COVID lockdown has a lot of us thinking differently, at least temporarily, about how to write about music. It’s hard not to notice—the foreseeable postponement of live music, the delay of many albums’ release dates and other general weirdness and ambiguity about the state of music in 2020 has led to an approach that veers a little bit farther away from the typical album release cycle and more toward a kind of editorial perspective that emphasizes, well, just how we’re dealing with all this stuff. That and more clever takes on music from an indoors perspective, because it can’t all be navelgazing or curling into a fetal position.
You may have noticed one highlight of the latter here on Treble; last week we published a list of essential home-recorded albums. Not an exhaustive list, just a selection of 10 favorites that may end up getting a sequel at some point. It’s certainly not out of the question. The fun thing about features like these is that people inevitably react by sharing their own favorite homemade records, many of which we didn’t include. It’s less about hierarchical rankings than simply sharing some fun stories about records. Even when we do rank albums, we still do so in the service of telling some fun stories about records. That’s why we’re here, and presumably why you are, too.
But, hey, there was one legitimate criticism about the list that, in hindsight, might not have actually been a criticism, just an observation perhaps. But it was nonetheless true: We didn’t include any black metal albums. Given that we do cover black metal, and that many iconic black metal albums are DIY affairs, it’s a natural assumption that we should at least have one representative. So I thought I’d use this space to rectify that oversight. But here’s the funny part—a lot of those classic black metal albums you thought were made in someone’s bedroom? Not always the case! I should clarify—I’m not counting demos, but actual commercially released albums. Go back to the ’90s Norwegian scene—most of them were recorded at Grieghallen in Bergen, even if they sound kind of lo-fi, like the early Enslaved records. Or perhaps Hellhammer’s debut EP, Apocalyptic Raids—that was recorded in the same Berlin studio as Celtic Frost’s debut Morbid Tales. And I’m obviously not counting Burzum’s prison-recorded orc-synth albums. And also fuck Burzum.
But after sifting through the credits, tracking down the proper information and determining the actual 100 percent true place of origin of each album, I’ve come up with an addendum of five more home-recorded albums, specifically black metal, as a post script to the list that ran last week. Because you can be inspired to create at home during a pandemic and still be a hissing ghoul!
Let’s start with Bathory. Now, the first five records in Quorthon’s immortal discography were all captured at Heavenshore Studios, which was a converted garage in the Stockholm suburbs that belonged to schlager singer Peter Himmelstrand. So technically not Bathory’s home, but a home, nonetheless. My pick is Bathory’s self-titled 1985 debut album, often (rightly) credited as the first full-length black metal album. And it’s the rawest and most direct of the catalog, the natural place to start with a top-five home-recorded black metal essentials list. And considering it was somewhat of a DIY affair, it sounds about on par for most of the metal releases of the era—Kill ‘Em All, released just one year earlier, showcases more clarity and polish by just a matter of degrees. I should also note that this album is fun AF—straightforward, thrashy, clobbering black metal that does everything you need it to. (The viking stuff is cool too, but still, what a killer debut.)
Naturally the next step is Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, which was recorded in “Necrohell Studios,” aka Fenriz’s bedroom, on a 4-track recorder. I think we can safely say that “Necrohell Studios” can be applied uniformly over the course of every black metal dude’s bedroom in perpetuity throughout the underworld. It’s almost a parody of black metal imagery and terminology, but then again this is kind of the template for black metal aesthetics for the two and a half decades to come. Sure, it features Varg Vikernes on bass, and Varg co-wrote the album, and I did just say “fuck Burzum.” So…make of that what you will, I suppose, but this album slays regardless.
The name that I always associate with lo-fi black metal is Los Angeles’ Xasthur, the one-man bedroom metal project of Malefic, who’s kind of like the Robert Pollard of black metal. (Yeah, I said it.) Pretty much all of his early recordings are grainy, no-fi self-recorded productions, but I’m partial to Subliminal Genocide, which is truly the sound of your nightmares.
If one were to point to the most interesting and consistently captivating one-man black metal project in the United States, the obvious name that comes to mind is Austin Lunn, better known as Panopticon. His 2018 album The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, a double-album half composed of searing black metal tracks and the other half bluegrass (with some stunning post-rock epics as well, which might even be the best tracks of the bunch) is his most impressive statement, encompassing the full scope of his musical influences and ideological perspective. And it was recorded, like most of Lunn’s other albums, at Lundr Lodge, his home in the woods in Minnesota.
And I’ll wrap up this set of essential home-cooked black metal with a band that comprises half of one of my favorite metal albums of the year to date, Mare Cognitum. Jacob Buczarski is the sole member of Mare Cognitum, and he records all of his music (or at least up until recently) at the Lunar Meadow, which is his basement studio. And much like Panopticon, it’s not the kind of home recording that black metal produced 20 or 30 years ago. The sound is massive and consuming, atmospheric and hypnotic—nothing lo-fi about the kind of sonic treatments in his arsenal. Start with Luminiferous Aether, a darkly beautiful and immersive five-track black metal record that shows how far home recording has come.
There’s obviously more where that came from, but you get the idea. OK, now it’s your turn. Make the next great black metal record at home during quarantine. No pressure.
The best metal tracks of April 2020
Vile Creature – “You Who Has Never Slept”
I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek lately—The Next Generation, Picard, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, in that order—so you’ll forgive me if the first thing I think of when looking at the cover of Vile Creature’s Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! is a hearty mouthful of gagh, that wriggly, slimy Klingon delicacy. Mmm… best when it’s still moving and lively! OK, apologies for having to get that out of the way, but here we are. Of course, one could easily make the connection between a truly blood-curdling metal bellow and how it can sometimes have the feel of someone belching up an esophagus full of invertebrates. If this all sounds too disgusting for words, well, let me point out that this band is literally called Vile Creature. But the Canadian doom duo are truly artisans of the gut-wrenching, the gross and the churning. “You Who Has Never Slept,” whose title reminds me of Thou & The Body’s You Whom I Have Always Hated, actually reminds me a lot of what makes those two bands among the strongest in metal in the past decade. A lot of it is the density and the sheer overwhelming power, and Vile Creature have that in spades—their sound is an impenetrable wall of toxic murk, and I’ll gladly wade through it to get to the triumphant climaxes of this song, catchier than it lets on, but never any lighter.
From Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!, out June 19 via Prosthetic
Wailin Storms – “Grass”
The opening moments of “Grass” had me thinking I was listening to a 16 Horsepower or Wovenhand record that somehow had slipped under my radar up to now. Which seemed unlikely, to be honest. But that bluesy, haunted, gothic Americana aesthetic is central to “Grass,” an explosive, earth-rattling sludge-grunge track that’s as much metal as it is gothic country. Which absolutely fucking rules. Though that wasn’t what I was expecting when I hit play on this gem; a press release compared the band to Alice in Chains, Oranssi Pazuzu and “sex,” so naturally I had to investigate. And there’s more to the album than this, of course, but goddamn what a knockout punch right out of the gate. Eerie, apocalyptic, howlin’ Old Testament sludge with all the psychedelic trimmings. It’ll put the fear of god in ya.
From Rattle, out May 15 via Gilead
Ulcerate – “Stare into Death and Be Still”
Some people have been faring better at productivity during lockdown than others; I feel like I’m doing reasonably well, despite the fact that my house doesn’t have air conditioning and these dishes just continue to stack up in my kitchen. But the thing that’s been bothering me most is, due to a greater lack of focus than usual, more great music has been slipping under my radar of late than others—and I don’t imagine I’m alone on that front. There’s so much that’s been left up in the air in the industry because of COVID-19, so who even knows when what’s coming out anymore? I know I don’t! Which is a long way of saying I totally overlooked the fact that Ulcerate had a new album out this month. And, you know, I feel a little silly about that. I’m supposed to keep tabs on these things, but instead of making excuses, I’ll just own up to the fact that I’ve been distracted. Well, the title track from the band’s new album Stare Into Death and Be Still is a stunning epic of death/black metal, with gorgeously ominous flourishes, the typical technical proficiency that we expect from the New Zealand band, and a kind of grandiose, apocalyptic feel that counteracts much of black metal’s grainy snuff-film menace with a grand Temple of Doom production. This is music for being spun on wheels of fire and being sacrificed to volcanoes, or perhaps having a $1,000 steak with the Grim Reaper. Ulcerate make a threatening aura feel ornate, even classy.
From Stare Into Death and Be Still, out now via Debemur Morti
Funeral Leech – “Lament”
Death metal comes in a variety of flavors—showy and technical, slow and painful, sloppy and headed toward absolute disaster, or perhaps catchy and streamlined, if you prefer the Gothenburg approach. New York’s Funeral Leech lean more toward the slow and painful edge of death metal, their bloody scythe borrowed from the skeletal hand of doom. But the edges are sharpened, the riffs precise and efficient. It’s elegant, and on a certain level, straightforward. In the eight minutes that transpire throughout “Lament,” there’s never any confusion about their melodic sensibility, nor is the sheer immensity of their sound ever sacrificed to showcase subtler textural conceits. They make big music that knocks you on your ass, and they do it in such a way that you want to savor the wallop. Yet by the second half of the song, the riff that drives this doomed anthem toward its conclusion becomes a kind of repetitive drone, hypnotic and almost spiritual as it loops again and again… which I suppose makes sense for an album titled Death Meditation. This is where death metal meets the transcendent.
From Death Meditation, out now via Carbonized
Eye of Nix – “Concealing Waters”
It’s starting to feel like summer, and I’m not feeling it. Sure, some folks are rushing to the beach against the advice of public officials, possibly putting their health in jeopardy, but most of us are still spending it indoors, avoiding any actual summer weather activities. So as much as some vest-with-no-shirt, hair-swinging, flying-V hedonist metal might feel like the proper prescription for whatever withdrawals we’re going through right now, I’m finding myself drawn more toward the autumnal gothic metal that makes me feel as if I’ve been transported into a moss-covered wood where witches perform their clandestine rituals. There’s maybe no better band for such imagery and mood than Seattle’s Eye of Nix, a mystical gothic black metal band that’s as much darkwave as they are metal, with the eerie, atmospheric verses of new single “Concealing Waters” creating a shimmering atmosphere reminiscent of Dead Can Dance at their spookiest. Its transformation into a metal song, however, is fluid—seamless. The ritual conjuration brings forth a mighty beast, only for it to once again disappear into the trees, leaving this strange and beautiful ceremony in its absence. Just marvelous. Is it fall yet?
From Ligeia, out June 19 via Prophecy
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.