By ringing in the new year with the surprise release of their Hyperion EP, Krallice signaled that 2016, if nothing else, had potential for being a banner year for innovative and forward-thinking (and maybe even sideways-thinking) black metal. Truth be told, it’s one of the few positive reassurances that 2016 has given us, and most of it has come directly from that very camp of cerebral heshers. That Krallice’s own entry for the year was the earliest and most concise says a lot about the scope and vision of their various players, first with Nick McMaster and Lev Weinstein’s experimental technical death metal project Geryon, and the complex web of drums and bass woven throughout new album The Wound and the Bow. Yet it’s Weinstein’s other other band, Anicon, who ends up releasing the best album of the three with their full-length debut, Exegeses.
Exegeses, as should be expected, isn’t a traditional black metal album by any measure, but it’s constantly moving. In other words, this isn’t atmospheric or “post-metal”—the riffs and rhythms that the New York quartet create are always driving toward something. And in the process of building a momentum that never breaks, they bend rhythms, time signatures and tempos without losing a step. In a similar manner to how simply listening to a band like Krallice can be exhausting, Exegeses feels like a 48-minute sprint, each of its seven tracks as much an endurance test (certainly more so for the musicians actually playing them) as cathartic release.
So here’s the weird part: In spite of its marathon black metal firestorms and stunt musicianship, Exegeses is surprisingly accessible, dare I even say fun to listen to. Where far too many technically inclined metal bands are content to forgo listenability in favor of the jaw dropping feats of human ability, Anicon make songwriting a priority. In fact, it’s the top priority. Were one to swap the blast beats for four-on-the-floor thumps and temper some of their more showy instincts, these songs would still arguably sound great. The opening gallop of “Toil and Mockery” sounds positively old-school in its thrashy assault, Nolan Voss and Owen Rundquist letting loose with lightning riffs that serve the melody as much as they seemingly burn craters into the fretboard. The chunky power-chord riffs of “Mazzaroth” sound almost post-hardcore in nature, recalling no black metal song so much as Quicksand’s cover of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” And the stunningly tuneful labyrinth of “Robed In Torments” provides one soaring climax after another, breaking numerous black metal rules in the process while simultaneously providing an example of how to keep it not only interesting but vital.
That Anicon’s debut is titled Exegeses seems like a curious bit of irony, or at least a red herring. Where a lot of black metal is concerned with overarching concepts, theories or some kind of inextricable ethos (usually Satanism—it’s a proven crowd pleaser), Anicon is primarily focused on making the best music they can. “What makes bands healthy, what makes music engaging is not necessarily having some sort of ethos in mind,” Weinstein said in an interview last year. “It’s about playing music.” That Exegeses is one of black metal’s highlights this year is a proof of concept. With a batch of songs this powerful, this cohesive and melodically dynamic, any marketing contrivance after the fact is just a distraction.