Below The Light is back with a collection of stuff wot you might ‘ave gone done missed guv, innit. This one is, frankly, all over the shop, even by the standards of the first three of these.
We have something grim and Dutch, two somethings from southern Europe that sound far more northerly, something French and absurdly technical, something Swedish and brutal, and something Swedish and so camp the physical copy should come with a cravat (and the digital download come with a Kenneth Williams gif).
And then some stuff that’s just plain weird – but might be the best of the lot…
Blodiga Skald – The Undrunken Curse
It’s immediately identifiable as folk metal from the band name and album cover, and the title invokes booze. This must be dumb, pissed, humppa metal, right?
While it’s certainly true that this is folky and that there are booze in the lyrics, this is about 5,194 times as smart as it has any right to be. Someone in the band is clearly a classically trained musician, judging by how overt is the Baroque inspiration for various sections, right down to an actual proper fugue that’s pure Vivaldi. Also clearly understood by the band are Eastern European [specifically, it sounds Ashkenazi Jewish to me, but I’ll leave that to someone more expert than me to judge] folk music, jazz, and even techno in the bonus track.
Plus the musicianship from these Italians (yes, Italians) is top notch, with crushing riffs and superb drumming integral to the songs, but with interlaced symphonics and the sparing use of clean mezzo vocals. Fist-pumping, dance-inducing fun, yes, but god it’s clever. Where the fuck have this band been all my life? This is excellent.
Exocrine – Maelstrom
Yet another cracker off the Unique Leader catalogue (remember them?), these ridiculously talented Frenchmen could hardly sound more modern, slick and up to date if they tried.
Don’t mistake that to mean they discard what has made death metal great since the start, though. Sure, technicality, production and processing are all present in spades, but they are used to enhance – not replace.
The core death metal elements are all the main strengths: high technical standards (ridiculously so, frankly), crushing and impactful guitar work, eerie leads, and a general feeling of menace and violence, like they want to jump through your headphones, rip out your liver through your nose, then beat you to death with the blunt end – swiftly, and with style.
It’s bloody lovely.
Falconer – From A Dying Ember
Yes, I know, Falconer have been around for yonks, and are on a big metal label. But they went six years without releasing an album, and have never got the following they deserve (especially in the first-language English world), plus this is tragically their last album, so they’re in the column. Deal with it.
From A Dying Ember is everything that have made Falconer great. Bits and pieces of folk/Viking metal, prog and musical theatre (yes, really) thrown together to make powerfully infectious, hook-riddled songs in ways that really shouldn’t work, but fucking rule.
From the bombastic, dancing opener of ‘Kings And Queens‘ to the stomp and theatrical OTT joy of ‘Redeem And Repent‘ to the waltz of ‘Rejoice The Adorned‘ to the folk/prog melodrama of ‘Thrust The Dagger Deep‘, this is right up there with the best music Falconer have ever made, and some of the best camp metal songs I’ve heard in the last decade.
If you’ve never tried them, imagine what the heroic tenor lead from a Rogers & Hammerstein West End revival might sound like fronting a cross between Amorphis and Borknagar. Then dive into their catalogue right here. You won’t regret it.
Fluisteraars – Bloem
It remains a mystery why the Dutch black metal scene isn’t one of the most closely followed in the world, as some of the best, most individual and exciting BM happening right now is coming out of The Netherlands – and Fluisteraars are a prime example of that.
Bloem is a surprisingly accessible, beginner-friendly black metal record, with a distortion and production style that makes everything immediately audible and clear.
But don’t let that fool you, this is fucking bleak.
Bloem sounds like being along in a crowd on a bright day when you’re having an existential crisis, feeling miserable and horrible and agrophobic for reasons you can’t put your fingers on. It sounds like a punked-up cross between Satyricon and Sólstafir, with the former’s grimness fully respected, and the misery of the latter front and centre.
Grid – Livsleda
Swedish? Check. Grind? Check. Have clearly listened to Nasum? Check. Pugilistic, in-your-face, and crustier than the underwear on someone who thinks soap is part of a conspiracy to make us all buy unnecessary hygiene products? Check.
Livsleda does not fuck around, barely coming in at eighteen minutes with 9 vicious tracks. At no point is there any flab, each chord or d-beat precisely honed to land with maximum impact. Grind with this kind of stomp is hard, but they slay at it.
Unreqvited – Mosaic II: La Déteste Et La Détresse
Ridiculously productive one-man Canadian outfit Unreqvited’s fourth album in four years came out at the start of 2020, and is a weird, wandering beast.
Mosaic II mixies black metal’s atmospheric end with all kinds of things way beyond the borders of metal entirely, from post-rock warmth to classic rock lead lines to keyboards both for texture and melody (clean piano and more early Emperor fare both feature prominently) to pure electronics and ambient noise, plus a whole bunch of other stuff. So don’t waste your time worrying about what genre to pigeonhole this in, because Unreqvited are unique.
Instead, take a walk with Unreqvited through a weird and wonderful world, sometimes dark and brooding, but often bright and beautiful. Mosaic II is quirky and idiosyncratic, but in a way that instantly makes sense and captivates you, even if it takes a few listens to really stick in your mind – but when it does, it’s joy.
Speaking of joy…
Unreqvited – Empathica
Yup, the same guy did a second record in 2020 good enough to include. And by “good enough”, read “fucking astounding”.
If Mosaic II was excellent, Empathica is absolutely glorious. While the components are, by and large, the same, this is way more in the spiritual territory of Alcest – except with a glory that’s pure Unreqvited.
The guitar work much is more contemplative, with the riffage more emphatic and gripping, while the textures soar spectacularly over the top like the stars over the Earth on a clear, dark night, only to fall down to form the underpinning of what follows, as dawn sweeps light across a sweeping vista viewed from a high perch.
If Mosaic II was a wander, Empathica is an odyssey. How so many incredible, wildly different ideas can be crammed so coherently into such a concise album beggars belief. It may be seven songs in 47 minutes, but it has so much to say you can’t quite believe it all happened so fast.
Stunning, brilliant, magnificent, uplifting, tear-jerking, joyful, wistful.
Drakum – Zombie Dragons From Outer Space
From the title to the album cover, this really screams, “shit or bust”. You cannot imagine this being anywhere between brilliant and awful. So which is it?
Well, neither. It’s simply good. Zombie Dragons From Outer Space is a heavy folk metal album from the opposite end of the intelligence spectrum to Blodiga Skald (predictably, perhaps), with dumb fun the order of the day. And it is definitely fun, featuring good songs and enough party rhythms to keep your ear, without overstaying its welcome.
But it is nothing more. Do not expect a Gloryhammer-esque so-ridiculous-it’s-awesome triumph, and don’t expect an Alestorm-esque so-ridiculous-it-is-appalling-awful-oh-god-make-it-stop-please-Jesus-forgive-me-oh-WHY-IS-IT-STILL-GOING-WHY-ISN’T-BANDCAMP-CLOSING-UNINSTALL-CHROME-QUICK horror show.
Sweary, silly, stupid, fun – but probably not going to be remembered this time next year.