A review by Maximus
I — NOKTURNAL MORTUM
When we wrote in 2013 that Nokturnal Mortum’s Voice of steel could not formally be recognized as ‘metal’, or at least not black metal, we were referring to its spirited attempt to transcend black metal in an essential sense. We discerned in its structural integrity, its compositional and instrumental intuition, and most of all in its thematic intentions an adolescent aspirant of a new musical order; we claimed that it was, like Burzum’s Belus, a herald of tomorrow’s black metal, one that was no longer black but golden, no longer lunar but solar. It was allegedly the victory of Apollo over Dionysus. Now, it may very well still be all of that; the markings are as clear as ever; the signs of something glorious and stupendous being in the future are no less evident in the powerful synthesis of a myriad of styles represented by Voice of steel. It is clearer yet, however, that The spirit never dies is anything but the next link in the evolutionary chain of black metal.
The most prominent absentee in the Nokturnal Mortum side of this split is that sense of the epic which was so easily communicated in Voice of steel. Whereas tracks like “Moey mriy ostovi” and “Bila bezha” irradiated the album with a wonderful, bright grandeur full of pride, pain, loss, joy, and triumph, each feeling then being transmitted to the listener through a comprehensive attention to its emotional impact, neither of the two songs on The spirit never dies carry any of the same dramatic weight that their predecessors did. The listener can perhaps sense an attempt to do so in “V kaydanakh chasu”, in which there is a flicker of that old pathos, but it is quickly undermined by a faulty and coarse bit of songwriting lacking in the refined fluidity that characterizes the aforementioned songs; there is little sense of scale or proportion, with the guitars in particular forming an overbearing presence, suffocating the narrative before it can produce real fruit. The leads show potential, but they are smothered by a strong but plodding rhythm. The result is a diminished return and a conclusion that seems somehow premature and overdue at the same time.
In “Skhidniy zlam”, on the other hand, the emphasis is more rightly placed on its rhythm, with its intent being a kind of battle hymn in tribute to the Ukrainian patriots fighting at Donbas. Again, however, we must present a juxtaposition with the prior LP, this time in noticing that the rock elements which were so expertly integrated into that album are here thrown into the ascendancy in the formal and material senses. We heard in “Golos stali” the clear movements and techniques of rock music, turning in and out of the song’s flight with impeccable ease, aligning smoothly with the metal and folk instrumentation and altogether yielding to the narrative’s main course, whose genius was defined not by one of these styles singly but by all of them in consummate cohesion. “Skhidniy zlam”, by way of contrast, prostrates itself fundamentally to the primacy of the rock element, pre-empting any pretense it might have had to be black metal as well as betraying the discography of its author. Its very theme, which comprises a propagandistic tribute to soldiers at the front, steals from it any superior quality it might have had, such as that found in “Ukraina”, which offers instead a sort of platonic paean to Ukraine as a primal reality; the lyrical politicization of “Skhidniy zlam” is exactly the kind of thing which we praised Voice of steel for escaping upon its release, and so represents another step backward into dreary, immanentized Slavic metal. This second song is certainly a carousing anthem, cruising along with amiable motions and easy rhythms, but producing nothing of real interest to the student of black metal music.
Given the amazement and intrigue inspired by the success of Voice of steel, any heir to its glory will be keenly anticipated and, hopefully, equally keenly inspected. That the present effort bodes ill for the development of what worked on Voice… is obvious for this reviewer, but it does not preclude the possibility of it happening anyway – in the upcoming future album or by some other band (the Greek band Kawir have shown some interesting things in this regard). The Nokturnal Mortum songs on this split show very adept musicianship, craft, and maturity, showcased through high production values; what they do not show is promise, or at least nothing that was not already promised by its precursor. Seeing that they open up with an intro very similar to that which introduced Voice of steel, one would perhaps be tempted to see in this split a ‘B-side’ to that same album, these being songs simply not good enough to merit inclusion. That this presumption would be false can be seen through the observation that (besides the obvious line-up changes involved) these songs stem from a very different source: rather than drinking from the fountain that imbibed Voice… with its twin sense of victory and transcendence, The spirit never dies is a parched affair, stricken of any overarching ideal and grasping for the superficial, asking lesser beings to lead the way. Where we saw in 2013 Voice of steel as an infant in the womb, bearing all the signs of a new life form in all its splendour, in 2016 we see The spirit never dies as a miscarriage, a stillborn, a failure to birth the next musical paradigm – so far as Nokturnal Mortum are concerned, whether it is the final and definitive one, or merely a misconceived prototype, remains to be seen.
II — GRAVELAND
Unlike Nokturnal Mortum, Graveland have never aspired to any radical dimensions in their music, never tried to advance into any ‘solar’, ‘Apollonian’ artistic realm; instead, Rob Darken’s main project has concentrated on stolidly putting out a series of albums which altogether present a development from a rough, caustic, if never violently-paced black metal to a studied, measured approach to the genre, incorporating more and more folk elements (likely in conjunction with the progression of his exclusively folk/neoclassical side-project Lord Wind). Graveland are characterized above else by their devotion to the ancient, pre-Christian mythologies through grand hymns of rustic, dishevelled, and pompous eloquence; it is among the purest exercises of black metal’s tributary function to a pre-industrialized, pre-sacramentalized, and pre-civilized world, an exercise in the kind of romanticism that this style of music helped bring back to modernity.
Ever since Memory and destiny, what is true of a previous Graveland album is seldom not true of its successor, with the general formula of thudding, repetitive rhythms, vague, intermittent choral chants, grandiose song structures, and Wagnerian aesthetics being stamped on every record since. In The spirit never dies, however, we find this truism to some extent questioned. Aesthetically, of course, themes remain the same, as the cover art already evinces, with the Graveland portion showing the bow of a Viking longboat and a troop of horsed warriors riding through the heavens. Musically, on the other hand, there is certainly a discernible development, which starts with the intro that sounds more at home on a Lord Wind album than on any Graveland production. Indeed, this divergence creeps into the main body of the split as well, making itself felt through a more spacious soundscape and a greater sensitivity shown towards the cello in particular. This results in rounded-out verse sections, nuanced transitions, and dynamic, highly co-operative phrasing on the part of every instrument, which altogether create a more complete and demonstrative Graveland than we are hitherto accustomed with. The vocals, finally, unfortunately for some, remain the same grizzled, monotonous orc mutterings as they ever were, putting emphasis on the original truism that some things indeed never change.
That Graveland are now a band in the full sense of the word does not seem to account for the main part of these modifications, the above affects and even an altered guitar tone notwithstanding, since, aside from guest musicians, the only additional member listed as working on this album is the new drummer. Without speculating on whether he had an influential impact on this album’s creation, or whether the performance of his music in front of a live audience perhaps changes how Darken writes his music, we can only work with what we hear, and what we hear is something apparently quite different. The key difference can be cogently summarized as variability, as flexibility, as the acquisition of a dynamism that has eluded Graveland’s efforts for the past decade – probably because it has never been directly sought after. We find in The spirit never dies a meeting between Lord Wind and Graveland that reinforces the arsenal of the latter without disturbing its own direction; it now possesses, rather, a superior peripheral vision with which it can perceive a whole new array of ideas.
Graveland has, in any and all of its incarnations, always exemplified the Dionysian spirit which itself exemplifies black metal. It evokes a passional, subversive current that is submerged beneath the veneer of respectable society; it threatens order with the seven heads of the Lernaean Hydra; it disturbs the calm with drunken, careless candour. By reaching out to the gods of the cosmic underworld, long suffocating gods smothered by the Cross, Graveland hearken back to primitivity, yearning to unleash its energy in new, violent, furious storms, but also to submit to that same energy through sincere, religious hymns of unimpeachable paganism. In this sense, The spirit never dies is no different from any prior album or EP; in this sense, Graveland’s work has not changed at all; and in this sense, this split, where it offers us merely a glimpse of Nokturnal Mortum’s preceding LP stripped of everything that elevated it into something special, also teases the listener with a vision of a future Graveland that will be adorned with transformed and improved articles of instrumental capability while remaining fundamentally unchanged. The Apollonian dream has faded for now; the moon has again eclipsed the sun. Graveland’s triumph on this split represents a pronounced Dionysian triumph, a repeated trumpeting of the hardy endurance of real black metal, for it is truly in this final sense that the spirit never dies.