Black Anvil – Hail Death (Relapse Records, 27 May 2014)
Black Anvil – As Was (Relapse Records, 13 January 2017)
Recently I was reminiscing about the last Winter’s Wake festival in Pittsburgh, partly because we’ve been reporting the news about this summer’s Migration Fest which will also be taking place in this area, but also because we’ve just (well, a little over a month ago) hit the five year anniversary of Winter’s Wake. This also had me thinking about Black Anvil.
They’d been around for a few years by that time and had already released a pair of albums, so I’m sure I had heard a song or two at some point, or at least was vaguely aware of their existence within the realm of domestic black metal bands. But that show — which was immediately preceded by a series of “getting to know you”-style interviews I’d conducted with nearly all of the performing bands (I’d missed a couple, due to timing issues or communication breakdowns, but as I recall, Black Anvil were the only ones who had outright declined to participate in the interview process) — was the first real exposure I’d had.
I can just vaguely remember that night — this was Friday, the first of two days full of music, and they were the second-to-last band to play, after we all had been standing for hours in this cramped loft-sized space breathing in the toxic fumes rising from the nail salon down at ground level. That was the atmosphere through which the band members pushed and shoved their way, each dripping with blood, to ascend to a stage hazy and thick with fog machine discharge — and instantly exploded into a maelstrom of blackened death fury.
About a year later, Relapse released the band’s third album Hail Death, which I remember digging quite a bit; and then last year’s follow-up As Was stormed its way up my year-end list for 2017’s top records. Both are excellent releases that showcase a band every bit as innovative and experimental as some of their NYC neighbors (like Krallice and Imperial Triumphant), but who can also hold their own sharing a stage with some of the more traditional titans of the genre (such as their continent-wide tours with Mayhem at both the beginning and end of 2017).
Hail Death opens with the acoustic intro of “Still Reborn,” filled with tension, leading us into a dense and foggy atmosphere, complete with whiplash-inducing direction shifts. While the savage growling and snarling vocals throughout the album are consistent with the standard black metal fare, they’re occasionally paired with background shouting or even singing, harmonized along with the lead part, producing a fairly grand feel overall. Even more than the vocals, an interesting (i.e. not typically “black metal”) extra dimension is produced by the guitar solos in several of these songs: sometimes in a retro-metal or even almost classic-rock style. The incorporation of different guitar styles atop the black metal foundation brings to mind Cormorant‘s bag of tricks. Following the slowdown and buld-back-up (that one might be more likely to get from a thrash band) in the latter part of “Seven Stars Unseen,” the final two tracks are full of highlight-reel material: the slower and heavier “N” with its shout-along repeated chorus “we are one, we are all / we are all, we are nothing,” and finally the eleven-and-a-half minute epic closer “Next Level Black.”
The more recent As Was, despite starting off a bit more echoey and atmospheric, often comes across with more of a pure-black feel. Several vicious snarled vocal parts are thrown together here, but at the same time we also find some more melodic singing as well — sometimes harmonized parts piled up in complex layers. For example, “As an Elder Learned Anew” enters into almost doomy territory (blackened doom, perhaps) with the inclusion of ethereal backing vocals; “Two Keys: Here’s the Lock” (which starts with real mellow, bluesy vibe before picking up in tempo and intensity) actually includes some Brimstone Coven-style harmonies over otherwise ostensibly black(ish) metal. Even more so, in the dense, heavy last song “Ultra” harsh vocals give way to more and more harmonized parts, often major-key and (one might say) triumphal-sounding; the multiple layers develop into a sort of contrapunctal meshing near the end as the instruments all drop away, leaving an epic acapella coda.
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