a plodding darkness at some point in the latter half. The different moods are often more apparent between songs. “Dawnlands” sounds appropriately optimistic, and it serves to give the slow-building tension on “Yearn” or the longing on “Heirs” a new context.

I really like the fact that Vatnett Viskar is a band that sincerely feels for the things that inspire them, not to mention their ability to translate that material into an appropriately vast range of emotional experiences. Emotional variety is something rarely attempted– let alone accomplished– within the black metal sphere. I may be less enthusiastic on other grounds however. “Heirs” and “Colony” are both self-contained masterpieces for what they are, but other songs don’t come close to the same sense of awe. For an album dealing with almost metaphysical revelations, it’s disappointing the album more or less peters out on “Coldwar”. The fact that armchair critics are so hung up on the artwork over the music is somewhat telling as well. Settler is relatively safe for what it is, and I’ve heard bands in the same style go a lot farther to push their own boundaries. When all is said however, the criticisms don’t mean near as much as the good things Vatnett Viskar have going for them. They’re clearly driven by a higher purpose, and if they can’t be accused of reinventing the wheel, their sense of daring to be emotionally diverse gives them an identity of their own.

Prev1 of 5Next

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: