Auriga – VII – Dimensions of Asymmetry (Avantgarde Music, 19 January 2016)
Astral Path – An Oath to the Void (Avantgarde Music, 15 April 2016)
On the way down the street to the bus stop — this is around 5:00 this morning — I realized something. I was hearing birds chirping and singing, and sometimes as I walked past houses, window air conditioners whirring and humming, but otherwise very little background noise whatsoever. It took a few minutes, but finally I came to the conclusion, all of the cicadas must have been sleeping. All those millions of big, ugly, flying things that have gradually emerged from their seventeen-year arboreal naps over the past few weeks to create a deafening cacaphony all over the surrounding area. Over the weekend, when I was stuck spending much of my days outdoors, cutting grass and pulling weeds and various other activities that put me right in the middle of the flight path for hundreds of the clumsy, red-eyed bugs, this nuisance seemed to have reach a terrible crescendo. Sounding like a cross between a gas motor, an alarm bell, and a UFO, the swarm of insects could easily provide a soundtrack for any horror or suspense movie.
Anyway, completely unrelated to anything, today we’re going to spend some time talking about atmospheric black metal. The two different albums I’d like to share with you were both released earlier this year by Avantgarde Music. These bands — one Lebanese, the other Canadian — take slightly different approaches to the genre, but they both generally have a sort of outer space vibe going on. Enjoy!
Named for the constellation known as “The Charioteer,” Auriga formed back in 2009, in Beruit, Lebanon. As far as I can remember, the first band I’ve ever heard from that country of ANY kind, black metal or otherwise, have released their second full-length album, the seven-track VII – Dimensions of Asymmetry back in January.
The longest of these (twelve and a half minutes) is the intro “Floating through Infinity,” while the shortest (two and a half minutes) is the outro “Crossing the Horizon.” Each of these consists of atmospheric synth chords, coming across like some kind of new-agey meditation music, and each (like many of the tracks on this album) includes a silent pause of at least thirty seconds at the end, when all the layers of reverby echoes have died away and the listener feels lost, reflecting on the immense nothingness of the outer void.
In between, the other five songs are mostly in a sort of laid-back black metal style, everything faraway and reverby, including the snarled vocals. Blending slowly progressing sequences of drawn-out sustained guitar and synth chords with drums that sound blackened, even when played slowly (like the death-march beat of “The Ceasing Legacy of Utu” or the even slower 6/4 feel of “Lingering Echoes of the Past (Part II)”). All of this is paired with a lo-fi aesthetic, and drenched in so much dense reverb, the mix comes out thick and almost swampy.
When combined with the occasional samples of talking (which sounds like it’s being broadcast over a radio), at one point including a countdown sequence, and later a beeping that could represent a morse-code signal, this album definitely has the cold and forbidding (while simultaneously immense and wondrous) atmosphere of deep space, and sounds distant enough to have been beamed down to earth from a space station lightyears away.
The duo Astral Path, whose members Justin Bourdeau (guitars, vocals, drums) and Ana Dujakovic (synth, bass) live over 1400km apart in Ontario and Nova Scotia, have nevertheless managed to record the five tracks of their debut An Oath to the Void, which they’ve released about a month and a half ago.
Opening with gentle atmospheric stuff, twinkly synths, and space echoes, the ten-minute “Maroon Sea” sets the stage for what’s to come: gradually a clean guitar and bass fade in, with more atmospheric synths, until about halfway through when black metal drums kick in with a menacing-sounding mix of tremolo-strummed and sustained-chord guitars; almost two minutes later the vocals finally enter — echoey, faraway shrieks. Overall the whole thing reminds me of the huge outer space atmosphere of the latest (and unfortunately, reportedly, the last) Agalloch album.
These piercing, shrieked vocals will remain a fixture throughout much of the album, as will fast blasty drums, tremoloed guitar (and equally fast picking on the bass, which is more clearly audible than one might expect in a black metal band), paired with grander legato guitar+synth chord movements, and ever-present swishy/swirly/almost psychedelic space noises.
Varying the tempos and dynamics from song to song — whether it’s the slowly ambling 12/8 of “Between Appalachia and the Shield” or the more old-school black metal style of “A Virulent Delusion” (which, by the way, mellows out just a bit at one point , channeling Woods of Ypres with a touch of deep “whoooah-oh-ohhhh” background vocals behind the shrieking) — this whole album has plenty of highlights, and atmosphere that goes on to infinity. An impressive first release from a band worth keeping an eye on.
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