Drowned in Sound dips its toes into the darkness once more, to reflect on a year that may be one of the high points in the history of black metal. Not a month went past without a flash of inspiring blackness, and it’s for that reason that no two metal-oriented lists look alike this year. This one will be no different. There is so much invention, reinvention, experimentation and collaboration occurring in this scene at the moment, it’s impossible to bottle all the brilliance. Lightning is striking all over. The world has been set on fire.
20 Terzij de Horde - Self
Burning World/Consouling Sounds/Tartarus
Dutch black metal had something of a Road to Damascus moment this year. It’s been building for a while, and Terzij de Horde are the first of four in this list. Self is the second album from this band, and builds on their former release in every way possible, tightening the focus of the tracks so when they sprawl they drag the momentum along with it. It builds mountains of rage, then tears them apart with seismic ferocity. This album is one powerful force to reckon with.
19 Lubbert Das - Deluge
Perhaps Holland’s answer to Ash Borer and the lightning-burned edges of the wilder Cascadian BM scene, Lubbert Das dropped these two flashes of harsh, stark, blackened brilliance onto tape. Press play and the light seeps out of the next twenty-five minutes of your life as your soul fills up with sound.
18 Véhémence - Assiégé
Aeternus Tenebrarum Music Foundation
Let’s talk purist, kvlt, ancient, malevolent sounding medieval French Black Metal. Véhémence sound like a more audible regrind of any Légions Noires band. There’s something nasty and fiery about this, but a clarity that gives it grandeur. It’s got boxy drums that pummel relentlessly, cheese-wire guitars that set fire to your ears, and vocals that just roar straight into your face. But at the same time it’s poised with absolute class, like it was recorded from a tower at the top of a castle instead of the catacombs underneath.
17 AKHLYS - The Dreaming I
This is the debut solo album from Nightbringer’s main man Naas Alcameth (and a rare appearance from an American band in this list). Where his main band lay down solid BM atmosphere, his work with AKHLYS absolutely fucking shreds it. This record tears right through the fabric of space to unleash untold cosmic horrors upon the Earth and flay it to the core; it’s the sounds of stars screaming in a slow-motion explosion. There is no respite to be found on this record; it is relentless, unyielding, and wholly captivating.
16 Kroda - Ginnungagap-Ginnungagaldr-Ginnungakaos
Purity Through Fire
Ukrainian folk-oriented black metal that isn’t Drudkh – although it sounds a little bit like them, with guitars riffing and rustling like pine trees in a storm. But this is even more epic than Drudkh’s release last year. It’s slower, more ominously paced, and forms a deeper, darker, doomier landscape than most other records that surge and roar in atmospheric harmony with their rural influences.
15 Kauan - Sorni Nai
This band moved from Russia to the Ukraine, and with the physical shift, changed their music from blackened pagan doom to a more intricate, multi-instrumental form of post-metal – but kept their Finnish name. Piano, organs, strings, and sounds of mysterious origin embellish the compelling, absorbing, narrative structures laid down by guitars and drums, a traditional backbone to something much more inventive. An exemplary showcase in shifting from snow-white beauty to subterranean ugliness without breaking atmosphere.
14 Selvans - Lupercalia
Selvans are an Italian band twisting traditional wiry, reverb-heavy black metal guitar tones around classical folk instrumentation with some powerful keyboard action colouring in the harsh edges with an eerie softness, like moss across a forest floor. An album that gracefully flows from mystically wreathed pastoral atmospherics to snarling Cascadian gallops, whipping the momentum of each song along on a furious blaze of black metal fury. Don’t fuck with the faeries, is the message. And just look at that eerie woodland creature with the flutes on the cover. Haunting.
13 Hermóðr - Himlen Mörknar / What Once Was Beautiful / The Scent of Autumn
Three solo outings this year, for Swedish one-man Hermóðr – a full album, bookended by two single-track releases. Technically Himlen is two track, but it’s the main Burzum-worshipping event, plus a superfluous synth outro (although, itself in keeping with tradition). This guy is some kind of melanchological medium, telepathically connected to the wilderness, channelling turmoil and beauty with every chord he strikes; every riffs that ebbs from his amp mirroring the rhythms of the Earth. These albums are all flow, nature harmonics and violent enchantment.
12 Au Dessus - Au Dessus
Witching Hour Productions
This one’s a keeper; never gets tired, never lets up. Each time you return to it, it unleashes the same whiplash fury it did the first time, and each play is no less surprising at just how smooth each transition is, and how exciting the rush of each peaking riff is. Fierce, burly black metal, strung out on post-rock. A real, infinitely expanding primal howl.
11 Terra – ‘ ‘
Cambridgeshire’s answer to the Cascadian wilderness metal, this is Fen Metal. It howls like Black Shuck at his most malevolent, and bursts from the speakers like it has ripped through the seams of another world to get here. It has the space and trance-inducing enormity of a star-gazing cosmic band, but the earthy rawness, heat, hostility. and sheer physical presence of the tracks are tangible. More importantly, these are three extended sets of riffs to die for.
10 Vanum – Realm of Sacrifice
It would be easy enough to say that this is an album by Fell Voices and Ash Borer and leave it at that. That should be enough to convince you of its greatness. But it wouldn’t be enough to convey how subtly, majestically, and powerfully Michael Rekevics and Kyle Morgan have combined their individual bands’ sounds. A record that goes beyond the sum of its parts, does not compromise, and comes out creating something entirely new.
9 Harrow - Fallow Fields
This was an unusual album, even by the standards set by other folk-influenced BM bands this year. Indebted more to the 60’s patchouli psych era than anything mediaeval and localised, this is smoky, sundowner music, drawn from a liminal space between stoned nostalgia and environmental consciousness. It seeps into you, draws you into a murky half-lit haze. Tendrils of acoustic guitar wrap around your synapses until the occasional barking snarl jolts you out of your stupor. Quite extraordinary, yet not even Avant Garde’s finest hour of 2015, as we shall shortly discover.
8 Turia - Dor
I’m pretty sure the atmospheres created here are a byproduct of these four slabs of absolutely gnarly trance just existing. Dor sounds like it was recorded in the basement of a basement. Each track just materialises at the apex of its creation, sits on the sweet spot until all matter has been absorbed, then burns out. The sound of a band playing outside of themselves and just fuckin’ channeling.
7 Misþyrming - Söngvar elds og óreiðu
Usually I’m not fan of metal than shifts and lurches endlessly, but there is a substantial core running through this album that trammels the dynamics, retaining a narrative from start to finish. The explosive flurries never break the atmospheres that have been created, and this album is heavy on those. It sounds exhumed (as I described it in my review in the Spring edition of this column); everything sounds caked in icy dirt which only serves to give the music more presence, melding the instruments into one entity. Despite coming from Iceland’s somewhat incestuous, prolific scene, this band sound unlike any other, and released an album that has set a new highpoint for that nation (and all others) to aspire to.
6 Caina - Setter of Unseen Snares
Church of Fuck
Andy Curtis-Brignell seems to be quite adept at taking on the world, even when he accidentally stumbles into the ugliness of humanity’s idiot belly simply through being a decent human being, as he did in the overlap between 2014 and 2015 as the result of suggesting that Metal might be a tad misogynistic, and that woman are in fact, a-ok. Cue #metalgate and a hellish shitstorm of moronic proportions in which knuckles dragged over keyboards hoping the rabidly incoherent mass of letters would result in something intimidating. Lolz. As if. But it illuminated a tragic aspect of the metal community which synched with a lot of the man-cave dwellers on the web this year. So anyways, that happened, and at the same time, Setter of Unseen Snares appeared. It takes on the world and destroys it. ACB wins, mankind loses, the end. And ‘Orphan’ might even make you cry, as it did me, driving home at 70mph (aka 110mph) to see my family after three hellish working-away days from them. This album captures all that is important in humanity and blasts it into nothing and everything. Fade to black. Fin.
5 Downfall of Nur - Umbras de Barbagia
The work of one man based in a small Argentinian town, Umbras de Barbagia is a masterpiece of frost-bitten wind sounds and cinematic atmospherics. The howling, elemental vocals, from guest lungsman Dany Tee, pierce right through you, just one of the more defining features that makes this album one of the most unsettling, viscerally stunning records of the year. It’s is a rush from beginning to end, and leaves you windswept and exhausted like you just withstood a hurricane. A true spirit of black metal’s environmental energy.
4 Dead to a Dying World - Litany
This is one of those very special records that transcends all limitations of genre, all connotations, all tropes and conventions. Between its ferocious speeds and baroque passages it is neither black metal or doom, despite laying down a heavy atmosphere of crushing intensity; nor could you prefix it with post- anything, despite the songs unfolding with patience and grace, four of the six tracks lasting over fourteen minutes. The backbone of drums and guitars are embellished by orchestral strings and wind, dulcimer, piano, and multiple male and female vocals that roar, scream, screech and sing. It sounds huge, and leads the listener on an arresting emotional trip deep into somewhere I have yet to fully comprehend. That tantilisingly tangible profundity is what makes Litany such a compelling release, and perhaps Gilead's finest to date. You will physically dig into this record to unearth what lies inside it.
3 Batushka - Litourgiya
Witching Hour Productions
This album was released in December, so you may think the potential for newness influencing enthusiasm may be high…but not until you have heard it, from which point you will listen to nothing else. The power, presence, and ultimate greatness of this album are undeniable from the opening minutes, all the way through to the end. Batushka is a mysterious supergroup of European musicians on a Polish label, including members of reputedly well-known bands (perhaps M of Mgla and Nihil of Morowe and Furia, as two of the most inventive and uncompromising Polish BM artists). The album is like a re-visitation from Deathspell Omega in its occult ritualism. Litourgiya is both musical shrine and fortress. A monument to salvation and destruction as the relentless riffing of ancient inspirations joins with rasping and deeply intoned Church Slavonic singing – the language of Eastern European Orthodox churches - layering over each other into peaks of devotional rapture. The ultimate combination to channel gothically violent black metal, even more so because the composition is so flawlessly executed.
2 Fluisteraars - Luwte
Dutch black metal had quite the year in 2015, but this was the album to set the standard. Somehow, Fluisteraars managed to improve on their debut Dromers in every way – the elegance, the aggression, and the trance-inducing interplay between the two elements. They excel at initiating rhythms to riff off, similar to motorik krautrock bands, building up intensity by ramping up the melodic ferocity like the greatest of post-rock outfits. But they do this within the framework of straight-up, head-down churning black metal that embodies the beautiful, natural rage the genre was born to convey. It’s elemental, human, raw, emotional, spiritual. They can hammer home a short riff like the most stroboscopic Liturgy tracks, change the pace with softer atmospherics like Agalloch, then churn it all together into a euphorically epic entity that is entirely their own.
1 Nordvis Records
This label has released an absurd number of incredible albums for any one label to put out in the space of twelve months, but Andreas Pettersson has single-handedly made 2015 a remarkable year. Each of these albums convey something that goes deeper into tradition, psychology, environmentalism, and humanity than any others released this year, but all being released on the same label gave me no choice but to stand Nordvis Records at the top of this list, and give you four number one albums of the year. They released more than these four, and already have one sublimely wintery slice of nostalgia in the form of Nachtzeit’s solo album set for release in January, but these four in particular dominated 2015.
The word domination is apt when describing Murg’s Varg & Bjorn album. A masterclass in second-wave aggression, encapsulating everything that makes black metal such a frightfully grand proposition. It is a history lesson in everything that went down around the Helvete record shop, Deathlike Silence label, and more. It has swagger and arrogance, and imperious might, but has a considered subtlety underpinning much of it. True enough, you might miss a lot of that the first time it batters you round the head, but inside this album draws from a rich well of inspired history and adds its own defining character, overloading the melody and rhythm until they tip over from notions of music or song into pure primal sound. Every single riff on this album is perfect, and you sense that the notes that fall just out of place might just be reference to the imperfectly raggedy original records. This album will fill you with power, the way black metal should. There was no more physically intimidating an album released this year.
Almost the flipside to Murg’s physical might is fellow Swede Grift, and his album Syner. This draws all its energy from the frosted, forested landscapes of Scandanavia, and is as much indebted to the second wave, but instead of Mayhem, Satyricon and Darkthrone, this channels Burzum and Ulver. A bleak howl of a voice set against desolate guitar melodies and lugubrious rhythms may not set this up as the exciting record it undoubtedly is – but then if the words “bleak” and “desolate” don’t strike a chord in your heart, you might be in the wrong place. This is a beautifully rendered sonic interpretation of the cover art to Aske, Filosofem, and Hyvis Lyset Tar Oss, encapsulating the inhospitable melancholia of the black metal genre.
A change of scene entirely for the next two albums, moving from Sweden to the USA, in a contrast of bands that echoes the movement of the genre from the sound of the original frostbitten Scandinavian progenitors to the evolution across the pond and more ecologically oriented forms of USBM. We start with West Virginia’s native American neofolk band Nechochwen’s and their third album Heart of Akamon. More vengeful than their previous releases, this continues their recounting of the wrongs done to the native Americans, telling stories of great battles, curses, brutality, and sorrow. The classical guitar and native folk instruments meld with the distortion of guitars with an affecting harmony. The variety of sounds, and the skill with which they are woven into the musical narrative on this album, is astonishing. The evocative lyrics, roared hoarse, sung smoothly, or spoken solemnly paint vivid, exotic pictures of a brutally sad history, so that when the galloping drums charge forward, and the guitars call lightning from the skies the violence that ensues feels entirely justified.
From Virginia to Minnesota for the final Nordvis release (though this was also released by Bindrune in the US), and an album by Austin Lunn’s one man-mind-blowing-genius of a band, Panopticon. The final part of a trilogy that began with the historically, politically-oriented ode to his home state of Kentucky, continued with Lunn’s journey up the country with Roads to the North and finishes here, amongst the Great Lakes with the reflective Autumn Eternal. With this album, Panopticon defines Lunn as one of black metal’s most heroic songwriters and visionary musicians, mixing styles as much as tempo. ‘Into the North Woods’ is one of the most musically majestic tracks to ever be added to the black metal canon, with its continuous rush of drumming, and the switch between soaring lead melody playing counterpoint to the guttural riffing. The balance of ferocity and firmament gazing is weighted within songs as much as between them. An alternate to Wolves in the Throne Rooms’ ecological BM, that is as much an embodiment of the landscape around it, borne from a different hue.