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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atmospheric black metal Music Reviews

KALEIKR Heart of Lead

Album · 2019 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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Necrotica
Kaleikr have re-ignited a question I’ve been asking for years: at what point does repetition become good or bad? Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever found a clear-cut answer to that question. It’s fascinating that we can praise a Sunn O))) or Lightning Bolt record for the exact same reason we harshly criticize the latest pop-rap snorefest by the likes of Pitbull. Is it because of the intent behind it? That’s probably one of the strongest answers, but I don’t think it fully illustrates the entire reason. Repetition can be used for cynical cash cows like Pitbull, but many pop and dance jams that revolve around repetition are still enjoyable, regardless of intent.

But Heart of Lead partially answered my question by offering something a bit more unique. This actually goes back to my Eleanor Friedberger review from last year; in that write-up I explained how Rebound’s hypnotic qualities are a perfect foil for more interesting experiments to crawl out of the woodwork. Similarly, Heart of Lead uses a mesmerizing brand of post/progressive black metal as a deceptive cover for the varied contents within. “Internal Contradiction”’s brutal mid-song riffage and tempo shifts are suddenly more effective when they’re clashing with more esoteric soundscapes. The title track’s explosion of screams and anguished tremolo picking is much more earned when you’ve got such a beautifully melancholic buildup to precede it. “Beheld at Sunrise” also benefits from a great buildup, using rolling drums and a mournful piano to properly foreshadow its gutting riffs and doom-laden atmosphere. It’s almost like some twisted form of cinematic grief.

The formula that makes Heart of Lead so great seems so easy, but it’s incredibly difficult to master. How many bands have tried to use this contrasting ebb-and-flow format and fallen on their asses? Luckily, much like fellow metal bands who have miraculously succeeded with these contrasts - such as Opeth and Giant Squid - Kaleikr seem up to the challenge. Much of their appeal comes from how they’re already on their way to mastering the art of atmosphere, mostly revolving around melancholy and solemn contemplation. Even at their heaviest moments, such as the dissonant breakdowns of “Of Unbearable Longing” or the downtuned doom riffs that fuel “Eternal Stalemate and a Never-Ending Sunset” (that’s one hell of a title), the umbral mood remains thick and unceasing.

But perhaps most importantly, it still comes off as very colorful and textured. There are many layers to peel back on Heart of Lead whether you’re focusing on the treble or bass end of the production; on certain moments, especially when the blastbeats and tremolo guitars merge as one single beast, there’s a strange beauty to the aggression. It often takes me back to Ulver’s early days as a black metal outfit, and that’s certainly a good thing. Heart of Lead is an album that knows how to manipulate a listener’s patience and understanding of dynamics, and I’m sure that will come in handy as they continue to evolve. So, to answer the original question: what makes this repetition good? That’s because the record immerses in its possibilities, as Kaleikr are aware that they could pull the strings and play around with the repetition as needed without compromising their sound. Quite an impressive feat for a debut album, I'd say.

MYRKUR Mareridt

Album · 2017 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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Warthur
I am increasingly convinced that the black metal scene's fixation on aesthetic kvlt purity is far and away its biggest liability. For one thing, when bands buy into it too hard it's a recipe for artistic stagnation; exactly how many bands do we need rehashing the early Darkthrone style, particularly when Darkthrone themselves already nailed it and moved on? For another, it means that whenever someone does something a bit different in a black metal context, there's inevitably a grumpy backlash.

Take Myrkur, for instance, whose debut album had a mixed reaction to say the least. Some of the backlash devolving into either lazy misogyny or quibbles about her indie pop background; those arguments we can toss aside easily, the former as the bigoted nonsense they obviously are, the latter for the absurdly closed-minded attitude they reveal. Who cares where she learned her chops if she produces decent black metal? How does it help black metal grow and evolve if the scene rigorously closes itself off to influences from outside it? Wouldn't someone who cut her teeth outside of black metal and then shifted over to it later in her career be able to bring an interestingly different perspective to bear? It's precisely this perspective which allows Myrkur to really tease out parts of the classic black metal sound which other artists take for granted.

A somewhat less risible set of criticisms came from those who dislike it when their black metal gets blended with other genres, regarding that as a dilution of the music at best, an attempt at bandwagon-hopping at worst. If that's genuinely your aesthetic outlook, fine; you probably didn't like Myrkur's M, and you certainly aren't going to enjoy Mareridt, because far from pandering to a purist audience that she'd likely have never satisfied anyway, Myrkur instead goes even further with her genre blending here, bringing to the fore the dark folk and ethereal wave influences which were already apparent on M.

Compare the covers: M had Myrkur lurking about in the distance, an indistinct shape; here she's stood out in the light, her aesthetic intentions entirely clear. Take it or leave it, guys; for my part, I consider this one of the most interesting projects in black metal today.

SAOR Guardians

Album · 2016 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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Warthur
As I said in my review of Saor's magnificent Aura, I'm a bit fussy about my folk-metal hybrids and it doesn't take much for me to lose interest in them. Case in point: I quite liked Saor's mashup of atmospheric black metal and Scottish folk music on Aura, but I find Guardians to be substantially less interesting than its predecessor - largely because it seems to be leaning too heavily into the "Scottish folk" angle and playing it up for the audience, spoiling for me the delicate balance of the album.

The addition of Kevin Murphy on bagpipes is symptomatic of that - they're a love-it-or-hate-it instrument at the best of times, and to be honest their inclusion seems to be an attempt to deliberately pander to people's preconceptions about Scottishness and distinctively Scottish music in a way which the previous album didn't actually do.

What you get, then, is a reasonably competent but not enormously special atmospheric black metal album that someone's thickly layered a lot of ostentatious bagpipes and other folk instrument. I just can't get into it the way I do Aura.

OATHBREAKER Rheia

Album · 2016 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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Warthur
Oathbreaker's Rheia finds the band walking away from the crust punk that had characterised their early work, instead hitching their wagon to the "blackgaze" style of shoegaze-influenced atmospheric black metal.

Oathbreaker's particular approach is to do the whole quiet/loud/quiet/loud thing which the post-rock crowd love so, with quieter sections of reflective post-rock alternating with louder black metal sections. Lead vocalist Caro Tanghe offers pleasant enough clean singing during the post-rock/shoegazey sections and reasonably wild shrieks during the black metal sections, and in general the album comes across as a competent exercise in working this particular formula, but on the whole I found that it's rather unsatisfying.

To me, the quiet sections on their own would not constitute especially satisfying post-rock, and the loud sections on their own would not constitute especially satisfying black metal, and whilst you can construct a whole greater than the sum of its parts from such material, Oathbreaker don't quite manage it here. Check it out if you're really keen on the whole blackgaze style.

SAOR Aura

Album · 2014 · Atmospheric Black Metal
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Warthur
Saor's sort-of second sort-of first album (Andy Marshall, the man behind this one-man project, put out the preceding Roots under the project name of Àrsaidh before changing it retrospectively to Saor) offers a really nicely judged blend of atmospheric black metal of the most epic, sweeping sort, and carefully chosen aspects of Celtic folk music.

There's lots of folk/metal blends out there, but I find that a lot of them leave me a little cold because in coming up with the mixture the projects in question don't show much judgement when it comes to what to leave out, which I think is a mistake. Trying to incorporate all the metal and folk tropes and instrumentation into a composition at once just leaves you with a mess; instead, Marshall selects his folk incorporations carefully, a whistle there, a viola there, a bodhrán drum over there, and makes sure that the folk inclusions serve rather than disrupting the atmosphere thus established.

Lyrically speaking, Marshall manages to pull off the trick of expressing pride in his homeland of Scotland and in his Celtic heritage without making it sound like he's coming anywhere near more hateful territory, which gives stealth NSBM bands who try to muddy the waters by just claiming they're singing about ancestral pride even less of an excuse. (If it's this easy to get your message across without steering into ambiguously fashy territory, then if you've ended up there it can only be because you either didn't think carefully enough or you meant to end up there in the first place.)

On the whole, Saor deserve to take their place in the current pagan pantheon of British atmospheric black metal band simply on the basis of this masterful project, and I'll be making sure to hear more of their work when I can.

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