It’s hard out there for a son of Northern darkness. The internet has only made black metal’s rigid (and downright silly) ethos only more cagey, and the older the greats get, the less interested people are in hearing your fairly pointless retread of it. We’re close to twenty years away from black metal’s infamous peak, and there are still people insisting it shouldn’t evolve. So if one wants to get more than seven people interested (which you’re not supposed to, but slathering on pancake makeup clearly isn’t solely for your benefit), what is there to do?

The answer, of course, is plant one foot firmly in the past and jam the other into the future. Getting the balance right is imperative (well, in terms of remaining a black metal band, not so much in terms of making good music… see: Nachtmystium, Enslaved, Alcest, and all the other bands for which guys like me perpetually have cartoon hearts swirling over our heads) to properly avoid sounding like your making a cloying play for relevance or simply falling flat on your face. For two great examples of that balance, take the new albums from Craft and Taake (out now Stateside on Southern Lord and available on Candlelight in North America on November 1, respectively). Perhaps too otherworldly for black metal diehards in parts and too orthodox for the “IT’S SILLY LOL” crowd, they exist in the excellent middle for the rest of us.

Craft got grouchy black metal points for titling their last album Fuck the Universe, and that attitude carries over onto their latest, Void, forty-nine minutes of fierce scowling and mid-paced black metal at its Celtic Frost-biting best. Grimy, grim black and roll, the record stomps along determinedly, running on advanced misanthropy and a general will to crush everything that draws a breath (the cover is a blurry mushroom cloud, so you get the idea). And while there’s no merriment to be found in Void (I know black metal is hateful by nature, but Craft sound like they really DO want to obliterate everything that exists), thunderous calls to arms like “Succomb to Sin” and “I Want to Commit Murder” (good to identify your goals before getting down to business) are full of huge, boulder-sized riffs. While black metal can be a tool for communicating with the darkest corners of oneself, it’s still metal, and thus needs to, well, rock out. Craft is perfect for that: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a release this year this heavy, strangely catchy, and yet so thoroughly black metal.

Craft’s downside is their occasional lack of songwriting ability, often relying more on endless repetition than knowing when to cut something off and move onto something else (though this is a genre-wide problem). Not that one necessarily clamors for a verse-chorus-verse structure in this sort of music, but the band’s unfurling of dark, weighty riffs formlessly gets tiring. In small doses, though, they’re relentlessly vicious. In fact, they’re pretty much untouchable in that department. When the title track closes out the album — much like Mayhem’s Chimera — with an epic, groovy modern black metal song done right, it takes two splendidly evil minutes to build up to the song’s simple governing riff. Like the rest of the album, when melody does find a way in (as it does by “Void”‘s end), it’s more to provide a point of contrast than to make room for emoting. Even when they drag on too long, though, every song on here is an anthem, though filtered through a muddy lens. Few bands so convincingly champion the end of the world, and fewer still do it still in a manner that sticks to your ribs as thoroughly as Craft.

And while I have a hard time believing black metal purists could really hate on Craft when there’s so much there to love, Norwegian OG’s Taake take a huge risk on their latest, Noregs Vaapen (never let it be said Taake are lacking in the letter A). And by “huge risk,” I mean stride somewhat outside the parameters of what does and does not constitute black metal. “Somewhat” is the key word here: Noregs Vaapen is still about as black metal as it’ll get for a lot of people. But like Nachtmystium’s (now sort of underrated, what with all the critical adoration heaped on their last two albums) Instinct: Decay, it’s a black metal album that reaches to the outliers for surprisingly apt additives while still maintaining its fundamental core. Sure, that’ll make some people angry. But… does anyone really care what those people think?

(Also, while we’re on the subject, do tr00 grim kvlt black metal purists really exist anymore, or are they just straw men people use to get whatever point they’re making across? Anyway…)

Not that Taake were necessarily the strictest of black metal bands to begin with anyway; their fierceness was always a little more melodic than their chilly peers (without having to resort to goofy keyboards or superfluous ladysong). But parts of Vaapen throw wrenches into the mix that you didn’t even know could be thrown. Chilly post-punk guitar surfaces at in-hindsight-appropriate moments, rollicking doom riffs peek their heads in, and even Shining-style cock rock makes an appearance. But the two most interesting song — sandwiched together in the middle of the album — bring surprises in a genre not known for them. “Du Ville Ville Vestland” starts off grim, shifts into a surprisingly tasty riff, then gets black metal again, continuing that way, until, about four minutes into the song, some down right Peter Buck-style jangling R.E.M. guitars surface over the rest of the band. The thing about it, though, is what while it’s certainly jarring, it FITS. There’s a connection between black metal and the forefathers of nice guy college rock that you never knew existed before. But it’s there, looking you in the face, leaving you to wonder why you hadn’t always seen it there before.

A similar incident transpires three minutes and twenty seconds into “Myr,” a black metal song so fascinating I feel I could write a dissertation on it alone. I almost want to throw a “spoiler alert” in front, as it happens so naturally that I don’t want you to see it coming, but over typical chordal black metal: fucking banjo. Yes, over the frostiest of frostbitten black metal, a minor-key arpeggio is skillfully plucked, then after a minute or so, ducks back out like nothing happened. And while it’s admittedly wacky and hilarious, it makes PERFECT SENSE. Black metal’s swirling quality is very reminiscent of the rapid fire notes good banjo playing requires, and it’s reliance on strumming rather than riffing is indebted to folk music (and how much more folk can you get than banjos?). Noregs Vaapen is full of moments like that (well, not as big and ridiculous as that one), and every song on it stands on its own. It’s a black metal album for both the folk that blindly love the genre and the ones who have a passing fascination with it that need something more. It’s a great slice of more of the same while concurrently being unpredictable. Strong, strong contender for black metal album of the year, even beyond the obvious Deliverance factor. For those who cry false, well, your Under a Funeral Moon vinyl is waiting at home. Taake have found a way to look forward while simultaneously reaching back.

Craft, Void

(3 1/2 out of 5 horns)

Taake, Noregs Vaapen

(4 1/2 out of 5 horns)


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