Review Summary: The winter eternal
Black Metal has had a long, infamous past. What was once simply a niche of eccentric Norwegians playing a stripped down, raw, and noisier version of innovative Heavy Metal bands like Venom and Hellhammer, turned into a tabloid frenzied, front page publicity heist that has continued to define the genre ever since. Certain leaders of this niche (Varg Vikernes of Burzum, in particular) took it upon themselves to take out their politically and philosophically enraged views by vandalizing property, burning down churches, and committing murder. Interestingly enough, the internet has helped turn these stories and imagery into more of a reputable joke, a meme-of-the-week, than the intensity and ferociousness the music suggests. Several high profile documentaries have been taking these ideas more seriously, capturing its imagery and lore to a fine art. But even so these documentaries often fall into similar traps as internet-age mockery, coming off more like a cash-cow exploitation of a trend than an unbiased, serious attempt at understanding a genre. When it comes down to it Black Metal is about one thing, something far more relevant and interesting than corpse paint, church burnings, or how Varg Vikernes likes his corn flakes; the music.
One of the finest examples of this is Tobias "Wintherr" Möckl, who since the late ‘90s, has been the sole creative force behind Paysage d’Hiver; delivering a bleaker, more atmospheric side of Black Metal for those looking for aggression and destruction sealed in an ethereal, celestial package. His latest album (and rumored to be his last, which makes sense considering the cover art gives us what seems to be a zoomed in shot of the cover art of his first album, Die Festung) summons everything he’s released thus far into one convenient, hour-plus atmospheric black metal opus. Opening the album is “Offenbarung’, beginning with a nearly two-minute prelude of tape deck hiss and whirling nature atmospherics, yearning the listener into its palace of doom. A series of gorgeous, mourning synth drones then take over, like a drift of snow gently falling from the misty, charcoaled skies above. Before an inch has fallen, the mix is blasted in an assault of blazingly fast hyper-rhythms, a set of crushing cymbals marking tempo in the distance, and faint, indecipherable mumblings. From here the mourning synth chords cast a vast symphonic light upon the hypnotizing percussive whirlwind, fought barbarically by a scratching wall of noise distorting the mix throughout.
Following the powerful opener is “Macht des Schicksals”, guided by Möckl’s towering shrieks that seep into his climatic riffs and post-rock leaning guitar work like a sharp knife through burnt toast. The song builds and builds as if it’s scoring a heated blood-drenched battle for Middle Earth, before one last apocalyptic shriek suspends the mix in a slower, reflective pool of enemy blood. The meditation slowly fogs into the tarnished reels of the tape, revealing another gust of heavy wind, transitioning to the foreshadowed doom of “Ewig leuchten die Sterne”. These atmospheric “wind noise” preludes, interludes, and transitions can be heard at the tail end of each track on Das Tor, and while these do (for the most part) effectively create a sense of suspense and atmosphere (the underlining setting of the album clearly being winter), it becomes overkill after a while. In particular, the nature recordings don’t really work as a prelude to “Ewig leuchten die Sterne”, which after minute of whispering wind, immediately charges with a speeding percussive attack and noisy guitar riffs; failing to result in any kind of suspense, build up, or purpose. The most jarring example of this being the nearly eight minutes of suspended wind atmosphere on the tail end of the album, which would make sense if it were shortened to something around a minute, but eight minutes of the same sound effect is beating a dead horse. Though luckily, the songs throughout Das Tor absolutely make up for these minor deviations.
The volcanic finale, “Schluessel”, conjures earth-quaked blast beats pushing molten, skewed riffs through piles of harsh, staticy earth. Whirling doom encrusted guitar frenzy like a black metal Kevin Shields guide the spewing lava through a thunderous oblivion; the 23 minute epic closing Das Tor with an utterly cinematic and spiritual experience. Ushering in this simultaneously intense, disturbing, organic, and divine beast, it’s interesting where the music can take you mentally. Sometimes it can be the furthest, wildest places in your imagination. Right now, I'm taken back to memories of the "Banshee Boardwalk" course from Mario Kart 64; Bowser's go-kart speeding through the creaky wooden floorboards like pummeling repetitive blast beats, surrounded by that eerie ghost-filled atmosphere composed around a looped race track that was simultaneously intimidating, entrancing, and weirdly nostalgic. All of this, buzzing out of the little worn out 10-inch TV sitting where the fireplace used to be in the basement. Though it’s a stretch from the album itself, there’s a beauty in this; the idea of being able to connect real, tangible imagery, stories, and memories to music, rather than exploitative, trendy, and irrelevant ideas brought upon by popular culture that can distort a mind from true, unadulterated enjoyment.