Never Heard Black Metal November
In many online musical communities, November is celebrated for more than its associations with pumpkin pie and tryptophan fowl. “Nothing But Black Metal November” requires that you do just what it says on the tin: listen to nothing but music coming from black metal and its subgenres. However, there’s only so many lo-fi cassettes of obscure European anger that one can take; that’s why we asked two people who’d never even heard of black metal to give their thoughts on some of the more well-known offerings of the genre. Welcome to Never Heard Black Metal November!
First, let’s meet our contestants:
Meghan Klassen is 23 years old, with almost none of the wisdom that comes with it. She enjoys ugly dogs, tragic war romances, and oil-barrel-sized servings of Coca-Cola. Here’s what she had to say about this assignment:
When I signed up to review five random albums, I truly didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I just knew it would certainly be fascinating and that I would most likely dislike everything. When they all turned out to be metal albums, I thought my prophecy had come true. I’ve never been particularly into metal music, excusing a brief love affair with Avenged Sevenfold that softened the awkward transition into high school. I’d been exposed several times to local acts in small, sweaty Sacramento venues, always against my wishes and never resulting in my approval. 17-year-old boys moshed their gangly bodies together as if they were trying to start a fire with their kindling limbs, yet I could never match that passion or see the artistry in the music.
Naturally, I did not have high hopes going into this little experiment. I expected more of the same unintelligible mixes of screams and Nordic sadness that would slam into my eardrums without discretion, filling me up with a need for aspirin rather than an appreciation for life’s darkness. While I certainly received a bit of that as well, I was surprised at how unique and emotionally provocative some of the tracks turned out to be. Some of it I even enjoyed! As it happens, you can’t judge black metal music by the tough persona it puts on, but you can still hate on it a little bit.
Jimmy Evans likes liking stuff and thinks you should, too. He writes movies, books, bad tweets, and never fortune cookies. Here’s what he had to say about this assignment:
Here’s a list of things I know about black metal: it’s a subgenre of just metal; it’s the darkest shade; Jack Black likes it, probably; the devil uses it to corrupt your soul. That’s pretty much it. If that hasn’t sent you screaming into the hills with pleb hysteria, stay with me because I also may just be your last musical hope.
If you’re peeping music on Crossfader you likely know your stuff. You’ve scoured the internet for someone who cares as much as you about “that one band,” descended into darker and stranger corners of the web until landing on this website. Now you’ve found me, someone like the innocent child you once were from a time when you could still listen to a song on the radio.
That’s what I’m bringing to this: sweet, sweet ignorance. I have not done any homework. I have not skim-read a single Wikipedia article about this genre or these bands. I had five album titles slipped under my door. I don’t know jack shit, and long ago you didn’t either. Remember that kid? They needed a haircut, but you still loved them.
Let’s get down to it.
Dissection – STORM OF THE LIGHT’S BANE
Meghan: After long considering metal music to be mostly a wall of noise, I was pleasantly surprised by this album. The combination of wailing guitar and relentless drumming gets the blood flowing and manages to relay an interesting range of feeling, from menacing to inspirational to, dare I say, tender? The vocal style, which I can best describe as someone yelling from their death bed, is jarring at first but even manages to blend with the songs and become an instrument in its own right. By the midpoint, I was feeling like I could climb mountains and fight off enemies, and even with song length I was always intrigued by what was coming next. A varied and interesting listen. 1st Place
Jimmy: See, this is what I was expecting. There’s even a cartoon shadowy wraith dude on the album cover! I enjoyed STORM OF THE LIGHT’S BANE to a point, probably because the playfulness felt refreshing. Wild guitar riffs showed off a ton of technical ability and got me fired up to fight some undead hordes, but there weren’t any around, so that got old after awhile. Silences and acoustic breaks helped keep things interesting and added that level of despair I’m thinking is more and more important to the genre. 4th Place
Deafheaven – SUNBATHER
Meghan: What interests me about this album is the dueling nature of its elements. The upbeat heaviness of the guitar and drums calls back to the melodrama and theatrics of early 2000’s pop punk, like the drug-addled love child of Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance. As such, harsh screaming vocals don’t seem to belong, yet they don’t interfere as much as fade into the background as the instruments race on. Further tracks forgo the early sound in favor of spoken word recordings mixed with mellow strings, another collection of opposing elements even within the album. Whatever side you are listening to, the effect is stirring and not at all unpleasant. 2nd Place
Jimmy: This guy cheated. SUNBATHER is the one album I’d heard of before the assignment, but listening to it with more context of its genre makes it so much more impressive in my eyes. It does what all the other albums try to do with more skill and feeling. Using complex cascading drums, atmospheric guitars, gorgeous howling vocals, and deliberate silences in a harmonic dance, SUNBATHER somehow manages to keep swelling and building and topping itself. Exhilarating, frightening, and beautiful, it rises to the challenge of its first and best song “Dream House” over and over, taking you to hell and back. You’ll headbang, you’ll cry, you’ll jump every goddamn time the titular song blasts on. This is one of the most effective albums I’ve ever heard. 1st Place
Gnaw Their Tongues – FOR ALL SLAVES, A SONG OF FALSE HOPE
Meghan: Let me be blunt: this album is not enjoyable to listen to. But I can appreciate it through its complete and total adherence to a theme and the subsequent creation of that environment. Between the looming sounds of droning guitars, screeching strings, and the layering of human screams and whipping sounds, the listener is truly transported to a circle of hell where slaves are being punished for the misdeeds of another life. The idea of human suffering positively bleeds through each note, with each song a creative and complex patchwork of doom and gloom. My mind respects the effort that went into this, but my ears had already revolted by minute two. 3rd Place
Jimmy: FOR ALL SLAVES, A SONG OF FALSE HOPE scores the moment when a great and terrible beast escapes his chains in the underworld and brutalizes your family right in front of you. Not so much music as it is a cinematic experience, using barking dogs, a howling agonized chorus, and god knows what else to create a sense of place. It’s awesome in the brimstone, biblical way. It’s totally ridiculous and over the top. Did I enjoy listening to it? Not a single minute. But when you have a song called the “Uncomfortable Silence Between Beatings,” I probably shouldn’t feel too great about myself after a listen. 3rd Place
Burzum – HVIS LYSET TAR OSS
Meghan: This album, while certainly atmospheric, is also monotonous to the extent of being thought-provoking. Was each song changing imperceptibly as I went along, or just descending deeper into static? Can the person next to me hear this, and if so, do they think I’m a psychopath listening to recordings of torture victims? The animalistic screams of the vocals do manage to add some color to the largely instrumental tracks, if only by virtue of punctuating the established sound pattern. Even through the calm and redemptive final track, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was listening to the loop playing at a haunted maze. 5th Place
Jimmy: HVIS LYSETT TAR OSS wins dead last for putting me to sleep without even giving me a feverish, demonic nightmare. I guess it creates some kind of atmosphere between its 44 minutes of broken TV snow-sound, kindergarten drum circle spasms, and angry troll vocals, but being uncomfortable and sleepy is sort of a low bar. “I Slottet Fra Droemmen” got my attention, drums kicking into high gear, and when the singer just started fucking screaming, well, I can get behind that. But I still fell asleep. Unforgivable. 5th Place
Paysage d’Hiver – S/T
Meghan: I don’t even need to imagine what Gollum giving birth over poor radio reception would sound like, because I have already found it. This album is rife with hugely distorted sounds and an often frantic tempo, giving me a soft spot for the slow lilting violin sounds and other slow mystical sounds that attempt to weave their way through the unrelenting noise. Each song features repetitious patterns, yet conveys a sense of marching towards something bigger (probably the death of all humanity, by the sound of it). It is an interesting effect that makes the descent into slow mystical interludes even more unexpected. The effect is attention-commanding and necessary, for even echoing screams can be repetitive after a while. 4th Place
Jimmy: Paysage d’Hiver’s self-titled album was actually my first dip in this assignment. After about five minutes of cat strangling and white noise I realized that maybe my Dungeons and Dragons-inspired necromancer visions of the genre were off. 7 minutes in and I think I hear a violin. I push my shitty Target headphones in tighter to shut out gossiping moms at the café (perfect Black Metal atmosphere) and a church chorus breathes somewhere under the noise. Now that’s interesting. This isn’t the roaring head-banging soundscape I expected. Eventually, the machine gun drums and screeching melt all together into an orchestral noisiness. The acoustic interludes and hidden, twinkling piano create something sadder than I expected. It’s fascinating, but just so fucking long. Many of these interesting moments feel few and far between. And the atmosphere gets confused when the singer starts gibbering like a constipated goblin. More listens seem in order. 2nd Place