Satanic Warmaster’s Fimbulwinter

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After four long years of anticipation and relative silence peppered with the occasional single or demo, Werewolf, the mastermind behind the revered Satanic Warmaster, appeared from nothingness in 2014 to plant upon the world his fifth menhir, Fimbulwinter, a coffin-like oblong monument that reiterates the brilliance of honest-to-goodness black metal, a statement that plants itself steadfastly in soil tainted by the likes of superficial imitation, mislabeling, and appropriation.

Sporting with it the classic dark-dim-dungeon production that has long characterized his music, Werewolf’s return is packed with riffs and melodies put into motion by buzzsaw guitars that shear and slice and blast throughout the record, forming a wide and colossal stomping ground for the vocal work’s wicked-sharp wretches and throes, the drive behind the album’s thematic power, one that is much more focused and specific than on previous Warmaster works. On this outing, Werewolf invests himself in his performance like never before, straining himself to the farthest stretches his growls can take him, shrieking and ripping and tearing with undeterred prowess to match the album’s tenebrous intensity, which, unlike its predecessors, most of which were willingly cavernous and suffocated, is just clear and full enough in its joyously organic production to allow the notes to become individually discernable, like bricks that build into the music’s thorn-covered sonic wall, a decision that forms part of the record’s decidedly atmospheric approach, featuring a new sound that shimmers like hoarfrost yet is dense like billowing storm clouds and wintery fog, building into buffeting and blistering holocaust winds that echo the unstoppable assaults of Battles in the North-era Immortal, winds that welt and skin, cruelly and monstrously, yet give way to hidden melodies that swirl like the blizzard blasts they form, all complemented by the sounds of serpentine winds, crashing thunders, and raven calls that are sprinkled throughout the album. All of it combined—from Werewolf’s vocals that vividly become the whipping and lashing of storms, to the icicle-sharpness of the music—allows the album to create its own realm of ice, the ambition of the aforementioned Battles fully realized here. Opener “Fimbulwinter’s Spell” unleashes a thrashing and limitless chilling expanse of overpowering and freezing notes, cutting with sleet and rime, stabbing and numbing like frostbite—it’s the album’s horrendous virtue, its promise of doom under the weight of eternal cold.

But even in the most visceral of attacks, the songs build into larger monoliths that shift and change like the crevices or cliff-valleys of teeth-like mountain stretches, those all-consuming blizzards giving way to acoustic reprieves or the silken touches of ambient synth, or breaking open into gentler, sometimes folky melodies that give the album the singular mystical touch of medieval darkness, all of it reminiscent of classic Satyricon and, in turn, the passionate might of Bathory’s Hammerheart, exemplified by “Funeral Wolves,” which forms at first as a hopeless storm, and then gives way to the beauty of ice and snow and frozen moonlight, or “Dragon’s Egg,” which lays down a reverence of heraldic, ancient creatures, a song that is principally characterized by awe and dread, and then transforms into a genuinely climactic sense of discovery.

In every way, the album bears the spirit of its eponymous mythological apocalypse: massive and colossal, the album leaves the misanthropic dungeon occultism of previous Warmaster records in place of a cloudy, almost fantastical vision complemented by its cold, desolate glimmers and treacherous peaks, enormous in scale and scope without resorting to exaggerated snapshots of enormous battles or worlds in crisis—it’s a terribly personal apocalypse, like being caught in an endless valley of freezing snow and growing ice in total solitude, the album possessing the much-coveted mark of mature black metal: that elusive balance between sorrow and aggression, all of its elements swirling together to create an inspiring, intoxicating mixture. Even the most adventurous of the album’s songs, like the mighty “When Thunders Hail,” which features a joyously danceable, classically folk riff and ghostly northern lights in the form of those velvety synth touches, is both uncompromisingly abrasive yet underlined by a charging, razor-like solemnity that appears silhouetted through the thickly brewed and ever-slashing guitar attack. In its sound, and in its songwriting, the album is graceful and strong, being intimately familiar with grimness but capable of rising to moments of pristine wonder, like the boreal tunnels of “Nuin-Gaer-Faun,” which are witness to the glories of both the album’s destructive sway and the underlying moments of driving somberness that appear between and within the swings of the axe.

In its entirety, in its cohesion, and in its individual songs, the album is thoroughly majestic and dignified, beautiful, even. As awfully misused as the word “Epic” is, it really, honestly fits here—the record’s atmosphere creates the distinct sensation of a place of unending winter, built by equally arctic music, capturing a sense of otherworldliness, another of black metal’s mystifying powers. As “Winter’s Hunger” ends in waves of synth and flourishes of frosty guitars, it feels like a book’s end, like leaving that otherworld far behind as it shrinks in the horizon. While the album is 52 minutes long, it never overstays its welcome, and save for the third track, “Korppi,” a cover, which feels a little bland when in the context of its surroundings, the album is absolutely grand. Werewolf lives up to the legacy he has built in Satanic Warmaster, and once more, he delivers a masterwork to fit into his canon. While apart in tone and ambience from his original works, it remains as part of his lineage of pure and true black metal, and it stands out as a spectacular contribution, a mesmerizing album that manages to contend its own force even against the best on offer from other masters of the craft, especially in the year of its release. If this is the direction Werewolf wants Warmaster to take, a contrast even to the singles he released leading up to Fimbulwinter’s, and if he can make another record to match the greatness of this one, he can take all the time he needs. After all, the future looks very bright.

Why not take a quick listen?

 

Mgla’s Exercises in Futility

(All rights to respective owners)

(All rights to respective owners)

Have you ever wanted to curl up into the fetal position and contemplate the feeble nature of existence? Well, have I got the record for you! Matter of fact, even if the answer is no, Mgla’s Exercises in Futility is a stellar black metal album that’s still worth a listen or two.

It’s the third and latest album from the Polish duo of M (vocalist, guitarist, bassist) and Darkside (master percussionist), both members of Kriegsmaschine, a very solid addition to the great canvas of European black metal. While the former focuses on satanic themes, Mgla (“fog” in Polish, pronounced “mgwa”) instead takes an approach to the darkness that dwells within and without humanity, not being as expansive as Deathspell Omega and their anti-cosmic objective, nor as outright introspective as, say, Austere or Gris. Instead the band does away with mysticism and melancholy, focusing squarely on the emptiness of simply being, a perspective that has grown to a fullness in Exercises, which, as the title implies, bears a barren nihilism in its ashen core.

And, hand in hand with its overarching theme, the band’s sound lacks much of the fanciful niceties that many profound black metallers have adopted, instead taking on their substance with a heftier black metal sound that avoids the often seen stringy, synth and tremolo approach of Paysage D’Hiver and other classic acts, fleshing out the riffing style that the subgenre wields to become burlier and meatier—powered in great part by the crashing, plodding and steadfast drums and the thick, concrete bass—all in conjunction with piercing, melodic buzz-saw guitars that sizzle above the pounding, burning riffage, sounding sepulchral, tenebrous, bleak, and earthy—the production is clear and unburdened by usual black metal tropes, giving it an organically loud and ragged rawness. It’s an overpowering sound, one that’s meant to drive desperation in its darkest moments, as it grows to a shuddering crescendo. Take the very first track, which leaves its rails and enters a cathartic tunnel, ending the song with a sorrow that elicits so much of the album’s underlying emotional center.

It’s a powerful combination, actually, that takes into account the maturity of the band’s cooperation of precisely-worded lyricism and their brazen, bleak soundscapes, which dips into powerful moments that belie a very sentimental subtext to the album’s nihilism, moments that contrast with the dejection and spite driven into the lyrics. “II” opens with a hostile declaration powered by a hovering engine of peering malevolence that cracks open into something that can be described as “heartbreaking”, a shift that returns throughout the song. The melodic tremolo-driven riff of “IV” grows in anxiety as its chorus nears, tearing the song to a wrenching climax as the haunting lyrics are croaked in a furious lamentation—a constant in M’s throaty, low-ranged growls, a dominating force that adds gravitas to the record—the song’s tragedy a sudden contrast from the contempt and bile-ridden rasps of “III”, which runs on a consistent rising and falling of oppressive, piercing notes. And, perhaps most strikingly, “V” runs a gamut of chaos, perpetuated by Darkside’s fantastic cymbal work and never-ending precision pedals, and the hair-raising, tyrannical, grinding, churning riffs that bear down on the song like a choke-hold, reprieve offered only by the sudden and singular appearance of synth, a ghostly echo that surfaces in the song’s closing moments, a touch of silk amidst a ravine of sharp rocks. And that’s all without mentioning “VI”.

Lyrically, the band is a cut above many of their contemporaries; while songs occasionally border on excessive wordiness, the slip ups are minimal when the actual writing is taken into consideration. Despite the language barrier, the lyrics demonstrate a great command of English, one that’s ambitious enough to attempt something as grand as an album reflecting on the blindness of being. Each song expands upon the record’s theme of nothingness begetting nothingness, damning even the very symptoms of sentience, with the system of human emotional response considered an illusive crutch and a curse. It’s admirable, actually, how thematically consistent and thorough the album is; there are no diversions from the darkness—the album starts off grim, and ends with a thesis statement that declares the worthlessness of all things, highlighting the naivety of sadness and misery, firmly planting the singular absolute truth to existence: we create storms in a glass of water, one that will evaporate with the passage of time—one day, the celestial gasses that fuel the stars and make life possible will burn out, and the universe will become eternal darkness. The only consequence to trying to free yourself from the shackles of our reality is well-deserved madness.

To be honest, what else can I say about Exercises in Futility without dragging it out? It might not be spectacularly monumental in the same way In the Nightside Eclipse or Slaughtersun are, but it stands as a monolith of solid, wonderfully executed black metal, a no-nonsense slice of the real deal that sounds thoroughly, refreshingly desolate and cold without resorting to goofy or blasé imagery. Musically, it’s powerful and precise to a tee, managing to balance melody with a dismal severity. Lyrically, it’s well spoken and utterly fierce. It might not be a record that can convince those averse to black metal’s dismal charm; however, for the aficionado, it’s a fell-winged work that dips into the heart of despair.

M’s label, No Solace, has uploaded the album in its entirety on YouTube. Give it a whirl:

Machinae Supremacy’s Deus Ex Machinae

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(Album cover straight out of the Machinae Supremacy site. All rights to them.)

So video games are cool. And heavy metal’s cool. What if… what if both of them combined and formed something awesome?

Well, it’s sort of happened, I guess, if you take the time to look at the myriad of virtuoso cover bands and guitarists making over the top metal versions of renowned and beloved video game music. Just look at all of the Pokemon ones. So many Pokemon ones. And that’s kind of it: there’s so many covers and remixes; it’s not bad, but it’s such a saturation and regurgitation of material combined with a novelty factor that it devalues the tenth rendition of Fire Emblem’s “Together We Ride”.

So here’s what’s so great about Machinae (pronounced just like “machine”) Supremacy’s Deus Ex Machinae: it’s a different approach to the blend, an album made up entirely of original material with a consistent backing video game touch in the form of a Commodore 64’s SID station (the component that makes the bleepy-bloopy sounds).

Right off the bat it bursts open with a bright sound—a mix of power metal and alternative rock—combined with a triumphant zest of computerized notes. The blend is something to behold, despite the occasional chug-chug riff that’s a direct product of the early 2000s alt rock catalogue. For the most part songs are very melodic, featuring memorable choruses that spark a sing-along instinct when they appear amidst the band’s intentional cyberspace tone—there’s just the right balance of melody and hardness in the music, and there’s never an overextension in either. It’s pretty cool, actually, how the meaner and/or faster songs (like the opener) feel like the hyperspace effect in Star Wars, the twisting tunnel of flashing blue.

If I have to say it more accurately: even without the SID station’s presence, the album manages to sound “video game”. Careening guitar lines—like the powerful, skipping hook right into the title track, which transforms into a pounding, grooving riff—are propped up against a strong, healthy bass that makes itself known in the mix, resulting in an intoxicating recreation of that old 16-bit style of chiptune composition, with the occasional, more traditional synth appearing for a cinematic element. Musically, the album introduces a band that’s ready to wrestle a rabid bear, including vocalist Robert “Gaz” Stjärnström, who swings, ducks, dives and madly weaves his way through songs like a thicker, bearded Dave Mustaine, putting on a very lean and mean show.

Actually, before moving on, Robert’s performance is of special note: echoing the aforementioned Mustaine (preferably in his prime) and an olden days Kai Hansen, his whiny, nasally intonation might take some getting used to. And, while his performance is solid, he sometimes lacks the range necessary to reach some of the music’s heights, like in “Return to Snake Mountain” and its assertive declarations of revenge, or the soaring ups of “Player One”, or the big “Toniiiiiiiiiight” in the title track, in which he replaces elevation with his signature whiiiiiiine. Still, he’s got enough pipes and skill to dial it up (or down) when he needs to (“Flag Carrier” and the upsettingly wonderful ending of “Player One” show him bearing down and soothing away), even if his inflection stays at the same general level throughout the album. And, as a fan of heartfelt and non-standard vocal work (God bless Mark “The Shark” Shelton), I ate it up with gusto.

As noted, the SID station is omnipresent (save for a couple of songs that do completely without it), and while it might take a while for it to appear in a song, it comes in and peppers it with the same effect as fairy dust—whenever it comes in, the song becomes sparkly, wonderful, special. It’s charming, and never feels overused, fitting in keenly with the band’s sound, never overtaking it, staying at just the right level to be a principle player while avoiding the ill-fated title of “gimmick”. It’s a treat when it’s there, an essential part of the band’s magic, one that also helps the music successfully blend its deeply embedded video game identity with the shining power of heavy metal—just take the break in “Return to Snake Mountain”, right before the rapid fire shred that takes the song back into its speedy storm, or the explosion of sound that starts “Killer Instinct”.

Here’s the deal breaker: the lyrics are dumb. Sometimes they’re decent, but all too often they fall flat on their face with goofy angst. I’d like to commend this album for avoiding any unnecessary “hey guys we’re totally gamer dudes” references. The closest line they stray is “Player One”, which is written to be a cathartic, encouraging ode to video game escapism and personal struggles, using the setup of an ambiguous arcade-style adventure game as its primary vehicle. It’s great: they manage to avoid a predictable (and annoying) element of game-centric music; they embrace games, sure, but they aren’t name-dropping consoles or famous titles and their key gameplay aspects. But, otherwise… the lyrics are dumb. Take a look at the opening lines of the album:

I feel all black inside like coal

I wonder if you know

An evil thrives inside my soul

The darkest place I know

I rage at everyone I see

Nocturnal fiends and all that be

Just keep away from me

Jesus. And that’s not counting the stuff in “Blind Dog Pride” and the title track, which are about rising up and showing all the old timers the real way to do things, all the while edging in on a family-friendly level of non-denominational anti-religion. It’s just enough to worry your mom about your attitude towards society, but not enough to really scare her.

This falls right into place with the next real flaw: some songs are filler that extend the album’s length past an hour. Specifically, the slower numbers that live on the thrill of the chorus, but offer nothing else; tracks like “Super Steve”, “Ninja”, and “Tempus Fugit” are calm segues into more enjoyable offerings, walking briskly to get to their particular “cool part”. They help to even out the pace of the album, separating the faster songs from each other, but that’s kind of it: they’re door-stoppers, shelf dividers. The band is at their best when they’re storming with menace, so it doesn’t sound all that natural when they try and shift gears to something more relaxed.

But really, those are the few flaws that mar the album’s overall prowess. For a debut, the band shows a lot of experience, due in no small part to the band’s prolific online discography, despite the occasional amateurish turn they might take in songwriting (which is generally adventurous and, at its best, thrilling). At its core, the album is a success—solid in most ways, and populated by memorable moments. But that’s just as an album; as a fusion between two cool things, it goes beyond “cool experiment” into something greater. Maybe not something as grand as a “triumph”, but definitely an undeniably enjoyable achievement, one that shows that the fusion between video games and heavy metal can be both possible and mature. Except for the lyrics, which are dumb. If you can look past the flaws and want something interesting, why not take a look? It’s free on the band’s site, after all.