Breaking through traditional genre boundaries.
Words by Ryan McCarthy:
Black metal is an inherently exploratory genre. More an ideological declaration than a predefined sound in its infancy, black metal today has a distinct sonic identity. But in spite of the musical pillars that uphold the genre, experimentation and straight-up weirdness are nothing new. This week’s column highlights two records that fall under the experimental umbrella, straying away from some of black metal’s tropes, and succeeding in producing albums that offer an innovative take on the traditions of the genre.
ADVENT SORROW - Kali Yuga Crown
ADVENT SORROW is an Australian black metal outfit formed in 2009. Despite the band being a decade old, the first time I ever heard ADVENT SORROW was in 2017 with their single Pestilence Shall Come. I was immediately hooked. There was something genuinely dark lurking just behind the walls of distortion on that six minute track, and I was instantly left wanting more. Finally, two years later, they delivered.
With Kali Yuga Crown, ADVENT SORROW has unleashed a unique and compelling brand of what probably qualifies as depressive suicidal black metal sans some of the usual trappings of the genre, most notably the howled vocals. Don’t get me wrong, the vocals on Kali Yuga Crown certainly sound tormented and inhuman, but they aren’t what you would traditionally associate with a DSBM band. Rather, they have a harsh, almost gargle-like quality, sounding like some demented emperor urging his soldiers on in the heat of battle.
Many of the riffs on this record are actually surprisingly emotional, conveying a sense of loss and longing for something unnamable. In contrast, some sections of this record are very slow, crushing, and militant, with an almost industrial quality. A quick glance at the album art and the track titles should give an idea of what sort of aesthetic ADVENT SORROW are crafting on this record. Seriously, this is some of the coolest and most original album art I’ve seen come out of the genre in years. A bit uncharacteristically for me, some of my favorite parts of this album were actually the slower, doomier sections. ADVENT SORROW has really achieved a very unique and effective blending of genres here.
The sound clip at the beginning of the second track, Wolf & Weapon, is incredibly unsettling and gives ADVENT SORROW a bit of regional flavor (considering most people I know outside of Australia aren’t familiar with Chopper Read and his… antics). But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t say that the Australian scene has a super defined sound, leaving ADVENT SORROW free to meld genres and styles to great effect.
Lyrically, they’re offering a mixed bag of murder, torture, and warfare - certainly not traditional fare for any band who could be identified as “depressive”. The lyrics actually remind me a bit of AUTOKRATOR (ONLY lyrically, of course, not sonically at all). The last track switches things up and seems to be a sort of requiem for the destruction of the natural world, which also fits well with the sense of loss conveyed by both the riffs and the name of the band. All in all, Kali Yuga Crown is an album that challenges the listener to set aside their preconceived notions and expectations and take the music at face value, and every time I listen I understand more and more why that’s a very good quality for an album to have.
Favorite Tracks: Caesar, Wells of Poison Water
MARDUK - Wormwood
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “MARDUK? That’s basically a household name when it comes to black metal.” And you aren’t wrong. I’m not necessarily saying that this record has gone entirely unnoticed, so much as saying that it’s been grossly underrated when compared to the rest of MARDUK's catalogue. Yes, MARDUK has records that I like more. And yes, this one is a bit of a far cry from what MARDUK traditionally sounds like. But I think that’s what makes it so unique - and under-appreciated. It’s worth noting that this was the first MARDUK record I ever heard, so I will admit right off the bat that nostalgia may be playing a role in this analysis. But I liked this record so much upon hearing it that I immediately bought a shirt from the band (an endeavor that was still a big deal to 15 year old me).
Wormwood is an incredibly unique album, and I’d almost go so far as to call it innovative. Sure, the framework of orthodox black metal is present, but MARDUK takes a lot of liberties with the conventions of the genre. Tracks like Funeral Dawn, Chorus of Cracking Necks, and As a Garment strike me as being especially exploratory and creative, utilizing strange production choices (like what sounds like a reversed guitar track on Funeral Dawn) and a weird, almost narrative vocal style.
If you were paying any attention you probably noticed that I harped on the vocals on Kali Yuga Crown, and there’s a reason for that. I think that the vocals on both of these records are some of the most interesting and dynamic that I’ve ever heard in black metal. They seem to descend directly from the lineage of Attila Csihar on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. They’re grotesque, theatrical, evocative, all the things that make black metal vocals one of the major identifying features of the genre - and one of its major appeals.
The bass work on this record is simply sublime, something that I don’t usually find myself saying about black metal records. It isn’t just there to accent the melodies or prop up the guitars. A unique stylistic choice, the bass on Wormwood is just as important an element as the guitars, existing in its own space and often doing its own thing. More black metal bands should take note of that - in a genre noted for its thin, trebly production, I think a lot of bands could benefit from the use of low end melody.
Favorite Tracks: Funeral Dawn, Phosphorous Redeemer, Whorecrown
As one of the most recognizable bands in black metal, there’s no question that MARDUK gets the attention that they deserve. But with that prolific streak comes the risk of some of their output being lost in the flood, especially those works that deviate from the formula that’s gained them so much attention and notoriety. My hope is that this article has encouraged you to visit (or, more likely, revisit) two albums that I feel took some creative risks and benefited greatly from the decision.
As always, thank you for supporting good music and the great people behind it all.