Atmospheric Black Metal

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The most commonly played among the sub-genres of black metal, Atmospheric Black Metal artists typically draw the genre into a less aggressive direction. While much of the black metal genre as whole may be deemed as atmospheric (especially when compared to other extreme metal styles like thrash metal and death metal), atmospheric black metal acts take things a step further. Keyboard use is common in the style, though not mandatory, while the music's pace tends to be slow to mid. Well known performers include Burzum, Darkspace and Fen.

Different types of atmospheric black metal artists may incorporate elements of ambient music, folk music, post-rock or sludge metal, as well as drawing on aspects of other black metal styles, such as Summoning, whose music is both atmospheric black metal and symphonic black metal.

Alternative names for the genre include Ambient Black Metal and Post-Black Metal, the latter typically referring to those artists who draw influence from post-rock and/or sludge metal, but is sometimes also used interchangeably with atmospheric black metal.

Inclusive Atmospheric Black Metal Sub-Genres

Blackgaze is a sub-genre of atmospheric black metal so named for its resemblance to shoegaze music. It may include influences from the neoclassical darkwave and post-punk music genres.

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FEN The Malediction Fields

Album · 2009 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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siLLy puPPy
One of the early pioneers of what has become known as blackgaze, the London based FEN has been referred to as the English Agolloch and for great reason. Both bands develop lengthy soundscapes that evoke vast desolate terrains that are bereft of hope and fuse the world of atmospheric black metal with post-rock, acoustic guitar passages and nightmarish atmospheres although FEN while following Agolloch’s footsteps, took things into even bleaker depths of depression and without the folk elements.

Formed in 2006 and named after the Fens of East Anglia, the quartet of The Watcher [Frank Allain] (vocals, guitar), Grungyn [Adam Allain] (bass), Theutus [Daniel Spender] (drums) and Draugluin (keyboards) released the EPs “Ancient Sorrow” and “Onset of Winter” before unleashing this ferocious debut THE MALEDICTION FIELDS onto the world. Given the success of the first blackgaze band Alcest, FEN followed the stylistic approach only kept the fiery black metal aspects in tact making their debut sound like an early second wave black metal album that incorporated the world of post-rock.

The seven tracks that make up THE MALEDICTION FIELDS feature atmospheric and ambient soundscapes that alternate between depressive acoustic passages and caustic black metal outbursts and everything in between. While black metal in general is usually uptempo with blastbeats in a furious rampage, FEN opted for a mellower mid-tempo trot. The band has been called the perfect mix of Agalloch, Negura Bunget, Primordial and Burzum but of course that only gets you in the right ballpark. Like many of these bands, The Watcher’s vocals range from raspy screams to clean melodic ones.

Unlike much post-rock and -metal, FEN offers melodic song structures that simply extend the playing times with long repetitive and hypnotic extensions. The track lengths all exceed seven minutes (minus one that misses by two seconds). The song structure also adopts subtle influences from progressive rock with complex arrangements that don’t seem quite so because of the slower ratcheting up effect. Like most bands that fall into the world of blackgaze, this one sort of meanders and implements the harsh tones, timbres and distortion of black metal but basically in the music itself falls into the world of post-rock and mellow prog.

This was highly touted as the next best thing when it was released in 2009 but i can’t say i’m the hugest fan of THE MALEDICTION FIELDS. It’s definitely an interesting and unique experience but it seems lopsided in many ways. While the black metal parts are performed exquisitely, the clean vocal parts are quite weak to my ears. There’s just something that seems to be missing and i can’t quite put my finger on it. The album is also way too long with one too many sprawlers for my liking. The most unsavory parts come when the raspy black metal vocals are singing in tandem with the clean vocals. Some sort of beauty and the beast take that falls flat. Innovative for sure but pleasant to listen to over the long run? Not really. This is definitely one of those albums that once the wow factor wears off it becomes quite average.

SKÁPHE Skáphe³

Album · 2020 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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siLLy puPPy
Ever since the 90s the metal universe has produced some very strange variants. No longer were short catchy guitar riffs with melodic high pitched vocals and standard songwriting the only game in town. Hard to say when it all began but the big players were Meshuggah and Gorguts who started to experiment with atonality, dissonance and even harder to swallow progressive angularities. The style was a smashing hit for those who crave the energetic immediacy and distortion of the metal universe but with more surreal soundscapes laced with psychedelia and avant-garde weirdness.

Once Deathspell Omega took the world of black metal to unthinkable complexities with its own brand of avant-garde weirdness that incorporated spidery jangle guitars that were atonal and drowning in dissonance, a whole slew of new bands began to emerge in its wake. Portal, Wormlust, Blut Aus Nord, Gnaw Their Tongues and countless new bands followed suit and carved out entirely new niches of extreme metal within the aforementioned parameters. While some bands like Norway’s Sjodogg may have proven too close to the source for my tastes, other bands like SKÁPHE have proven that they can use the classic Deathspell Omega sound as the template and still craft compelling psychedelic and progressive black metal that captures the spirit of what’s been called “cavern-core.”

Originally a solo project of the Philadelphia based Alex Poole who started out as a one-man black metal act, he was joined by Icelandic vocalist Dagur Gíslason (of 0, Abacination, Martröð, Naðra) in 2015. On this third album, a third member, Jack Blackburn joins ranks and sets things ablaze with his wickedly wild aggressive drumming style. While not exactly creative in the album titling department, SKÁPHE simply adds numbers to its moniker and all good. Not counting the split with Wormulust or the untiled one-track EP, SKÁPHE³ is the band’s third album. Well, duh! As nebulous and abstract as many a progressive black metal act, this trio seems to dwell in the same blackened metaphysical subject matter as its influences. On SKÁPHE³ there are ten tracks that basically continue the themes throughout the albums.

Each begins with Roman numerals. This started on “Skáphe²” which began with Roman numeral I and finished at VI. The following EP featured only VII and this album SKÁPHE³ starts off with VIII and ends with XVII. Not that anyone can understand a single word of course! This is noisy cavern-core black metal with creepy claustrophobic atmospheres, spidery dissonant guitar workouts and progressive meandering compositions that sometimes enter the progressive metal clean vocal styles of Enslaved. The emphasis is much more on the echoey dark ambience with soaring guitar leads playing in tandem with crunchy guitar riffs. The rhythmic cadences are led by the jazz-fueled drumming. While a few tracks like “Glass Sarcophagus” sounds a little too close to Deathspell Omega for comfort, for the majority of SKÁPHE³ has captured a very distinct micro-style within this section of the extreme metal universe.

This is the type of metal that is a hard pill to swallow for sure. While it may come off as noise (and there is plenty of that!), this sort of metal is like the metal equivalent of 21st century avant-garde classical. It relies on complex patterns that involve microtones and incongruent contrapuntal elements to create extreme musical tension. Poole’s vocals are very much in the Mikko Aspa arena but sound distinct and even more “cavernous” if that’s possible. If Deathspell Omega sounds like they record in the fiery pits of hell then SKÁPHE³ sounds like it was recorded in the underground tunnels below hell! This is what i call adventurist’s black metal where every element is designed to be as extreme and alienating as humanly possible. Why the subtleties are what make or break these types of albums can be a mystery but for my ears, SKÁPHE does an excellent job of balancing DoS styled dissonant black metal with dramatic Nile influenced musical scales, extreme cavernous atmospheres and smoking hot musicianship. Me like!

WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM Primordial Arcana

Album · 2021 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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siLLy puPPy
Black metal bands come and go and seem a dime a dozen these days but once in a while there are trailblazers who take the metal world on a completely new journey. WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM was once such the trailblazer by taking the atmospheric black metal of the 1990s and mixing it with dark ambient, progressive electronic and long drawn out compositions styles that emulated post-rock and even progressive rock. Led by brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver, the band put the USA’s Northwest on the map as a viable contender for Scandinavian nature worshipping black metal acts and made it clear that the region was not just about grunge!

WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM cranked out four excellent albums in the aforementioned hybridized stylistic approach but then 2011’s “Celestial Lineage” dabbled in blackgaze and with the following “Celestite” pretty much abandoned the metal aspects altogether in favor of an electronic space ambient album with only traces of drone metal. This did not go over well with fans and the band has sort of been licking its wounds ever since and although WITTR returned in 2017 with the excellent “Thrice Woven,” so many new bands had come onto the scene that it seemed that this band sort of sputtered out of the race. 
Oh how finicky metal fans can be! Four years later WOLVES returns with its ninth overall studio album PRIMORDIAL ARCANA and makes a welcome return to the full-on atmospheric black metal from the past. While some are crying retrograde and others are castigating the band for backpedaling and relying too much on its past glories rather than innovation, the truth is WOLVES needed to re-establish itself as the atmospheric black metal band that it once was if it wanted to remain relevant in the black metal game. In recent years all sorts of metal bands ranging from Leprous, Haken and The Ruins of Beverast just to name a few have toned down their metal ferocity and in the process have alienated quite a few fans although they surely must have gained some new ones.

WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM has suffered like many a popular band trying to experiment outside of their fanbase comfort zone but by no means has cranked out anything utterly unlistenable in its entire canon. PRIMORDIAL ARCANA reestablishes WOLVES as a viable atmospheric black metal band that deftly integrates the dungeon synth and electronic sounds into its Pagan black metal world which tackles eight atmospheric tracks that enjoy a sleek silky production as the mid-tempo compositions slink along alternating between the melodic keyboard hooks and the thundering guitar riffs and blastbeats. You know, the very stuff that made albums like “Diadem of 12 Stars” and “Two Hunters” stand out amongst the rest of the pack. However it’s not 2006-07 any longer and a new legion of black metal bands have taken things to even stranger and more innovative pastures and that’s exactly where PRIMORDIAL ARCANA falters.

There seems to be an opinion by many that unless any given band changes its sound or evolves in some way that the entire process is an utter waste of time. Well true that some bands that recycle an album for over 20 years are completely boring to my ears, the truth is that when a band like WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM never really exhausted the magnanimous bounty of their developed sound then it’s actually not a bad thing to retread and recapture those moments that worked so well. It’s even more amazing that WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM has been able to work its way back to over a decade and recapture the inspiration that made that period so innovative. While PRIMORDIAL ARCANA won’t win any awards for most creative or innovative album of the year, i do have to say that this is indeed an enjoyable slice of atmospheric black metal emphasizes the band’s strengths that have been proven to be a winning formula.

To my ears this is an excellent album that delivers everything you would expect from an icy cold Pagan black metal that emphasizes atmospheric ambience over all else and the compositions are tight and brilliantly laid out as well. Somehow despite a misstep with “Celestial” (which probably should’ve been released as an EP), WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM is like the Olympic gymnast who falls flat on his/her face only to get up and dazzle the audience with unexpected resilience. While it’s easy to criticize any given act for taking the easy way out and taking the path of least resistance, i have to wonder why anybody would consider retreading a brilliant blend of progressive black metal with electronic nuances an easy task to repeat. This album is simply flawless in its execution and will yield many return listens unlike some of the band’s most recent albums.

MARE COGNITUM Solar Paroxysm

Album · 2021 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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adg211288
It has been almost ten years since US atmospheric black metal solo project Mare Cognitum, the brainchild of Jacob Buczarski, released its debut album The Sea Which Has Become Known in 2011. In a decade there are many things that have not changed, such as Buczarski's continuance as the project's sole member and his apparently eternal dedication to the spacey atmospheric black metal music that has been Mare Cognitum's shtick since day one. What has changed though, is how much increasingly stronger a musician he has become in a decade, which has seen Mare Cognitum release four studio albums and three major split/collaboration releases, two of them being with Greek I, Voidhanger Records labelmate Spectral Lore. The most recent of these was 2020's Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine with Spectral Lore, a mammoth double album that held many claims to being the best work from both artists involved.

Still, nothing could really have prepared anyone for the release of Mare Cognitum's fifth main studio album Solar Paroxysm, released in 2021. In short, this is an album that even on the first spin managed to floor me with its sound and level of creativity in such a way that it was like listening to Mare Cognitum for the first time again, which for me was with third album Phobos Monolith from 2014. Although objectively Mare Cognitum has shown improvement with every release up to Wanderers, Phobos Monolith, as with many of the albums we discover artists with, had a bonus nostalgia factor for me that has always made it my personal favourite. However having given Solar Paroxysm a few spins now, I believe we may well be dealing with a release that defeats nostalgia. We are certainly dealing with a record that shows off its album of the year potential from the get-go.

Mare Cognitum has always favoured long tracks and there isn't an album out there that has more than half a dozen on it. On Solar Paroxysm Buczarski has delivered five, each of them passing ten minutes. The total running time of the record is a little shy of one hour. And that's an hour that just seems to fly by so fast that you'd be forgiven if you're left wondering if you accidentally leant on the skip button of your player. There is no song here that feels like it's anywhere near as long as it actually is. At no point does it feel like the writing has been purposely elongated or that the album has become pretentious. The balanced sound between spacey atmospheric melodies and more aggressive tendencies in the riffs is about as divine as this genre can probably ever be, while Jacob's growls adds a primordial edge on top that invokes the extremity of space and the formation of strange alien worlds. This will be a familiar vibe to existing fans, but the immediacy of the record is unprecedented.

Anyone who has been listening to Mare Cognitum this last few years knows already that Jacob Buczarski is a man who knows his craft. But he is also a man who shows that no matter how good his last work was, there's always room to keep honing that craft and against all expectations of reviewers like yours truly, who have already graded his work in the top tier, that improvement can be achieved. And yet Solar Paroxysm is not just good or even simply better than Mare Cognitum's previous releases. It is next level good: an album that's very easy to listen to multiple times back to back and certainly one that will keep being come back to again and again. It is true that only time, much of which is still needed to truly judge such a record, can tell whether something will remain as good once the honeymoon period is over, but I for one, have really good feelings about Solar Paroxysm.

MARE COGNITUM Solar Paroxysm

Album · 2021 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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Necrotica
I’ve long been fascinated with records that explore the sounds of space from an extreme metal point of view. There’s an inherent excitement to basking in an expansive atmosphere while being bombarded by aggressive guitar work and pummeling blastbeats, as bands like Blood Incantation and Mithras have definitely proven. No matter how intense the music gets, there’s something strangely soothing and dreamlike about it; it’s almost as if the music could threaten to become background noise if you’re not paying enough attention. But much like the aforementioned bands, Mare Cognitum - consisting only of California native Jacob Buczarski - brings just the right amount of musical variety and neat embellishments to (mostly) avoid the pitfall of overt repetition. The fact that Solar Paroxysm has no song under 10 minutes might seem like a doozy, but believe me: this album flies by very quickly.

Every song here is a mini-epic rife with the tropes you’d typically hear from a progressive/atmospheric black metal project: long tremolo-picked passages, layered wall-of-sound instrumentation for that “vast” soundscape, and of course the harsh shrieks to top it all off. There’s a remarkable sense of progression in these tracks despite the album’s often long-winded nature, largely due to the fact that most of them come from a similar beginning. The majority of the tracks kick off with a familiar tremolo/blastbeat-driven base, and while that does make the intros a tad predictable, it allows Buczarski to use them as a launching pad to fly off in whatever direction he sees fit. Opener “Antaresian” opts to settle into what I could consider a “funeral waltz” using increasingly progressive 3/4 and 6/8 chugs before climaxing with a beautifully melancholic solo; meanwhile, “Frozen Star Divinization” is a long showcase of mesmerizing tremolo guitar harmonies, almost as if they’re locked in a never-ending duel in the middle of a wintry tundra. “Luminous Accretion” is probably the most technical song on offer, constantly shifting tempos and riff patterns while giving the drums a serious workout; finally, “Ataraxia Tunnels” is probably the most traditionally black metal-oriented track here while maintaining the sense of atmosphere that defines the rest of the album.

“Terra Requiem”, however, doesn’t fit quite as nicely on a stylistic level… and that’s because it’s the best song on the record. Most of it is played at a snail’s pace and really gets at the heart of this record’s dark take on a cosmic sound. The tremolo harmonies and double bass drumming are still prevalent here, just used to color a more funereal and despair-filled picture. Everything comes together beautifully in the middle of the song, as the keyboards soar above the melodic guitar solo; it strikes a brilliant balance between awe and hopelessness that I haven’t heard in quite some time. Speaking of the “picture”, the lyrics of Solar Paroxysm are very appropriate to the music as well. It’s your typical vaguely space-y imagery, but there are some pretty cool stanzas I’ll single out. Check out these ones from “Luminous Accretion”:

“Corporeal fractures Essence separates Violent transposition Self-observed from above, lingering

Communicants, wretched spires Materialize, surround, engulf Great tongues through which Creations are spoken (and thus conceived)”

Or these ones from “Terra Requiem”:

“The last leaves have fallen The last vine has withered The ocean has boiled for so long Choking our breath with fetid steam

We claw for shelter from the heartless sun Which cracks our skin and dries our wells So great is the debt we have incurred So too will we wilt and fade into dust”

Again, pretty vague and hard to decipher, but the imagery itself really fits the sound of the album so I don’t mind in the slightest.

Whether or not you will enjoy Solar Paroxysm will probably depend on your tolerance for the familiar tropes Mare Cognitum often employs to flesh out his sound. It’s true that nothing on this album breaks much new ground for atmospheric black metal, but the quality lies in how it’s executed here. The songs, while often starting the same, eventually lead us to incredibly neat locales by the time they’re done because of Buczarski’s adventurousness with this well-worn genre. Solar Paroxysm is my first experience with Mare Cognitum, and it looks like I have one hell of a back catalogue ahead of me if this album’s any indication.

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