The frigidity of winter is perfectly exemplified in atmospheric black metal. Regardless of production levels, location of origin or subject matter, this subgenre always has the ability to summon harsh winds and battering precipitation with just the push of a button. The good stuff, that is. Take a group like Paysage d’Hiver; perhaps one of the greatest artists of the genre’s extended history. With the help of harsh ambience and lo-fi aesthetics, the storm literally tears into the music itself. Or take Wolves In The Throne Room, whose rich melodic sensibilities weave through their somber soundscapes to produce an unyielding modern take on the style. In a genre with limitless potential, there are too many standout acts to count, each of which brings their own pastiche on the classic sound established thirty years ago in the Scandinavian peninsula.
While dungeon synth might not share the wintry aesthetic of atmospheric black metal, the two certainly go hand in hand. Varg Vikernes (Burzum) and Sigurd Wongraven (Satyricon) knew this, and groups today like Almach, Lamp of Murmuur and Eldamar drive the charge in dsbm scene (dungeon synth black metal, not depressive black metal. I’m too lazy to keep writing that phrase). Beleriand is a solo effort from the country arguably responsible for the genre as whole, as well as this particular genre-cross, and you can hear it. The music here is often driven by the keys, rather than the guitars, which creates a very unique combination of sounds. Akin to many symphonic metal bands, Víðarr’s music is epic, grandiose, and extremely mystical.
February, however, is an interesting release of the genre we’ve been speaking of. Throughout its eight tracks, the balance between blast blasts and kvlt screaming versus the medieval synthesizers and choral “ahs” often shifts back and forth. Take the opening cut, “In My Castle of Despair;” Beginning with a warm synth melody, the music quickly blooms into a double-bass-led refrain with full black metal instrumentation. The track weaves back and forth from this intensity to much more mellow spoken word section with an electronic line beneath it. The emotive metal bridges on this song (and the rest of the LP, honestly) is stunningly beautiful, and works perfectly within context. The varying tempos also greatly help the tracks throughout their runtime, as faster cuts lead to more black metal, like the next cut, “All Hope Abandon Ye Who Enter Here,” while the slow lends itself to dungeon synth, like the opener and “Black Knight of Autumn.”
This record is beautiful, but it also has a few standout faults. Particularly with a selection of performances, the mid-era Burzum worship here really sticks out like a sore thumb. Spoken word passages on some of the tracks which they appear are almost uncomfortable to sit through, as Víðarr’s monotonous tone almost sounds artificial as he speaks. What is certainly fake, however, are the female vocals on February, which throw me for a loop every time I hear this album. Pulled from some sort of choir VST plug-in, they are mixed so much louder than every other instrument, and each time end as abruptly as they entered. It would be a nice touch if mixed a little bit better, but as they stand both of these aspect of this record consistently fail to impress.
But what saves Beleriand‘s sophomore effort is the last few tracks. After the “Cold” interlude (which as far as interludes go, is actually a needed and well placed dungeon synth break), the following four tracks shed off their medieval fantasy shell and fully embrace the black metal that is the bread and butter of this music. The cheese isn’t completely gone, but the classic conventions of the coldest genre out there become much more prominent, beginning with one of my favorite cuts on the record, “February Funeral.” Growling slowly into the thundering black metal this track has to offer, swells of guitar and synthesizer alike berth a reverb heavy hypnotic refrain that gradually sinks into a foreboding verse structure. The piano on this track is also brilliantly enticing, with it’s somber melody sticking in your head long after the track has finished.
The last few tracks follow similar melodic and structural similarities, but keep the emotions high and intensity higher, and I find myself more and more immersed to this album every time I listen to it. February is far from perfect; the songs are somewhat same-y and some of the instrumentation is unsavory, but the conceptual and songwriting aspects of this record are phenomenal. Not to mention the black metal that we all know and love. I really enjoy this album on every listen, and I’ve learned to take it at its faults and wade in the freezing mystical wonder the record can produce. While it may not be for everyone, I recommend you try it out if you like either of the genres present. Or neither, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the wintry landscape that currently echoes our own.
Final Verdict: A heavy(ish) Skyrim soundtrack
Favorite Tracks: “February Funeral,” “Eyes That Fire and Sword Have Seen,” “All Hope Abandon Ye Who Enter Here”
FFO: Burzum, Almach, Eldamar