American Black Metal: An Introduction

Posted on 12/08/2011

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We haven’t posted consistently for a while due to circumstances beyond our control, so to make up for it I’ve written a monster post on AMERICAN BLACK METAL. Summer is in full effect and what better way to soundtrack beer pong, pool parties and wet t-shirt contests than with good ol’ USBM? For real though, my post on Washington, DC’s Westering got me thinking about the scene, which seems to be growing in its number of (notable) bands every year, and, after due consideration, I’ve put together a top ten list (in no particular order) of the essential releases of the genre as it’s stood since the last decade. I’ve limited the bands included below to more ‘contemporary’ artists, with all but one of the releases on the list coming out in the last three years, so don’t get offended about me not including Judas Iscariot, Weakling, Agalloch, etc. Aside from increased production values, the Scandinavian scenes haven’t developed to the extent that the American (and French) scene has since the Second Wave and I feel that the artists below are truly representative of just how far the genre has developed in the US. So, like, HAIL!

Nachtmystium – ‘Doomsday Derelicts’ EP [2009]

It would have been too easy to pick 2009’s landmark Assasins: Black Meddle, Part I as the go-to Nachtmystium release. While it is, in my opinion, by far the best thing the band’s put, out I think Doomsday Derelicts, released after the aforementioned album, perfectly captures just how many other directions this band could potentially go in. Standout track ‘Life of Fire’ could have fit in seamlessly between Assassins’ psychedelia-infused genre-bending, ‘Hellish Overdose’ finds the band in thrash mode, more punk than anything they’ve ever produced, while ‘Bones’ has enough blast-beatery and ominous tremolo picking to satisfy fans of their earlier, more ‘conventional’ material. Then they had to go and ruin it all with Addicts. Oh well.

Download: Mediafire

Castevet – ‘Mounds of Ash’ [2010]

The concept of combining black metal with an overt post-hardcore influence doesn’t even sound attainable, let alone listenable. Yet, somehow, Castevet did it to perfection on Mounds of Ash, surely one of last year’s best albums. Album highlight ‘Stones’ is played with surprising speed, a huge contrast to the mid-paced plodding that characterises so many releases in this genre. Dense production, surprisingly polished, slick riffs and a surprising amount of focus considering the fact that most of the songs go beyond the six-minute mark: Castevet provide a hint as to what black metal could eventually become.

Download: Mediafire

Wolves in the Throne Room – ‘Black Cascade’ [2009]

Enough has been said about WITTR‘s nature-loving, forest-dwelling inspirations, and the band seems sincere enough about it to convince me it’s a lot more than some ‘arty’ gimmick. Much more important is the resulting music: expansive, drawn-out black metal excursions, best exemplified, I feel, on Black Cascade, made up of four lengthy, epic tracks. ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”s ten minutes aren’t nearly as challenging as you’d initially think. It builds and builds until the last two minutes of total release, as majestic and, dare I say it, beautiful as it gets in this genre, superlatives equally applicable to this entire record.

Download: Mediafire

Cobalt – ‘Gin’ [2009]

Cobalt may be the original ‘war metal’ band but, in my opinion, the two-piece is much more versatile in their musical approach than the tag suggests. While Gin, an absolutely brilliant album, has more than a good deal of the bleak, violent BM we’ve come to expect from them, this record sees them take a more nuanced approach: tracks like ‘Throat’ and ‘The Old Man Who Lied For His Entire Life’ allow for breathing space, a change of pace from the intensity of tracks like ‘Arsonry’. Subtle touches like the vaguely discomforting intro to ‘Pregnant Insect’ provide this album with more dynamism, songs fueled by more than just general hatred and misanthropy. This is a band capable of inspiring faint unease rather than outright revulsion, a feat which is arguably even more impressive. The band’s wide variety of influences aren’t limited to black metal, and if this album isn’t convincing enough, then multi-instrumentalist member Erik Wunder’s americana/folk side-project Man’s Gin should be.

Download: Mediafire

Deafheaven – Demo [2010]

Deafheaven generated quite a bit of attention their 2010 demo, and even more with this year’s Roads to Judah LP; their brand of BM infuses a clear screamo (!), post-rock and shoegaze influence, which, of course, did a lot to enrage purists. While them claiming not to consider themselves a black metal band touches on the pretentious, don’t let that stop you from listening. With influences ranging from Finnish death metallers Vorum to lo-fi experimentalist Phil Elvrum, it’s really no wonder Deafheaven sound as eclectic as they do; see the song ‘Daedalus’ to hear a black metal band capable of writing, gasp, hooks!

Download: Mediafire

Ludicra – ‘The Tenant’ [2010]

This record truly serves as a eulogy to envy, an ‘album’ in the traditional sense: in need of listening from start to finish, in order to truly grasp it. Ludicra broke up recently, but then again, they’d be hard pressed to top this, their finest moment. It’s much more than black metal really, unabashedly steeped in heavy metal classicism and weaving in a slew of wide-ranging influences (no doubt aided by band members’ associations with such groups as Hammers of Misfortune and Slough Feg), raw black metal vocals combining with near prog rock style harmonies and galloping, distinctive guitar playing. Ludicra is a black metal band with a lead guitar player, shock of shocks. Songs like ‘The Tenant’ and ‘A Larger Silence’ successfully capture the bleak, anonymous nature of tenancy. This album is as rough as the San Francisco streets it’s inspired by; this is, in a sense, ‘urban’ black metal.

Download: Mediafire

Xasthur/Leviathan – Split [2004]

This is basically just a way for me to sneak in two bands with one release, because really, how could I write a post on contemporary USBM without including Xasthur and Leviathan, two of the most important and oft-referenced bands in the stateside ‘scene’. This split is as good a starting point as any in their sprawling discographies, Xasthur’s ‘Keeper of Sharpened Blades’ and Leviathan’s somewhat more slow-burning ‘Unfailing Fall Into Naught’ providing stellar examples of their brand of depressive, more traditional, Burzum-inspired BM. These are not happy people, and these two bands aren’t forerunners of the whole one man band ‘suicidal black metal’ thing for nothing. Xasthur eventually explored more varied territory on last year’s Portal of Sorrow (his final release), which featured heightened production as well as, more importantly, folk singer Marissa Nadler, while Leviathan put out his landmark Tentacles of Whorror LP in the same year as this split EP, although my go-to album would be 2008’s Massive Conspiracy Against All Life. Of this entire list, few bands have made as much of an impact and controversy as these.

Download: Mediafire

Woe – ‘Quietly, Undramatically’ [2010]

Every bit as willing to vary the foundations of their music as Liturgy (see below), though different in electing to let the album speak for itself, Woe‘s Quietly, Undramatically is both steeped in black metal tradition and eschewing of it, boasting both shrieks and (harmonised!) clean vocals, the ultimate BM taboo. This album is heartfelt, raw and, at its best, stunning. See the title track’s breathtaking peak and ask yourself why more people don’t listen to this band. Musically, Woe is somewhat comparable to the aforementioned Castevet, though less apparent with their post-hardcore influences. It’s really no wonder the band had/has some sort of feud with Liturgy; Woe’s music represents something fundamentally more honest and down-to-earth than Liturgy, steeped as it is in unfortunate faux-intellectual posturing. Don’t get me wrong though, Quietly is thick with compositional complexities, but they choose not to get so durned annoying about it.

Download: Mediafire

Liturgy – ‘Aesthethica’ [2011]

Uh, speaking of which… Almost as talented and innovative as they are pretentious, few metal bands have inspired as much of a backlash as Liturgy. Unfortunately, much of this has to do with frontman and multi-instrumentalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s reflections on black metal as a genre and his insistence upon his music’s “transcendental” qualities, while little of the mostly reactionary hatred is directed at the music itself. Aesthethica does, indeed, approach hitherto unexplored territory for BM, with songs like ‘Returner’ and ‘Generation’ providing both ‘typically’ high shrieks as well as decidedly uncharacteristic, almost math-rocky shifts in time signature, with impressive drumming workouts to match. It would all be a little pompous and overblown if there weren’t actual substance to this record but, seriously, there is, and it’s hard to deny when listening to a song like ‘High Gold’, ornately constructed and hugely creative in its presentation of the genre. Personally, I’m hugely interested as to where they’ll go next.

Download: Mediafire

Twilight – ‘Monument to Time End’ [2010]

In black metal, supergroups are a relatively rare breed, and the unfortunately named Twilight is surely the best of the lot. Featuring members of The Atlas Moth, Nachtmystium, Xasthur, Leviathan and Krieg, expectations were bound to be high considering this band’s combined resumé, and I daresay Monument to Time End did not disappoint. The song ‘8,000 Years’ is particularly impressive, with its layers upon layers of detail and its intense conclusion, no doubt influenced by producer Sanford Parker’s work with slow-moving post-rock bros Minsk, while ‘Red Fields’ comes across as more filthy, decrepit and downright miserable than the band could have hoped for. This record is very nearly the sum of its parts.

Download: Mediafire

Also Noteworthy:

Krieg – ‘The Isolationist

Ash Borer – ‘Ash Borer

Absu – ‘Absu

Bone Awl – ‘Meaningless Leaning Mess

Krallice – ‘Dimensional Bleedthrough

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Posted in: Album Download, List