Svarttjern – Shame is Just a Word

Out now on Soulseller Records

Having been born and raised in Norway, the sound of Black/thrash is as comforting to me as the sound of a crackling fire, the lively spritz of an opened beer can or the voice of a loving mother. Being fed records by NekromantheonAura Noir and Condor through my umbilical cord has –apart from severely damaging precious internal organs- helped me relate to my fellow countrymen where more obvious cultural rally points have failed. In other words, it’s pretty much impossible to write a black/ thrash record and ship it to my tarn-side dwelling without me enjoying it at least a smidge.

             Seemingly pleased with the odds, Svarttjern has done exactly that with their latest record; Shame is Just a Word. The consistently enjoyable outfit has been ping-ponging between black and thrash over ten years and four albums, the defining factor of each usually being whether it accentuates the ping (Black) or the pong (Thrash). They continue this display of athletic prowess on their 2020 project, refusing to let either sound take full hold of the reins.

            Barrelling out of the gates like a flock of burning geese comes “Prince of Disgust”, the punchy and concise first single from the album. Featuring to-the-point riffing interspersed with some dissonant flirtations with headier sounds, it reeks of love for both the past and present of the subgenre. Hansfyrste (vocals) rasps and hollers like an absolute madman throughout the song, recalling a Nocturno Culto feverish with night terrors. The songwriting is strong, hampered only by a loose and wandering bridge and a questionable fade-out. 

            After this relatively ping affair, we are met with a strong pong-ping-pong combo. “Ment til å Tjene” thrashes away in brilliant manner, turning up with some big riffs and sneaky grooves. “Melodies of Lust” is by far the most impressive track on the album, managing to cram in so many different sides of the band it makes most of the other songs on the record superfluous. After teasing the listener with a requisite clean-guitar and bubbly-porridge-on-the-stove introduction, they open the doors to greatness through some towering riffs, structural sleight-of-hand and a melodious expanse towards the end that awes like a more temperate Borknagar.

            After this breath-taking vista, we’re thrown back into the snus- and piss-filled pits of “Ta dets Drakt”. While enjoyable enough taken by itself, as a follow-up to the pine-scented “Melodies…” it fails to leave a distinct odour of its own. “Frost Embalmed Abyss” tries to correct the course by way of its wonderfully upsized intro- and verse-sections, proving that ambition seems to wake something primal in this band. Unfortunately, the bridge of the song stumbles into the same non-descript thrash of the previous track, and ‘unfortunatelier’, so does the rest of the record. “Ravish Me” is easily the least effective track of the bunch, and the inclusion of a growled cover of Exodus’ “Bonded by Blood” does little more than spotlight the familial connections between Thrash and Black Metal.

            After the batshit power-organ/vocoder(?) solo at the end of the title track, we’re left sitting in our half-emptied crate of beer, wondering why this crisp slice of black/thrash didn’t knock us over as hard as the packaging promised. While the first couple of spins showed promise, the lustre started to dim little by little throughout subsequent listens. As “Melodies of Lust” and the first half of “Frost Embalmed Abyss” shows, there lives a beast within Svarttjern that longs to stumble out of the musty dive bar and into the majesty of the Norwegian wilderness, unbeholden to the tenets of the mosh-church. If they could unshackle this adventurous impulse and let it flail around unrestrained, I would not rule it out of their capacities to produce an end-of-the-year contender. But as it stands, Shame is Just a Word fails to stand toe to toe with the rest of the their peers in the norwegian league of black/thrash.

6.0/10

Hellgoat – Death Conquers All

Out on Boris Recordings

Hellgoat is an American black metal band from Atlanta delivering raw, trebly black metal to the ravaged masses. They have stayed more or less true to the ethos of the second wave through a smattering of demos, EPs and LPs, only stopping once or twice along the way to up the fidelity by marginal amounts. Death Conquers All is their second full length, originally released in 2011 by Graveless Slumber Records, but recently released by Boris Records. 

            “Slay the Lamb” starts off the proceedings by strategically scaring away any person not fully devoted to the blast. The track is a pure second wave assault; Scorching white noise guitars riding on a drum track that stays blasting for 90% of the song. The bass faithfully sticks to whatever the guitar is doing, while a Grutle Kjellson-like rasp guides the troupe through the blood red fog. This track is as straight-forward as it gets when it comes to black metal, but fear not, Hellgoat has a lot of unexpected tricks up the sleeves of their sacrificial robes.

            Already by the second track, the Trve is starting to give way for more adventurous impulses. The track is more low-end heavy, and breaks up the regularity with some irregular bars and a discordantly doomy bridge. The song structure also treks beyond the three-part simplicity of its preceding brother. By the beginning of “Summon Him”, I’m already starting to envision clichés of black metal iconography slightly warped. The ceremonious intro creates a strange atmosphere, conjuring the picture of an altar on wheels being rolled out in front of a rapaciously worshipping congregation. The wheels are a tiny detail separating the scene from any ordinary satanic worship, and so it is with Hellgoat’s music. The details separating this album from any other bare-bones black metal album are tiny, but they’re present.

            The band continues to mine a sound combining the unrelenting but hooky power of Gorgoroth with occult doom bridges in the vein of old Candlemass. Completing the elixir is the rare speck of punk-ish snarl, like the straight-outta CBGB riff that is well hidden behind the blast-beat-as-side-chain section of “Summon Him”. The band varies up their attack every so often, toying with the familiar style in subtle ways so as to not tire the listener. At the record’s B-side, the band opens up its sound to include slightly more noticeable detours, injecting the latter parts with vigor. “Feast of the Goat” has a bridge where the bass actually gets to lead the flock for a couple of bars, while “Behold the Tempter Spoke” inserts phaser effects and bass arpeggios, progging up the proceedings substantially. This evolution crests naturally with the longest song of the record, “March of the Corpse Rats”, where Enslaved-stomp and gently twisting 777 Sect(s)-lite riffs entwine in musty lovemaking.

            Death Conquers All presents enough subtle twists to entertain the knowledgeable and corpse-painted cretin looking for crinkles in the black metal carpet. The production, while beefier and more listenable than the mix on their debut, is still pretty rough if you’re not into the demo-quality of most second wave projects. But if you’ve spent a fortnight under the freezing moon, and still find the boreal valley as appealing as ever before, then the searing noise of Hellgoat can prove a worthwhile companion through the night.

7.0/ 10

Scáth Na Déithe – Pledge Nothing but Flesh

Out on Vendetta Records

Scáth Na Déithe (Shadow of the Gods) is a death-ish black metal duo from Ireland. Consisting of drummer Stephen Todd and multi-instrumentalist Cathal Hughes, Pledge Nothing but Flesh is their second release after dropping a four track EP in 2015. Pledge was originally released independently in 2017, but the German label Vendetta Records saw the potential in the band’s bleak vision and released it anew this year. The first release of the LP in 2017 went largely unnoticed, despite Pledge’s obvious appeal to fans of dark and expansive black metal. Let’s hope the label involvement manages to correct this situation, as this band is a valuable addition to the Irish black metal scene.

            Scáth Na Déithe plays an unendingly bleak and punishing variant of death/black metal. The soundscape feels saturated with dark shades of gray and brown, the black and the death elements almost perfectly balanced. The production is earthy and organic providing the lengthy compositions with indelible grit and character. The lyrics are filled with the hopeless reflections of a tortured mind; self-loathing and desperate in the search for a way out of a hopeless existence. Taken with the four expansive tracks and the short interludes, the whole package feels epic in scope, like combining the dark mythos of Agalloch’s Faustian Echoes with Dante’s Inferno.

            The record is clearly separated into an A- and a B-side, each front-ended with a short interlude. “Sí Gaoithe” wafts through the speakers like wandering apparitions traversing a dead forest, seguing into “Bloodless”’ trudging intro. The abundance of low and mid frequencies in the mix reminds me of the destructive blackened death of Aosoth’s An Arrow in Heart, one of the most successful meldings of black and death metal in later years. The track soon picks up speed, the harsh and unintelligible vocals sounding the feral cries of a trailing woodland beast. The track flows nicely, with a couple of stand-out moments peppering its 10-minute run time. “Bloodless” is quickly followed by “This Unrecognized Disease” which explodes with a cloud of dissonant shrapnel, before sprawling out like a far-flung field of wet, disintegrating leaves.

            After 20 minutes of relentless bluster, Pledge offers its only moment of respite. “Fáilte Na Marbh” is like a stark clearing in a dismal forest, a place still somewhat graced with the memory of light. This glimmer is immediately whisked away with the arrival of “The Shackled Mind”, which is both the harshest and the best track on the album. The track sounds like a cataclysmic event driving entire communities into exile; a rumbling, flailing vortex of death and misfortune. After chasing destruction for 9 minutes, it closes off with an ominous clean section resembling the damp dungeon climes of The Ruins of Beverast.

            The album is unfortunately closed off with a ten-minute track that, despite a moment of spacious beauty towards the middle, largely retreads the ground of earlier tracks. This is but a slight tarnish on a record that is otherwise an impressive display of gravelly vision. The band has worked their way into a sound that is both comfortably familiar, yet filled with enough character and variation to sustain the interest across a full-length effort. This sound has the potential to be whittled down into an even more refined product, a process that could well create a modern masterpiece. Pledge Nothing but Flesh deserves to be admired by a bigger audience, so if you have some shelf space left for a quality death/black release, I recommend giving the online store of Vendetta Records a visit.

7.5/ 10