Underground Sounds: Varkâna – Rite

Label: Independent
Band: Varkâna
Origin: Iran

Dungeon synth is a peculiar genre and is being made in strange places. One of the acts I came across recently is Varkâna. The inspiration for their sound comes from Iranian paganism and history, which obviously offers a wealth of inspiration for any artist seeking topics to work with. Varkâna is the old Persian word for a region south-east of the Caspian sea, now known as Hyrcania. A region now partly in Iran and partly in Turkmenistan, which was incorporated in various historical empires.
So, because I was really curious I got in touch with the artist behind the project and I’ll share the reply the way I received it: “It’s based on Iranian mythology and nature. I composed all the tracks when I was away from the city and deep into the vast lands and forests of northwestern Iran, the name varkana means land of wolves which is a part of Iran it’s called Gorgan now which means the same.”
The music of Varkâna summons images of the tranquil beauty that this verdant realm in Iran is. It’s vast forests and radiant green colors. Of course, a few pictures that I could browse don’t cover the full extent of the region, but it links you to the visions that inspired the artist. Mellow drones and calm, thudding drums bring on a trance-like feel. Intricate melodies weave through this flow of sound. There’s an aspect of dungeon synth present in that the music seems to be produced with the traditional software. The music is slightly different though. If only simply in the atmosphere that the sounds and patterns evoke.
On ‘Gathering’ I feel I can actually hear the oriental vibe. It’s the way the heavy reverb of the drum is followed by the cascading music, the little tang right after and the way it fills you with a sense of foreboding.  It’s where you really realize that this is a different place when you stumble upon ancient ruins and imagine the sounds of those past places, obscured in the mists and fog of history.  Mellow folk influences dance through the tunes, which really work the imagination.
There’s a serenity in the music of Varkâna, a peaceful spaciousness. Dream away with forgotten histories and far of lands with this piece of remarkable ambient music.

Underground Sounds: Bròn – Зарђала Круна/White City, Black Circle/Ruins/Where The Leaden Dawn Meets Iron Shores

Label: Kunsthauch/Independent
Band: Bròn
Origin: New Zealand

The project Bròn originally released an album with a very natural vibe to it. It had the eerie magic of the night sky over the mountains as depicted on the cover of ‘Ànrach’ and I absolutely loved it. I wrote a little about previous release ‘Fògradh’ too.  Bròn is the project of Krigeist, or Andrew Campbell, from New Zealand. Campbell relocated to Scotland and there’s a definite connection between that move and the sound of Bròn it seems. He also plays in the amazing Barshasketh and Belliciste.

I missed the fact that Bròn had become a prolific outlet for the musician in the past year, so high time to catch up with the astonishing 4 releases of last year. I was reminded of this, because of the live show I saw in Little Devil recently. All exploring new aspects of nature and different sounds that express that passion and beauty found there. So this is 4 reviews of one artist. Never do words like this do justice to the full force of these albums, but I feel that I need to cover all for completion.

Bròn – Зарђала Круна

January 2017 saw the release of this record, which sticks close to the familiar Bròn sound with a lot of soaring guitars and tremolo riffs. The inspiration comes from the devil in nature, that is the only info given. The choice for a Cyrillic font does say more than that though. A later notification on Facebook said that it was inspired by the Serbian wilderness and the darkness within. There’s a definite darkness to the Balkan forests that is caught in the looming, dark sound of this new EP. The untarnished sky above it at night, the shades of the trees.

The record is a multi-part atmospheric black metal piece, with a definite Burzum doom and gloom vibe to it and the grandeur of an Elderwind.  The crisp clear production sometimes borders on overly polished but keeps on the right side of the track in all its overwhelming force. At other times it has the gentle trickling of an empty forest, where all you hear is the gentle sounds of the natural world around you. Pure magic and all of that in one long piece of over 32 minutes. Unfortunately, it’ll be the last black metal release, thus wrote Krigeist. His newer soundtracks take on different shapes.

Bròn – White City, Black Circle

Living in an urban environment requires a different soundtrack, wrote Krigeist on Facebook. He explained the sound of ‘Зарђала Круна’ while introducing this new release. The organic sound of the previous releases is vastly more fitting for the verdant realm indeed. The album signifies a radical turn in sound for Bròn. With a groove that is more triphop we enter the realm of tarmac and concrete, with lamp posts illuminating the grey jungle around you. Meandering between the aforementioned, synthwave and maybe a little dungeon synth, the sound is peculiar but fitting.

The titles are in Croation, referring to central themes revolving around that of Bròn (sorrow). It offers songs of those dark, nameless places we dwell in. Whether that’s a city in Croatia, Norway, Scotland or I wager even in New Zealand, there’s a sort of nameless grief there. The mixture of beats and ambient drones conveys that feeling very well. I particularly enjoy the mixture of that with the synths, which is always the sound of the urban environment. Towards the end of the record, the music is lighter, warmer as if the sun has broken through the smoggy haze. We leave the city here to the free part of the world.

Bròn – Ruins

On Ruins we find the same instrumentation, but a more Ulver or even folkish vibe at times with spun out tones and long passages of melancholic music. The music is calm and soothing and does, like the title tells you, remind of the tranquility you find in between forgotten ruins. That is also what the song titles refer to, to various locations of ancient ruins in corners of Europe, places that make you think and imagine. The vocals are gentle as well, almost chanting in a meditative way. The record even includes a folk cover ‘Twa Corbies’ from Scottish lore.

The sound has a clarity to it, everything is wavering and calm like an easy breeze. It’s almost like listening to an acoustic performance with various musicians, all delivering the minimal bits of sounds that make out the complete tapestry.For me, this might be the most beautiful album that Bròn has created this far. The music is so intricate, without ever sounding difficult or overly contrived. It’s a natural expression of the feeling in easy flowing, but still heavy music. After this record, Krigeist announced a hiatus for Bròn. That was definitely not meant to last after this june 2017 release.

Bròn – Where The Leaden Dawn Meets Iron Shores

A trip back to New Zealand was the impulse that Bròn needed. Krigeist was revitalized and inspired to make music again under that banner and three tracks expressing the untapped dark energies that dwell in New Zealand’s wild places. There is definite darkness on this album, which almost faded on ‘Ruins’. A long murmured intro with foreboding synths leads us into this new record. Eerie synths slither out of the speakers, while a creepy, scifi tune is played on the keys in the most bombastic tones.

But then there’s also the guitars and the screams. It would appear that Bròn comes full circle here and finds a sound that truly embraces the atmospheric output that Krigeist is looking for. The melancholy of the synths, combined with the harsh, ruggedness of the guitars. The ragged fury of the vocals, like that furious sea wind biting at you, while ver in motion on the waters. Three tracks tell the story that is both beautiful and grim at the same time. I guess it makes sense what Kant once said on the sublime in art, which really goes for nature. It’s overwhelming force can overwhelm us with awe and wonder in a sense. This is well conveyed in this piece of music by Bròn, which I really enjoy.

Let’s see what the future holds for this explorer in both the geographic and artistic realms.

Underground Sounds: Spaceslug – Mountains & Reminisce

Label: Independent
Band: Spaceslug
Origin: Poland

They’ve done it again, those Polish space rockers Spaceslug. After their solid record ‘Time Travel Dilemma’ that came out earlier this year and 2016 endeavor ‘Lemanis’, here is the third album by this band, titled Mountains & Reminiscence. A mighty release that sees these guys steer in a new direction musically.

Surely, Stranger Aeons has covered work of this band before. I loved those records (which you can read here and here) and even had a chat with these gents. This album is even more exciting, for the grand artwork of a glorious mountain (I love rocks) and a sound that seems to have turned more earthy. I’m amazed that these guys still do everything themselves, though it allows for a lot of creative freedom and amazing artwork it seems.

The album opens with the solid, heavy riffs of ‘Bemused and Gone’. Surely, the spacy vibe is still there, but the bass seems more crunchy, dirtier than before. The soaring guitar is still there, but it also seems to have been touched by gravity.  The drawled out vocals are in perfect harmony with those guitar parts and create a big soaring feel to the whole music. Where you used to have this cosmic experience, now we’re moving over mountain tops. We’re within the atmosphere on ‘Elephemeral’, with that wonderful wailing guitar.

There’s more distortion and more clashing in the sound, whilst maintaining that particular slow, sluggish vibe that is so typical for the band on a track like ‘Space Sabbath’. The nuances of the sound are more firm and hit home solidly on this amazingly good record. Well, the song is a space song obviously, with fragments of ‘2001: A Space Odissey’ towards the end (the famous HAL interaction).  We end on a climactic note with ‘Opposite The Sun’, a track that does embody a certain sense of drama and grandeur that most of the Spaceslug songs lack in their slow progression. It’s nice to see these gents explore their sound further on another fantastic release.

Underground Sounds: ElixiR – Les Tours du Temps

Label: Murder on Ponce (though this appears self-released)
Band: ElixiR
Origin: France

I’m not certain about the release date of this album. It’s good though, so check it out. 

To the forests and hills with ElixiR

Dungeon Synth becomes really special if you listen to some true story tellers like ElixiR. ‘Les Tours du Temps’ is a re-recording of the music on the earlier ‘Moonlight on Black Castle’ and ‘The Mage of the Bright Forest’ EPs. It’s really slow, melancholic dungeon synth but with a natural feel to the sound compared to the original releases.

ElixiR formed in 2015 in the French Dordogne Valley. Thomas Elixir creates the music and is the one behind the project. He holds a fascination by medieval legends and fantasy universes. He takes a lot of inspiration from the ancient ruins and landscape of Aquitaine. The cover already tells you as much. Other inspirations are acts like Burzum and Erang for the French musician.

The music of ElixiR is clearly meant to be enjoyed at peace since it passes with barely any strain or force. It just trickles by in the way you let the pages of a good fantasy book flow by, entranced by what you’re experiencing. The sounds are gentle and paint images of simple, clean lands. Of nature and all its detailed splendor. The motto of ElixiR is not without reason ‘Nothing is Sacred, Only Nature’ (the next release ElixiR is planning).

Thomas paints in different colours and lets the tones really fade out to create a full, warm sound. A tune like ‘La Lisière’ is a good demonstration of that art, of the flowing notes that come close to a pan flute. It often has a bit of that Peruvian flute feeling, the tranquility and calm of a world free of human beings. Even more so on ‘A Quiet House in the Wood’ it seems that this is a very personal Walden. Though the music sounds as in minor tones, sadness doesn’t describe the sound. When the notes hit a feeling of peace wafts over you.  This is a very enjoyable dungeon synth release and though I still find it hard to describe this sort of music, it is much like reading long, descriptive pieces of fantastic lands and the beautiful landscapes you’ve never seen. ElixiR gives a glow to the story telling.

A reminder that there’s still magic in the world.

 

Barshasketh, Dysangelium and Devouring Star live at Little Devil

Live shows are definitely something I can’t get enough of, but unfortunately, black metal is not the most often done live in these parts. This is probably relative to the fact that I live in the Netherlands, where ‘rare’ has a much different meaning. Anyways, Barshasketh dropped by at the Little Devil and that is definitely not one I’m going to skip.

Pictures by Herman Stehouwer (with kind permission)

Barshasketh is a project of Andrew Campbell, also known as Krigeist. I’m a fan of his work, particularly the project Bròn hugely appealed to me. Campbell originally is from New Zealand but has relocated to Scotland since. He’s been taking Barshasketh on the road now and it’s something I am very excited about. Little Devil is one of my favorite venues for shows like this. I do enjoy the fact that it is simply less crowded there. The new DJ booth does make the space even smaller though.

Opening act for tonight on this Little Devil Black Ritual night is the Finnish group Devouring Star, who are signed to Terratur Possessions. Like many of the bands on that label, their sound is dense, layered and complex. The performance, therefore, feels slightly static, with very little movement on the stage. They make it feel like the air is reverberating with ever so tiny movements and complexities. Their music is a tapestry, rich and thick with slight changes to immerse yourself in. The band did lack the meticulousness that they display on the album in a live setting, but there’s a limit to what three members can do. A great warm-up for the evening. Not too many visitors seem to show up, but the tiny venue feels full and appreciative of the bands. Something any big venue seems to lack these days.

Dysangelium is a different beast, with much more dynamics in their show. The band plays fiercely and seems to create a turbulence in the small venue. The group from Germany released one album three years ago, but by this live standard, a next one is wanted. They tap into a specific, vibrant branch of that occult black metal sound, with a lot of intensity and a lot of shifts in tempo and sound. I particularly liked these guys after the performance of Devouring Star for their more direct and raw approach. Highly enjoyable, these guys from Kiel!

But what I came for was definitely the final act of tonight. Barshasketh has a particular sound of violence to it. There’s a particular intensity to the delivery of Campbell himself, who really seems to drag up his vocals from his toes in a visceral, venomous bursts. Twisting and turning as if in agony he spits defiance at the onlooking crowd. Barshasketh sounds urgent and intense in a way that captivates as if you’re being grabbed by the throat and dragged along to hell. For me the whole center of that force is Campbell who as a frontman appears to be possessed. The band around him functions as part of a funnel around him and the group really gave it their best, making this a memorable night.

This show is over way too soon and I luckily did manage to show my Bròn shirt (ever the fanboy) and pick up some vinyl from the band. Awesome stuff.

Underground Sounds: Couch Slut – Contempt

Label: Gilead Media
Band: Couch Slut
Origin: United States

Couch Slut is an interesting band name, but it simply fits. You can almost sink into the rolling waves of sound like you do on a couch. This is useless information, but I’m trying to express how vast and full on the sound of this band is. The group from New York knows how to shock and hurt a crowd with their sound on Contempt.

Landing on the scene with a bang in 2014, their debut My Life As A Woman crushed. Not just the shocking artwork, but the whole sound of the band was mesmerizing.  Somehow the gang sounds familiar, but also completely overwhelmingly new and free of any boundaries. This is grindjazznoise with fierce vocals for all I care, just listen to this amazing piece of music.

The music of Couch Slut often gets described as noise rock. I get that, but take it from me… that barely does justice to the ferocious hale storm of sound that assaults the listener who dares to just dip their toes in that maelstrom.  Spiteful and abrasive, Couch Slut violently attacks with a saxophone blurting underneath a pile of pitch black noise on ‘Funeral Dyke’. The vocals of Megan Osztrosits are savage and full of fuming rage. It’s as if Converge is jamming with Skinny Puppy at times, particularly on the battery that is titled ‘Company Picnic With Dust Off’. It has the intensity of grindcore and the bravado of punkrock, bringing a mixture of Sonic Youth and Today is the Day to the table. I just try to give you a feel of what they are like here…

To me, the music of Couch Slut is a primitive piece of violence. The riffs are menacing, always offering anticipation that gets turned upside down in the end. The vocals are completely raw outbursts of emotion. They slap you in the face like cold water. Then suddenly there’s an almost militant rhythm to nod along to, like on ‘Summer Smiles’. The music sounds harsh and direct while retaining atmosphere and detail. The flagellating, distorted guitars build walls that crash into the listener. Are those fucking church bells on ‘Penalty Scar’?

The band uses various instruments that are not completely traditional in this sort of sound, but perhaps that is exactly how they manage to create a sound unlike any other. Every cranny and nook is filled with squealing, buzzing and hammering music, while the frantic vocals of Ostrosits keep on coming. From start to end, this is a record of catharsis and punishing force. Both smartly done and with a brawn, Couch Slut leaves no contenders in violent music standing.

 

Underground Sounds: Ragana – You Take Nothing

Label: An Out Recordings
Band: Ragana
Origin: United States

What attracted me to Ragana originally was their Lithuanian name. It means as much as a witch, though the concept of a witch is different in Lithuania. The duo behind this name is American and they define their style as ‘witch doom’.  Maria and Nicole started out in Washington, but currently reside in Oakland and are very active in following their ideals. Taking inspiration from Wolves in the Throne Room, Cat Power and Earth, they started a metal thing. Oh, and Julie Christmas.

Kim Kelly captured the band best in her article on Noisey. The duo is described as being anarcho-feminists and ‘You Take Nothing’ is an emotion laden, furious cry of protest. Though I can appreciate the politics behind the album, I think Kim’s article better expressed that. Let me just take you to the music. I have a ton of respect for the powerful way these ladies present their idea on a record that absolutely shatters everything in its raw directness.

Opener ‘Spare No Man’ has all the grim force of a post-black metal/post-hardcore hybrid. Crushing riffs, that spill out like gritty rubble of toppling buildings. The desperate screams and howls feel like a serrated knife to the heart in their forceful message. The way genres blend together into one powerful outlet, feels to me akin to when I first heard Converge or maybe even a little bit Deafheaven. It feels new, exciting and overwhelming. The sinister, creeping opener of ‘To Leave’ even puts some Brand New in the mix. The song is both fragile and beautiful, but also sad and mournful.

Though Ragana clearly taps into the black metal sound, they’re never really fully there. On ‘Winter’s Light’, we even go to a more dreamy, trickling sound. When the icy guitar kicks in, it’s clear and clean. You’ll find that typical blast beat and static riff combo indeed, but there’s a vulnerability to it, it’s so open and raw at times that you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The way the vocals are delivered on the foreboding ‘Somewhere’ is tantalizing, it grabs you by the throat.

Ragana delivers an album, that is so powerful in its punkrock simplicity. It’s not trying to sell you concrete ideas but conveys a feeling, a message that otherwise remains misunderstood. You can feel your skin crawl during some tracks, during the odd passages of jagged guitars and submersion in the eerie atmosphere. When the haunting ‘You Take Nothing’, which is the endlessly repeated phrase that makes up the song, fades away… It leaves you with a cut you can’t heal.

Underground Sounds: Menelglîr – Menelglîr

Label: Independent
Band: Menelglîr
Origin: France

I’m not sure how I picked up this record, perhaps through a dungeon synth group on Facebook. Menelglîr is a band from France… or like with most dungeon synth groups, it’s a one-man endeavor by Alderaan (the force is strong in this one) from the band Nazrak. This artist plays keys and sings in the black metal formation.

The act hails from the French Savoie. That’s about as much as I can tell you at this point. Nazrak seems to hold folklore close to their black metal, which is probably an element you can experience in this music as well by their keyboard player. It definitely has an otherworldly feeling to it when you hear it.

The sound of Menelglîr is big. Flowing, regal synth sounds make it feel like you approach amazing castles. Your eyes filled with awe, you look upon a world of grandeur and magic. The electronic chants remind me a little of the old Final Fantasy soundtracks as well. The simple way in which the sound of epic proportions is created is what makes this artist so attractive to me.

The music progresses slowly, gradually building up and then with big lumps comes at you. When the big, droning sounds pass, you get the gentle, trickling keys that ever so gently whisper of fantastic realms and magnificent nature. I particularly like how the sound is quite minimal on this record. There are not that many different layers to the music, it offers a very direct and effective delivery of sounds, which makes it so easily accessible. The downside of this record is that it’s really not very long. So I’m keen to hear the full thing.

Underground Sounds: Urn – The Burning

Label: Iron Bonehead Productions
Band: Urn
Origin: Finland

Black thrashing shot of caffeine with Urn

Finland is still the source of some of the finest metal and anything black metal seems to find great soil in the northern nation. Urn has been around for a good 23 years. Though their production of records has not been as astonishing, the quality of their output is a steady show of force. After a silence of 9 years, they’ve just unleashed ‘The Burning’. A record that feels just right.

The explanation for the low production might also be the fact that the members play in various projects. Also, the group has had some personnel switches with only Sulphur (who started out in Barathrum at the very start of the black metal scene) remaining since 1994. The rest only joined in the past year. With new members who’ve earned their name in bands like Sacrilegious Impalement, Devastracktor, Evil Angel and various other acts, the fire is burning again.

The sound of Urn hits you immediately with its thrashy, boisterous swagger. Nothing like some blackened thrash to get you up in the morning. It’s like that first scalding hot cup of coffee with a bitter, sharp bite to it. On the other hand, there’s a vibrant sort of energy to the music of these Finnish mad men with a heavy metal sentiment on a song like ‘Celestial Light’. Soaring guitars and frantic energy are the driving force of their exciting sound.

This album breathes fire. Polished riffs, sharp hooks and a continuous burst of energy. Though obviously, the theme of the music is not a jolly one, Urn is most assuredly playing music that oozes fun. Even when there’s a more black-metal passage, like the Bathory -esque tune ‘Morbid Black Sorrow’ (I want this on my coffee mug) is laced with heavy metal riffing. Screaming guitars just make me feel happy, especially if they have that Nifelheim enthusiasm to them. That would be ‘Nocturnal Demons’ by the way.

Surely, Urn might not have the catchy, fancy threat to it that people dig in some of these other black thrash groups, but they’ve got a vibe of their own. This record is the cup of coffee you need. No sugar, just furious riffs.

Underground Sounds: Sinmara – Within The Weaves of Infinity

Label: Terratur Possessions
Band: Sinmara
Origin: Iceland

After delivering a split with Misþyrming earlier this year, Sinmara drops another bomb with ‘Within The Weaves of Infinity’. A new obliterating bit of Icelandic black metal to come hit you in the ear-drums.

Sinmara actually has been around almost ten years, though at first under the moniker Chao. Their black metal is pretty much in line with the Icelandic sound of fury, fire, and ice and this new EP is definitely some of the finest.

The opening title track immediately unfolds a grim wave of interwoven guitar passages. There’s a soothing, wavering feel to the sound, while it also holds that furious abyssal rage in its thunderous riffing. The vocals are like hot coals clashing, while the words are spat out at you. The sound seems as full of conflict as its origin is fire and ice as much as calm and rage.

Sinmara clearly connects to the whole post-black metal scene in their sound, but retains that rumbling fire. This is very clear when the blasts and static guitar riffs of ‘Ormstunga’ hit you in the face like a frosty blast of wind. An eerie melody comes together in the composition, but the howls and barks offer a rough counterweight. The focus seems to be on the overall atmosphere, but that doesn’t stop the gents from relentlessly beating you with drums, guitars and words.

Sinmara is a challenging listen, but this is Icelandic black metal at its best. Both traditionally furious as well as melancholically melodic. A pleasure indeed.