III: Spectral Lore Walk Off with the Black Metal Album of the Year
Spectral Lore seem to have created a checklist of what they find wrong with black metal and spend the considerable running time of III marking points off. Overly-raspy vocals (‘sup, Mutilation Rites)? They provide a pretty middle of the road approach. Wood-paneled basement production or slick mainstream mastering don’t strike your fancy? III has a rough but tangible sound that compliments both the record’s snarling rawness and surprising melodic breadth. Do the long, rambling structures of Weakling or old-school Wolves in the Throne Room bore you to frosty tears? Spectral Lore harness dozen-plus-minute songs with aplomb, offering almost an hour and a half of carefully constructed and immensely moving black metal. At a time when the genre is either a postmortem tribute by guys who weren’t around for the real stuff or a stepping stone to another kind of metal altogether, III is just excellent black metal. Even in its post-rock dalliances and folky asides, the sad, grizzled spirit of Spectral Lore’s influences and peers is overwhelmingly present. III is a goddamn beast of an album, and those of you who are black metal-inclined will find a lot to love in its massive framework.
Spectral Lore is technically a one-man black metal band, but it doesn’t resemble Xasthur’s mosaic of suicidal despair or Burzum’s tightly-reigned buzzing. Ayloss layers instruments with a keen ear for each song as a whole, with subtle synths, decent (probably programmed) drumming, and a fog of chiming, tunneling, or growling guitars (often all laid on top of eachother). And while this sounds like a post-Krallice example of revisionist history, I’d have no issue referring to III as black metal. Owing equal debt to Blut Aus Nord; Deathspell Omega’s obsession with fetid silence; Swedish-style melodic black metal like Dawn; and, of course, Burzum, Ulver, and early Enslaved, Spectral Lore don’t feel the need to prove their grimness or tr00th. They’ve already got it; it’s what they do with it that’s so brilliant.
Yes, there are long stretches of quiet filled with gaseous dissonance or folky acoustics. There’s a ton of patience-testing noise and post-metal expansiveness, but it doesn’t feel like a Year of No Light record. It feels like fucking black metal. And that’s mostly because it absolutely is. The confident Norse riffs are there, the tremolo-picked sadness sounds better than it has in a long time, and it’s constantly inward-looking. Maybe that’s why the pieces fit together the way they do: whatever non-True Norwegian elements that are folded in come from the same dark, dejected place. So when the first two tracks—the 7-minute intro track “Omphalos” and the difficult, dynamic “The Veiled Garden”—take their time in getting to their respective points, it doesn’t immediately point to masturbatory pity partying. They’re both pretty jagged and noisy, but when the wailing black metal chords come screaming in halfway through “Veiled Garden,” the buildup was completely worth it: ice giants suddenly rise over the horizon and villagers go screaming. The tapestry on which Spectral Lore paint is enormous, and they intend on filling every last inch of it.
The black metal gets a little more tangible from there: “The Cold March Towards Eternal Brightness” is centered around blastbeats and mid-paced Burzum-ic arpeggios. “Drifting Through Moss and Ancient Stone” recalls Ulver’s first two records (before they abandoned folk and then black metal). But III’s centerpiece is the perfectly and beautifully constructed “A Rider in the Land of Infinite Dreamscapes.” It opens with a stellar progression of black metal chords bouncing off everything around them, then goes on a near-13-minute journey into a guitar-centric wormhole, borrowing from all the same genres black metal’s craftiest do while not making it sound alien. It builds up to a Wagnerian peak then relishes it for as long as possible. “Dreamscapes” is exhausting, but in the best way possible. Black metal has always had a surprising amount of emotional potential; Spectral Lore have fracked that well and peerlessly used whatever came up.
Spectral Lore’s only problem/fatal flaw is that III is ostensibly unlistenable as an album. “Omphamos” is the only song on the record under ten minutes, and three of the songs that follow it hover around 15. Each track is so meticulously assembled that it makes taking 6-7 Homeric black metal songs pretty tough, if not impossible. (Tool and even some Neurosis have a similar problem.) But each track on its own is damn-near perfect. III opens up a world of black metal previously obscured by scowling and pissing contests, unafraid of angering anyone or going out of its way to antagonize. Ayloss brings a considerable amount of respect back to the one-man black metal game, making an album so huge and sprawling that input from anyone else would have made it impossible to create. But thank God it was created, because as black metal has shown us the last three or so decades, just when it seems like it’s worn out its welcome, something else comes charging in, flanked by thousands of soldiers on horseback riding bellowing into war. Spectral Lore isn’t about where black metal is going to go from here, but what black metal can still do.
Spectral Lore’s III is out now. Stream it and get it here.