Sunday, December 27, 2015

Avant Noir [Black is the new Prog]

Since the beginning of its Norwegian incarnation, black metal has challenged popular notions of what it means to be a metal band. Euronymous and Fenriz spearheaded a renewed interest in genres not in vogue at the time - roots thrash and NWOBHM being the most obvious. But the second wave of black metal, with its fixation on classical music and classic metal, as well as its rejection of what was popular at the time, soon opened itself up to the encroaching influence of progressive rock. By the end of the 90's, no subgenre of heavy music was more boldly experimental than black metal. Ironically, that meant that black metal bands wandered even further from their tenets than any of the "life metal" bands that the second wave chastised.

Perhaps no Norwegian band characterized this progressive spirit more than Arcturus (a sentiment echoed by Mean Deviation author and prog metal scholar Jeff Wagner). They may have been the earliest Norwegian abnd to adopt these influences as well, going back to 1991's groundbreaking My Angel EP. Since then, they've blended prog, space rock, electronica, classical music and black metal in unique and sometimes baffling ways. The almost eponymous Arcturian continues in that mould, with the iconic vocals of ICS Vortex presiding over a sideshow symphony of  keyboard driven celestial metal. Stellar as in "of the stars"; stellar as in "superb".

Enslaved have been unabashed in their love of prog rock, going back to the Genesis and Pink Floyd influences that popped up on 2001's Monumension (though the band's members may insist that those influences were present even earlier). Since then, they've ridden the line between prog and black, never entirely giving up one for the other. Such is the case with In Times, the band's most focused album since 2010's DoC approved Axioma Ethica Odini. The new album sees Enslaved settling into a familiar pattern, alternating between Herbrend Larsen's clean vocals and Grutle Kjellson's croak. Abandoning Norse mythology for more abstract (and it has to be said, prog rock) themes, Enslaved may be the first vikings to go to space.

On 1999's 666 International, an album that blew minds by fusing black metal with electronica (music little loved or understood by heshers of the day), Dødheimsgard were on the vanguard of the avant-garde. They've released albums only sporadically since then; the last time we heard from them was 8 years ago on Supervillain Outcast (incidentally, one of my favourite albums of that year). A Umbra Omega, as per its title, is a darker and more somber affair than its predecessor, jettisoning all the breakbeats and bombast, and alternating between solemn arpeggios and twisting black metal riffs. The most notable thing is the lead vocal performance, which attempts to out-bizarre Csihar in its manic and OTT delivery.

Leprous are probably more recognizable as Ihsahn's backing band; when I saw Ihsahn at 2013's Maryland Deathfest, they added an emotional urgency to his songs that the recorded counterparts lacked. Driven by the melifluous vocals of Einar Solberg (if there's one thing all these progressive Norwegian metal bands have in common, it's a soaring tenor) The Congregation is the progressive metal album that Coldplay fans might enjoy (indeed, I'd be surprised if there weren't a few in the band's line-up). The music underneath isn't particularly extreme - more technical and cerebral than what Tool or Mastodon get away with, but  hardly in the same league as a band like Ulcerate. A closer comparison would be later Anathema - themselves a band that followed their love for Coldplay and strayed far from any conventional definition of "heavy".

Solefald followed up 2014's Norrønasongen. Kosmopolis Nord,  a somber EP written entirely in Norwegian, with World Metal. Kosmopolis Sud, which is manic in its attempts to assimilate disparate influences. "World Music with Black Edges", the title of the yodeling opening track, is as apt a mission statement as you'll get. With its pseudo-tribal percussion, it's the kind of thing you might hear on Pawnee Community Radio. And when the band pulls in Eurotrash beats, it integrates them both more audaciously and more effectively than anything Morbid Angel attempted some years back.

But in a banner year for progressive Norwegian metal, my favourite has to be If Nothing Is, the debut from DoC's new friends INI. The razor sharp riffing is evidence of their previous life as a more traditional black metal band (and maybe long Norwegian winters with nothing to do but rehearse). But songs shift and distort stylistically in unexpected ways, incorporating snaky, almost jazzy rhythms (reminiscent of previous albums by Dødheimsgard, with whom they share members) and tricky time changes. It's an album that leaves much to be discovered even after repeated listens. 

Of course, a banner year for progressive Norwegian metal wouldn't be complete without a release by Ihsahn. The grandmaster of blackened prog didn't release a full-length in 2015, but Candlelight teased his upcoming full-length Arktis with "Mass Darkness". If this one song is representative of the album's direction as a whole, then Ihsahn is untangling his recent convoluted style to find the true metal heart beating underneath, with lots of nods to Priest and Mercyful Fate. It would be foolish to hope for a return to Emperor's regal brilliance; but maybe something more muscular than his past few releases is on the horizon.

Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Swedish black metal is reaching back past Venom and Bathory to discover its psychedelic rock roots. Tribulation started off as a pretty good if otherwise unremarkable blackened death metal band, before a previously unnoticed love of 70's rock took hold. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if the band is simply hopping from one bandwagon to the other, but the result is some pretty good and decently heavy modern occult rock, even if the band does occasionally tread into Blue Oyster Cult territory. Maybe all black metal needed this whole time was more cowbell.

On the other side of the Atlantic, attempts to shift the paradigm of USBM have resulted in a lot of shoegazing, drug ballads, and pretentious philosophizing. Credit then to Krallice for going down a more advanced, mathematically treacherous path - since they share members with Gorguts and Dysrhthmia, they actually have the bonafides to create legitimately "progressive" music. Convoluted King Crimson song structures and sandblasting riffs are put to work in Ygg Huur; the album rarely lets up and the result is a dizzying barrage of skronking discordance, hardly resembling the derivative navel-gazing of their peers.

Sigh were one of the first bands outside of Norway to sign with Euronymous' Deathlike Silence - and, ironically, also one of the first to leave the reductionist confines of black metal behind. Things got weird in a hurry on 1997's Ghastly Funeral Theatre, and Sigh have only gotten more batshit crazy since then. It's hard to find a singular reference point on their new album Graveward; Mirai has stated that he was influenced by the classic horror scores of 70's Italian gore films, and certainly the amount of mini-moog, mellotron and organ on the album bears that out. But frankly, this sounds like it's been influenced by everything from 80's thrash to Baroque music - basically, everything except second wave black metal. Sigh at this point are a more hesher-friendly version of Mr. Bungle or Fantomas, defying categorization with their constant genre-hopping. Of all the avant metal bands that sprung from black metal's bosom, Sigh seem the most fearless in charging into the unknown. I can't pretend that the results are to my tastes, but I admire their boldness. Metal in general, and extreme metal in particular, has become frighteningly conservative lately, with true visionaries being few and far between. I look forward to Sigh's next completely baffling incarnation.