Gloom and doom.
Words by Ryan McCarthy:
In black metal, atmosphere is the name of the game. Some people (old heads who think VENOM actually counts as a black metal band) will swear up and down that the genre’s defining characteristic is its obsession with Satanism. Were you to ask me, I’d tell you that black metal is certainly obsessive - but its preoccupation is atmosphere, not Satanism. I think what makes black metal immediately identifiable is that unmistakable ambience. This column will focus on two bands who are absolute masters in the atmosphere department.
IMPERIAL CULT - Spasm of Light
IMPERIAL CULT (not to be confused with the Indian IMPERIAL CULT, because apparently there’s two of them) is a Dutch three piece who wield a HEAVY style of atmospheric black metal, something that actually took me aback at first. Considering the name of the band and the stark black and white visual aesthetic, I was imagining them to be the newest offering in the recent wave of war metal bands. I get it, war metal is great, but there’s only so much you can do within the confines of that genre, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that this project is far from being the 497th iteration of CONQUEROR.
But that’s enough information about what IMPERIAL CULT isn’t. Let’s talk about what they ARE. To offer a rather confusing superlative, IMPERIAL CULT may be the heaviest atmospheric black metal band I’ve ever heard. Weird, I know, but bear with me. Spasm of Light is an absolutely frantic record. The drums sit very high in the mix, giving it an energetic, relentless pace that adds yet another layer of density to the swirling murk that is this 34 minute track. The vocals sound truly demonic. They’re powerful yet distant, giving the impression that something awful and ravenous is waiting for you just out of sight. The riffs tend to be fairly straightforward melodic tremolo picking, with the notable exception of the last 5 minutes or so, which offer a slow, brooding outro. Of course, straightforward doesn’t necessarily mean boring or uninspired, especially when the purpose of said riffs is to craft an atmosphere of desolate melancholy and malice.
As far as I can tell, this album is actually five or six tracks stuck together, which is fine; long songs are nothing new in black metal, especially among its more atmospheric practitioners. I actually like the decision to intentionally meld all the songs into one mega-track, which forces you to engage with the entire record all at once. It kind of feels like a digital homage to the vinyl era, when you had to become so intimately acquainted with a record that you learned the grooves in which each song began. At the end of the day, if you’re not paying very close attention, you won’t notice track breaks because there’s a very uniform and cohesive tone throughout. I'd be remiss to mention that this record was recorded LIVE. A 34 minute track... recorded live. That's not just impressive, it's inspired.
While IMPERIAL CULT as an entity is a newcomer to the scene, the musicians in its ranks are involved in a litany of projects - most of whom I’ve never heard of before. But in spite of their youth as a band, they’ve managed to successfully capture the timeless essence of black metal on their very first release. This record is not entertainment. It’s not catchy. It’s audial bleakness, as it was always meant to be.
Favorite Tracks: It’s one song, just listen to it.
ASH BORER - Cold Of Ages
ASH BORER is an American four piece who play a very similar style of audible yet murky atmospheric black metal. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing this band play live (in a bookstore (with all the lights off (no, not pretentious at all)) before I had ever listened to them on record and I think that experience really created a special resonance. This music is absolutely powerful, I have no other word for it. I’ve listened to Cold of Ages more times than I can count, and I truly can’t sing its praises enough.
There’s something genuinely eerie about this record. I can almost hear the cold, foggy landscapes of the Pacific Northwest being transmuted into music when I listen to ASH BORER, and I probably don’t need to mention that any band who can instantly transport you with their music is doing something right. Much like IMPERIAL CULT, ASH BORER seem to be huge fans of longer tracks, with the shortest song on this record clocking in at eleven and a half minutes. But, also like IMPERIAL CULT, these songs never waver; they’re focused, driven, and intentional throughout. ASH BORER in particular is one of the most engaging atmospheric black metal bands I can think of off the top of my head due to their readiness to embrace the ebb and flow of their songs, creating an almost orchestral character - without actually incorporating any orchestral instrumentation.
So what makes this such grandiose music? I find that the use of multiple-minute ambient passages, a healthy dose of trance-inducing repetition, and an ever-present sense of scale take these songs above and beyond what would otherwise just be a collection of riffs. There’s a sense of intentional creation on this record, as if the atmosphere was as consciously and carefully crafted as the riffs themselves. But while we’re talking about the riffs, they’re absolutely phenomenal. Some of them have stuck with me and have been instantly identifiable since the very first time I heard them years and years ago. ASH BORER also makes use of simplistic and rather sparse synth arrangements to supplement the melodic strength that’s already inherent on this record.
Favorite Tracks: Descended Lamentations, Convict All Flesh
Both Spasm of Light and Cold of Ages wholeheartedly embrace the murk and gloom that come with the territory of creating atmospheric black metal. The sheer length of these compositions forces the respective bands to focus on how each song works together as a whole rather than as a collection of riffs, bringing the notion of conscious atmosphere creation front and center. These album should be staples of the genre for anyone who’s interested in transportive, powerful music.
As always, thank you for supporting good music and the great people behind it all.