The first thing you will hear about this album, depending on the circles you inhabit, is that it’s black metal made by leftists with a clear leftist intention. And while I do not mean to impugn this aspect of the music, being both a leftist myself and feeling at the very least that we need a necessary rejoinder to the intense right-wing presence in extreme metal music, it is a way to diminish and contain and then ultimately, for some listeners, to dismiss it. Of course the leftist ideologies that inform this music are profound even in the sense of how it generates this music in particular, but to start at those ideologies instead of the music ultimately leaves us understanding those ideologies more and this music less.
The first thing to note with this record is the masterful balance of ambiance and intensity. Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze refer to themselves as “ritual black metal,” and while part of the overall black metal aesthetic is rather intense aestheticizing of otherwise normal things (and, further, wanting to remove that aesthetic is counterintuitive to the enterprise itself), Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze earn this by a profound sense of intention to the balance of these components. It’s not uncommon for black metal bands to have these two components, but a common complaint of bad balances of the two is either quality black metal interspersed with unnecessary and pretentious interludes or quality ambient/post-rock/shoegaze oriented music that seems to use black metal more as a dosing element than tapping into its full intense potential. Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze feel difficult to describe in this continuum, feeling neither like a group that plays powerful ambient music with black metal flourish nor a black metal band that lets their pieces breath with moving ambient sections nor even a band that blends them, but instead is a band that is fully a powerful ambient group and a powerful black metal group.
The idea that they label themselves as “ritual black metal” becomes much more justified in light of this. There is this profound third affect Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze generate, one comparable to the other greats of black metal. We love pure black metal itself, but it is hard to deny that part of what we value in early Ulver, in Emperor, in Krallice, in Weakling, in Wolves in the Throne Room, and in Darkthrone is precisely this sense of the music transcending itself. Death metal, by comparison, is often a genre intended to burrow well within itself and generate as pure a death metal affect as possible, whether by repeating or cutting against its own traditions; black metal, on the other hand, is focused on that notion of self-transcendence through intensity, producing an affect so powerful that black metal itself becomes a vehicle to some other immanent experiential plane. It is hard, as a critic, for me to suppose whether Offerings of Flesh and Gold will reach that plane of immanence for every listener, but it definitely has that capability, showing deft design choices to laser-hone its intent.
The chants feel like a development of Batushka’s use of the same. Batushka is, of course, not the first band to employ chants in black metal, but their usage of them nonetheless felt refreshing on their debut, injecting a clear Christian intent within the notoriously anti-Christian space of black metal and doing so in a manner that still felt commensurate with the adversarial and confrontational ekstasis of black metal, finding it in union with the spiritual ekstasis of intense prayer and, through that, transcendence and unification with the will of god. Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze feel as though they took note of this, affecting their hymnals and chants in similar manner as Batushka, but instead pointing them to an occult notion of the abstract will of the people, something between the native folk religious practice of invoking the will of the world and a distinct Communist spirituality, seeing the latent proletariat/oppressed spirit as inherently divine and thus able to channel. They are wise enough composers and performers, however, to keep this notion from being purely rhetorical; like Neckbeard Deathcamp’s latest, their political praxis is a means of generating musical intensity and power, and it is this power that then becomes manifest through their music and, through it, a bridge back to the political.
It is precisely because these three great compositions, great in terms of quality and pure girth, that the band is able to justify their political intentions as more than just a grifter’s label to sell their product to people hungry for black metal not made by right-wing fascist chuds. An important aspect not just of black metal but of music in general is ekstasis, that transcendent ping that denotes the great pop song that sears itself into the fabric of your life from the merely good that you hum with on the radio and don’t think of again, the symphony which seems to manifest the primordial motion of oceans, winds, and planets versus the boring white cocktail music of the stodgy. This ekstasis is also a political force, the unnameable entity that triggers rhetoric we all hear everyday into that final compelling fire that launches you not just into the streets but also drives you to compassionately engage with the people around you in your life to effect real and fundamental change in the pieces of the world accessible to you. Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze are wise enough to knowingly invest themselves, by the magick of sigil, ritual and intent, every aspect of their album from band name to album/track titles to the superlatively gorgeous art, toward that ekstasis, full in faith that it will deliver the social and political fruits they desire.
The focus, power, and beautiful of these compositions, along with their masterful pacing both internally and over the course of Offerings of Flesh and Gold, place Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze’s debut up in the echelons of truly great affecting extreme metal, alongside other greats like Wolves in the Throne Room and Neurosis. There is no such thing as interior versus exterior politics, and they know this; politics is the material result in the world of some great undeniable motivating force that dwells in the spirit, and it is toward this spirit that Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze so powerfully gesture and attempt to communicate. This is, without a doubt, one of the very finest records of the year and a powerful contribution to the two worlds of black metal and of political music. We must sadly confront, however, that good art alone will not disrupt the ills of the world. In 1937, Pablo Picasso revealed Guernica, a masterpiece of surrealist painting deeply and clearly opposed to war and fascism in all forms; while the first Nazi concentration camps were founded in 1933 four years prior, it would be four years later in 1941 that they evolved into the first proper Nazi extermination camp. Decades after Guernica, fascism is resurgent. One suspects this is a second reason for labeling their world “ritual black metal”; Bull of Apis Bull of Bronze know that it won’t be their record that saves the world but the unified will and action of all oppressed and allied peoples of the world. What they offer, instead, is a transcendent prayer.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.