In my review of Blut Der Nacht’s excellent Demo MMXI, I talked a little about the rise of cassette culture within the American black metal underground over the last few years. Some see it as nostalgia, others see it as pure gimmickry. I see it as a way to bring black metal back to its roots, a return to the DIY ethos, primitivism and shadowy mystique the genre was built upon.
The cassette is a cheap way of reproducing and distributing music. I haven’t gone to the trouble of actually pricing tape production and duplication (maybe some readers can shed light on that in the comments?), but I can guarantee that it is much more cost-effective than having CDs and especially vinyl pressed. In this respect, it is the perfect format for bands that have no interest in dealing with Heavy Metal Inc, and although black metal has long since been absorbed into the establishment, there’s no time like the present to take it back underground. With that said, it should be noted that some cassette-based labels, specifically Crepusulo Negro and Rhinocervs (probably the two most infamous), have begun working with larger, more established labels such as Profound Lore and The Ajna Offensive to get some of their releases (Dolorvotre, Tukaaria, Odz Manouk) on CD, but this is surely due more to outside interest and demand. These cassette releases are cheap to purchase (typically $5 – $8) and are often extremely limited, selling out in a matter of days or even hours, and therefore not always readily available. Also, no matter how much metal fans might want to hear this stuff, many are unwilling to embrace the cassette due to its supposed limitations. This need for wider distribution and other formats is a consequence of releasing great music that people want to hear, and it’s much better than forcing fans to go scouring the internet for often janky downloads of these sold out releases. Of course, the fact that the music is being released on a format which many find unacceptable only adds to the clandestine nature of these bands and the music they create, and in my mind a little of that mystique dies every time I hear about this stuff coming out on CD or even vinyl. Nonetheless, what these bands are creating is some of the most compelling modern black metal I’ve heard in years (much more on this later), and deserves to be heard and made widely available.
Black metal’s emphasis on creating a dark, murky and detached atmosphere is surely another factor in the use of cassettes. Anyone that’s listened to music on cassette knows that no matter how well produced the music may be, it possesses an eerie, distant quality, like the band is playing in a room down the hall from the recording equipment with the door slightly cracked when played back through a tape deck. Black metal has long embraced recording conditions and qualities that other genres would deem highly unsatisfactory to say the very least, and used them to the genre’s advantage, so why not also embrace a format that enhances that aural ugliness? In the this respect, the cassette is the perfect vessel for conveying the “necro” production values that are as inherent to black metal as corpsepaint and tremolo-picking. At this point you’re probably saying, the lo-fi qualities of cassettes can easily be reproduced with today’s recording/production technology, why not just do that? But that simply wouldn’t do for a genre as obsessed with authenticity as black metal, not to mention the fact that these artists are recording their music at home on small multi-track recorders, not multi-million-dollar studios, lest we forget that Transilvanian Hunger was recorded on a 4-track in Fenriz’s living room. The Darkthrone comparison is apt with respect to pure sonics, but in truth many of the cassette-releasing bands, especially the Black Twilight Circle collective who calls Crepusculo Negro their label home, have clearly modeled themselves after France’s Les Legiones Noires (The Black Legions), a group of bands that included Mutiilation, Vlad Tepes and Torgeist, and released a number of obscure and difficult to obtain cassette demos throughout the nineties. Some of the Les Legiones Noires demos were eventually released on CD (including various bootlegs) and came to be regarded as some of the best black metal ever released. Sound familiar?
But what of the actual music? The Black Twilight Circle/Crepusculo Negro bands, or at least the ones I’ve had the opportunity to track down and listen to so far, all sound quite different from one another, in spite of them all largely consisting of the same core members in different configurations. Among the most intriguing is Dolorvotre, a duo who’s self-titled debut is a freaky, drug-addled journey to the edge of the abyss. The album includes songs titled “DMT” and “LSD,” and if that doesn’t give you an idea of what kind of headspace you’re entering when you put this album on, I’m not sure what will. One thing is for sure, I’m glad to be listening in the comfort of my own home, rather than actually accompanying the band on the pitch-black trip that it must have taken to inspire this hallucinatory black metal mind-fuck. The CD version of Dolorvotre that was recently released by The Ajna Offensive has been remastered and features a considerably cleaned up sound compared to the tape version (which I’m not sure was mastered at all), but loses none of its inherent weirdness in the translation. The strange atmosphere of the album has much to do with interesting production choices; the guitar distortion is extremely light by black metal standards, and the riffs have a bit of reverbed jangle and twang to their tonality which recalls garage rock and even surf music. Lead lines attempt to rise up from the blackness, but are quickly pulled back down into the album’s hazy miasma. The drums clatter away in the background underneath the vocals, guitars and even the bass, a feint pulse that’s more felt than heard, yet still manages to drive the music. The vocals are a fairly typical black metal rasp, echoing above the music and punctuated by the occasional Burzum-esque wailing. In the world of black metal, the term “hypnotic” is commonly used interchangeably with “psychedelic,” but Dolorovotre’s record legitimately sounds like psych-rock filtered through a black metal lens and is one of the few legitimate instances of such that I’ve encountered.
Also worth investigating is Arizmenda’s Without Circumference nor Center, an album that sounds utterly consumed by madness, the insanity-drenched aftermath of one too many trips through the dark fantastic as detailed on Dolorvotre. In fact, Arizmenda features the same members as Dolorvotre (multi-instrumentalists Juan Cabello and Eduardo Ramirez aka Volahn, with the addition of drummer Murdunbad), so naturally a lot of that same hallucinogenic vibe does manage to seep in, but Arizmenda turns it up to 11; the music here is much more sprawling and expansive, whereas Dolorvotre’s songs are more concise and riff-oriented. Arizmenda’s compositions are all about layers and textures, lo-fi symphonies of eerie dissonance swirling out of the void and infecting your brain. It speaks volumes about the skills of the musicians involved that they were able to harness this lysergic nightmare into a coherent, albeit extremely off-kilter musical narrative. It’s a harrowing listen, like crawling inside the cranial cavity of a paranoid schizophrenic that’s been dosed with LSD and getting trapped in there for an hour. I wouldn’t be surprised if prolonged exposure to this album causes permanent side effects. I’m still working my way through the various BTC full lengths as I write this, but Without Circumference nor Center is easily one of my favorites so far behind Dolorvotre and is highly recommended to those seeking soundscapes that are equally blackened and bent.
Of course, the split release has long been a hallmark of the black metal scene, and Crepusculo Negro has recently put out some very impressive splits in the form of the Ashdautas/Bone Awl and Volahn/Kallathon releases. Word is that Ashdautas disbanded and is no longer affiliated with the The Black Twilight Circle due to an interview The Boston Phoenix conducted with Volahn that some metal message board jockeys deemed incendiary. Internet drama aside, if this is in fact the final Ashdautas recording, the band is going out on an incredibly high note with the two tracks presented here, especially the scathing epic “Vermillion Stars in Depths Familiar,” a song that that manages to sound icy, razor-sharp and astral all at once, the perfect soundtrack for slicing the heavens to bloody shreds. THKD readers should (hopefully) already be familiar with Bone Awl’s crude, punk rock-damaged take on black metal, and although they aren’t a Black Twilight Circle band, they possess a similar “DIY or die” attitude that clearly makes them kindred spirits. Bone Awl’s seven blasts of ultra-primitive filth are among the best material they’ve recorded to date, and make for an interesting contrast with Ashdautas’ more intricate and traditionally inclined compositions. As for the Volahn/Kallathon split, to be honest I’m not terribly enamored with the Kallathon material as it’s a bit subpar in the playing department. The four Volahn tracks on the other hand are quite excellent. A friend described the songs as “just weird rock ‘n’ roll,” while a message board commenter said they sounded like “black metal Foo Fighters.” The latter description is a bit of an exaggeration, although there definitely might be some ’90s alt-rock influence lurking within these compositions (Pixies, perhaps? no bad thing where I come from), while the former description pretty much nails it. This is rock-influenced black metal without falling into the black ‘n’ roll realm that a band such as Midnight occupies.
Of course, this is merely scratching the surface of the Black Twilight Circle; the collective has a slew of other projects to their names, from the Amebix-worshipping Axeman to the hideous blackened death metal of The Haunting Presence and the flute-fueled oddity that is Blue Hummingbird on the Left. Although many of the physical tapes are sold out, I have seen leftovers occasionally popping up at third-party distros such as Ajna and Hells Headbangers, and there is at least one blog offering high quality, legit downloads of many of these releases, so if you’re late to the party as I was, there are still plenty of opportunities to get your hands on the wealth of great music that Crepusculo Negro has released.
Rhinocervs is the other California-based, Black Twilight-associated cassette label that has recently risen to infamy, releasing a slew of well-received tapes in 2011. While several of these releases have belonged to bands such as Tukaaria (who’s excellent Raw to the Rapine will be reviewed at a later date) and Nihilobstat, the ones that have quickly propelled Rhinocervs into the upper echelons of USBM are not attributed to anyone at all. Rhinocervs have released a series of cassettes with no band names, no album titles and (usually) no song titles. These releases are generally referred to only by their catalogue numbers (RH-01, RH-02 and so on) and give no clues as to the musicians involved, when/where the music was recorded, etc. For much of its past, black metal has been as much about the personalities involved as the music, with the Vargs, Darkens, Malefics, Wrests, etc often overshadowing their art via outlandish extracurricular activities and “controversial” statements. The Rhinocervs tapes cut away all the excess baggage that surrounds black metal by shrouding it in anonymity, leaving one with no choice but to focus on what really matters: the goddamn music.
And what great music it is! Each of the untitled tapes is different (although they share common threads), suggesting that different lineups of musicians are involved from release to release, or perhaps only that the band behind the music is extremely proficient at navigating numerous styles within the black metal paradigm, and the aforementioned anonymity allows them the freedom to follow their muse wherever it may lead. RH-01 and RH-02 are ultra-malignant descents into the realms of BM orthodoxy, with RH-02 borrowing its drum sound directly from VON’s Satanic Blood demo. These two early explorations are possessed by a blunt rawness that is distinctly American, yet at the same time is far more melodic and musically varied than the bulldozing, monochromatic attack of archetypal USBM bands such as Black Witchery or Profanatica. The level of sophistication hinted at underneath the crude exterior of these tapes comes into bloom much more fully on RH-11; which features both improved riffs and a thicker atmosphere. In fact, these three releases can be seen as something of a musical triptych emphasizing the more traditional, timelessly cult aspects of Rhinocervs’ approach to black metal, as opposed to the spacey yet no less blackened soundscapes of RH-07 and RH-12.
Indeed, just as RH-1, 2 and 11 are intertwined, so too are RH-07 and RH-12 musically and aesthetically linked. They are characterized by slower tempos, chimerical ambience and artwork featuring a malevolent-looking visage gazing out of the void. RH-07 is possessed by a ritualistic quality that many bands wish they could muster; it’s the stuff of moonlit ceremonies, drenched in blood and designed to envelop the Earth in cosmic darkness. When I listen to it, I’m reminded of the insignificance of mankind amidst the vast, vacuous blackness surrounding our feeble planet, stretching out into forever. I ponder who or what might be lurking out there, beyond that terrible blackness, at the threshold of infinity. In just twenty-three minutes, the enitre planet is swallowed up into a black hole of buzzing tremolo riffs, sepulchral synths and buried drums, as the malevolent god-figure from the tape cover hurls its curses at you from across time and space. Other black metal bands have tried to walk similar astral paths, but most only reach for the celestial lyrically or visually, with the music still sounding like the same old tired black metal you’ve heard a million times over the years. Although the lyrics to RH-07’s songs are of course a mystery, the album is still nothing short of total sensory immersion within clouds of cold dark matter.
RH-12, with its striking blue cover art (pictured above) and sluggish, dreamy musical approach, is even more phantasmagorical than RH-07, if such a thing is possible. Comprised of three lengthy, meandering tracks, it is the soundtrack to what happens after being drawn into the black hole’s obsidian maw, doomed to wander through strange and terrible new dimensions, forever lost. As the gauzy waves of distortion wash over me (how I’d love to be able to somehow physically immerse myself in them!), my thoughts instantly drift to Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, in which the alien Mi-Go extract human beings’ brains from their bodies and place them in cylinders, whisking them away to frightful worlds beyond the stars. Perhaps the eyes peering out from the cover art are those of the god-figure adorning RH-07, having finally arrived after a lengthy journey across the cosmos to lead you into the great black emptiness beyond. Musically, RH-12 can be best described as ambient black metal which takes the astro/metaphysical aspects of a band like Blut Aus Nord or Darkspace and sets them against a warmer, more organic sense of atmosphere. It is terrifyingly beautiful to behold, as if the void itself is gently caressing your ears, cooing lullabies of destruction. This is easily the most accomplished of the Rhinocervs tapes, combining the superior riff-craft of RH-11 with the universe-collapsing atmospheres of RH-07. With RH-13 supposedly being released sometime in February, it will be interesting to see if they continue in this utterly mesmerizing direction, revisit the orthodoxy of their earlier releases, or perhaps unleash something totally unheralded.
Of course, this is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide to Crepusculo Negro and Rhinocervs. It’s an awful lot of music to take in, and I’m still digesting much of it. But the fact remains that these two labels are clearly onto something musically, conceptually and aesthetically, something that could help bring about the paradigm shift that US black metal (and black metal in general for that matter) so desperately needs. There was a time when words like “cult” meant something, when cassettes weren’t considered kitsch, when black metal was true outsider music, far removed from “the industry” and all the bullshit that goes with it. Labels like Crepusculo Negro and Rhinocervs are the modern day embodiment of the true black metal underground, far away from the prying eyes of the mainstream. It is for these reasons that I’m compelled to write, even as I’m still in the midst of exploring them, adding my own voice to the chorus of dissent, not to mention total dissatisfaction with the way black metal has been co-opted, commercialized and otherwise raped by Heavy Metal Inc. It’s time to take black metal back, and the path to victory is bathed in black twilight.