From its second wave breakthrough in the sensationalized Dethlike Silence scene in early `90s Norway, black metal has long been a style of music inextricably connected to coldness. We’re not talking a slight breeze or a mere chill, here — this is music of bitter Northern blizzards, frostbitten winters with no light to speak of, leaving little chance for one to withstanding the frigid blast. This extends beyond imagery, no matter how many Immortal or Enslaved albums depicted an unforgiving snowy climate. Black metal just plain feels cold. Even its sound, with blast beats hammering down like a relentless onslaught of ice, can feel like a braving of the elements, and a particularly nasty one at that.
This isn’t necessarily true of all black metal, particularly that of less traditional artists of late such as Nachtmystium or Liturgy, but it’s an essential part of the genre’s history, origins and ongoing evolution. Northern California band Ash Borer captured that chilly, claustrophobic feeling on their self-titled cassette from last year, a raw mix of black metal, hardcore energy and abstract noise that, even in a particularly crowded field, stood out for its stunning trio of epic tracks. With the title of Cold of Ages, the group’s first for Profound Lore, they’ve tipped their hand a little — this is a hauntingly frosty work, but an even more accomplished one, revealing a greater level of intricacy in their compositions while maintaining the classic black metal terror at which they’ve already proven so adept.
Much as their self-titled release was, Cold of Ages is a sprawling work that contains only four tracks but spans a little longer than an hour. This has never deterred a metal fan in the past, nor should it now, though keeping a 15-minute song interesting from beginning to end requires a certain dynamic that not every band can pull off successfully. Where Ash Borer stands out is in how carefully crafted their songs are. They are beasts, for sure, but elegant and glorious beasts — mythical things of smoke and muscle that change shape at a moment’s notice, and of course, thrive in bitter cold.
The introduction to first track “Descended Lamentations” is a slowly burning thing of wonder, whirring gothic keyboards gradually pulling in dark post-punk guitar riffs and ultimately exploding into a massive burst of aggression and riffs. As it enters its sixth minute, however, it cascades into a righteous fury of descending melodies and relentless muscle. The ominous arpeggios that open “Phantoms,” the shortest track at 11 minutes long, set an eerie stage for an oncoming rage, and ultimately more stunningly creepy sonic treats. “Convict All Flesh” descends into funereal doom depths, and the addition of some angelic vocals from Worm Ouroboros’ Jessica Way lends a certain ghostly otherworldliness, as if this hellish struggle has come to its inevitably grim conclusion. And further compounding the bleak direction the album takes in its second half is closer “Removed Forms,” an ethereal and unsettling dirge that floats, weightlessly… until the band breaks back through and reclaims this harrowing territory with their alternately fiery and icy wrath.
Ash Borer’s direction toward even colder climes on Cold of Ages carries with it an interesting side effect: it’s also allowed them to explore an even more melodic approach to black metal. Not necessarily accessible in a Windir sort of way, but their sound has opened up to allow greater exploration of space and ambience. They’re exploring the deep caverns of doom, and ornate gothic cathedrals, if only to make a brief respite from the inescapable, impending USBM blizzard. The frostbitten descent suits Ash Borer well — Cold of Ages is a powerful display of a band more than living up to the promise they previously displayed, but exceeding it.