Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but there was a time when listening to black metal was a lot less complicated. Nowadays the pressure’s on to redefine your listening experience. Is what you’re listening to hyperborean? Are you being drawn into the ever decreasing, cataclysmic and stupefying void of nihilism, or are the wide-open steppes of poetic and spiritual transcendentalism on the horizon? Personally, I’m tired of that argument already, and after listening to the new release from French black metallers Aosoth, I can’t imagine it’s something they debate all that much either. They’ve simply concentrated on pummelling the listener with some of the murkiest and aberrant black metal heard this year.
Aosoth, originally a side-project for Anataeus vocalist MkM, specialises in the sort of unconventional black metal we’ve come to expect from France. Alongside similar, more high-profile avant-black bands—like Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord and Peste Noire—Aosoth has reconfigured the primeval black metal aesthetic and cooked up something very wicked. With a firm emphasis on lo-fidelity and eccentricity, the band lays out six tracks of prog worthy length, numbered I to VI, that are laden with a mix of complex, indistinct and often-discordant riffs, some suitably pounding percussion and harsh, malevolent vocals.
While those elements are par for the course for any proficient black metal band, it’s what else Aosoth add to the potion, that makes this album such a special brew. Ambient passages litter the album, droning soundscapes, choral voices and haunting piano interludes are set against a recalcitrant, almost smothering, white-noise baseline. And the album has a familiar retro death metal feel too. There’s a weight to the guitars and throat-scouring vocals that makes this one of the crunchiest and heaviest black metal releases I’ve heard in a long while, and when the blazing ferocity ceases and the ambience kicks in, the juxtaposition between the two is heightened by that raw production, leading to some genuinely creepy atmospherics.
Criticisms of the album, and there haven’t been many, have pointed to it’s repetitive characteristics. A fair point if you are listening to tracks in isolation. But III is an album made to be listened to as a whole; as a complete work it makes perfect sense. Beginning your journey at I you’re swiftly engulfed in that easily recognizable maelstrom of swirling enigmatic metal that avant-garde and progressive black metal experimentalists love to mine. But then Aosoth halts proceedings and teeters on the edge before launching into II, in which you’re swept away to some other shadowy psychedelic realm, before reaching III and the trek towards oblivion begins anew. And on it goes, with the band unrepentantly deviating from its end goal, until you finally reach VI where the album dissolves in an ever-quieting drone. Admittedly, it’s a jarring, disorientating ride. One minute you’re in old-school Darkthrone territories, the next you’re hitching a ride towards Nachmystium’s blackened post-punk realm. But like any voyage worth taking, it’s those disparate moments that make it worthwhile, and this is black metal remember, we’re not supposed to be on safe ground.
There are plenty of black metal artists experimenting with their sound, the nucleus of black metal was torn apart long ago and incorporating non-metal instrumentation or arranging albums in a non-linear fashion is nothing new. But while plenty of uninspiring bands have supped at the blackened cauldron Aosoth have created something truly intoxicating here. With a deliberately primitive sound the band manages to sidestep the pretension that’s often associated with over-intellectualized unorthodox black metal and their diabolical intent remains unmistakably clear. There’s a lot in this album, after a dozen listens I’m not even sure I’ve begun to fully appreciate it, but one thing I am sure of is this; Black metal is going to have to work very hard to top this in 2011. Hyperborean-cataclysmic-transcendental-progressive-black-metal album of the year?