New York City doesn’t have a distinctive black metal sound. It’s not like Tampa or Gothenburg death metal or Bay Area thrash wherein a central unifying aesthetic, if not necessarily a uniform approach to songwriting, connects the varied players within the scene. What New York black metal bands do have in common, however—aside from often sharing band members—is a common, non-traditional approach to a now aging manifestation of aural evil. There are as many different approaches as there are individual bands, from Tombs’ blackened death rock to Krallice’s mathematical complexity, and from Liturgy’s conceptual nerdery to Mutilation Rites’ more traditional, searing form of black metal. That also holds true for Black Anvil, a band of onetime hardcore vets who not only take their own unique approach to the genre (like, for instance, covering Kiss), but continue to evolve with each release, achieving a new peak with fourth album As Was.
Though they never followed any specific blueprint so explicitly, Black Anvil maintained a certain progression within familiar tropes and aesthetics on their first three albums. That’s no longer true with As Was, an album that’s identifiably black metal but never gets too comfortable with any one direction for too long. In the eight-plus minutes of leadoff track “On Forgotten Ways,” for instance, the group strikes up a commanding tone of darkness with a dramatic introduction and a progression of blistering blast-beat sections, only to close the track on a minute of catchy, melodic hard rock. It never feels like several disparate parts pasted together, instead showcasing a great deal of growth in their approach to composition.
As Was, even more than the group’s previous records, is very much a song-based album. Each track is a self-contained work that balances abrasion, darkness, melody and atmosphere in equal measure, albeit in varying ratios. The harmonized vocals in “May Her Wrath Be Just” recalls the chanted vocals from Ulver’s Bergtatt, whereas the epic progression in the six-minute title track transitions from a menacing deathrock dirge into a melodic slice of arena rock that’s so heroic, so catchy, it feels like a transmission from another realm entirely. As a result it probably means, based on some clandestine set of arbitrary rules, that Black Anvil isn’t sufficiently tr00; it does, however, mean that they’re super badass.
It’s in the second half of As Was where Black Anvil stretches out the farthest, revealing their most dynamic songs to date. “As An Elder Learned Anew” struts with a glam rock swagger, whereas “The Way of All Flesh” offers a haunting, acoustic break from the louder, more intense moments. Yet it’s “Ultra” that stands out most dramatically, a towering metal anthem that winds its way through a labyrinth of shoegaze textures, classic heavy metal riffs, black metal surge and alt-rock hooks. The progression is so dramatic that it almost feels like an entirely different band than that of 2014′s Hail Death. Black Anvil have always seemed headed toward one defining standout album, and As Was finds them fully realizing that potential.