Dark Hemyspheres: January 2016
The New Year seems to have heralded a deluge of folk-tinged, doom-laden and ultimately very proggy records to accompany the biting winds and pallid winter sun. Sweden's Witchcraft return with album number five in the form of Nucleus , immediately finding a bobbing groove and stretching their legs as they continue to push into progressive waters. This is best exemplified on the fourteen minute title track, an unhurried but pleasing miasma of all these elements; never dragging its feet, you still get time to enjoy the aural view. Hexvessel arrive at the same destination, albeit from the opposite direction, with When We Are Death . Wisps of psychedelia infuse the rambling, morose folk to lend it something of a wild, shamanistic feel; the music is not messy as such, instead employing some tactical fraying at the edges to enhance the inherent naturalism. Indeed, there is even a touch of tidying up in comparison to previous efforts to aid the showcasing of the songs themselves and the abundance of melody Mat McNerney imparts into them all.
There is still of course plenty of "evil" black metal crawling out from basements and bedrooms this month. The pick of them is probably The Art To Disappear  courtesy of Spektr. Very much a part of the new French order, this is hugely unsettling as monstrous bursts of guitars and machines are cut with found sounds and soundbites. It does feel a smidgen too disjointed at times as it leaps around seemingly at random, but the true uneasiness of the entire record is pleasing. And so what is the worst of the selection? That would be the Hostium debut The Bloodwine Of Satan . One-dimensional, derivative and bland, this is little more than hero worship of the most boring kind. Ticking all the boxes for a second generation black metal album with buzzing guitars, wailing vocals and machine-gun drums, this is utterly indistinguishable from the hordes of identikit bands doing exactly the same the world over.
The biggest surprise of the month is Forget The Past, Let's Worry About The Future , the sophomore release from duo Pil & Bue. Fidgety art rock gets amped up by this pair with a flurry of meaty riffs and a barrage of furious drumming, all the while without losing that keen ear for a good tune or a soaring vocal line. The ridiculously catchy hooks shine all the brighter for the noisy, tumultuous backdrop against which they are set; the result is a highly energetic, instantly memorable affair that is just begging to be played over again.
The problem with Råångest , a short split EP between Cult Of Luna and The Old Wind, is noticing when the latter take over from the former, so alike do they sound. CoL contributes a cover of Amebix's 'Last Will And Testament', a fine effort twisted very much to their "sound". TOW however unleash two new pieces of their own; big brash slices of sludgy, epic hardcore – tracks you could be forgiven for thinking where from their associates' own locker. Trying to explore similarly grandiose soundscapes, Old Sunlight  starts promisingly for Latitudes, but their use of the same shades of light and dark throughout results in a repetitive and finally mundane pattern. A band rather wearing their influences on their sleeve (Neurosis, Anathema and TesseracT being the most obvious), the lack of originality and inspiration overshadows the false dawn of 'Ordalian' and relegates this to the realms of passable pastiche.
The urge to spew hyperbole about "albums of the year" and "going to be hard to beat" is strong when it comes to ATGCLVLSSCAP , the latest in a string of frankly jaw-dropping releases from Ulver, but I will resist. Few bands can achieve the sweeping reinvention these early forerunners of the Norwegian black metal scene have pulled off; gone is the raw, bitter harshness and DIY sound, replaced with lush, beautiful records that slowly unveil themselves over time as you sink ever deeper in. With material culled from live improvisational performances, Daniel O'Sullivan was tasked with corralling it all into a dense and challenging whole before the magical final touches could be garnished. At eighty minutes long and largely instrumental, there were fears of over-indulgence and monotonous boredom, all thankfully proving to be unfounded as the music flows effortless through the four movements. ATGCLVLSSCAP is a dark ride, built largely upon brooding ambient drones punctuated by a careful mixture of bleak heaviness and majestic interludes. But it is the complex, deep layering that Ulver have become so adept in that makes this the hugely enjoyable and rewarding listen it is. Almost classical in its structure (think Mussorgsky at his eccentric best), this is an album to sit back and simply experience, time and again.
Witchcraft – Nucleus (15th, Nuclear Blast Records)
Hexvessel – When We Are Death (29th, Century Media Records)
Spektr – The Art To Disappear (29th, Agonia Records)
Hostium – The Bloodwine Of Satan (15th, Iron Bonehead Productions)
Pil & Bue – Forget The Past, Let's Worry About The Future (22nd, Name Music)
Cult Of Luna / The Old Wind – Råångest (29th, Pelagic Records)
Latitudes – Old Sunlight (22nd, Debemur Morti Productions)
Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP (22nd, House Of Mythology)