Black Metal: The Shoegaze Wave
Band Photo: Burzum (?)
Back in 2005, Alcest released a two song EP called “Le Secret,” a gem that eventually would cause a stir in the hornet nest that is the black metal community. If you didn't gather by the title, Alcest is a French band, and one masterminded by front-man Neige. With a strong pedigree in the French black metal scene, Neige was a musician who not only came forward in the 00s with multiple acts in Alcest and Amesoeurs, but also made contributions to essential French albums from the likes of Mortifera and Peste Noire. While Norway and the adjacent Scandinavian realms are often thought of as the wintery fortress of black metal, the French have long held their own with a melancholic and melodic take on the genre including the infamous Les Légions Noires whom you can read about in a previous Metal Underground Sunday Old School article.
So, what was so special about Neige’s little two song EP? Well for one it wasn’t little at all. It was nearly 30 minutes long and an infusion of 90s shoegaze, post-rock, and perfectly distilled black metal.
Of course the reason any of this is important now in 2011 is that we seem inundated with bands with this mix. Latest act to sign to Candlelight Records? Glasgow’s folk/post-rock mixup Falloch (and before that Altar of Plagues). Most hype of last year? Well if not for Burzum’s “Belus” it’d have to go straight to Agalloch’s “Marrow of the Spirit.” And I’ll be damned if the popularity of the once obscure Wolves In The Throne Room hasn’t exploded out of nowhere. Add to that the growing popularity of Fen, Lantlos, Krallice etc. and it’s obvious that many are riding another mini-wave in metal, one worthy of a discussion.
Way back the early 90s the now ludicrously infamous Varg Vikernes diverged his music from the violent and extreme beasts like Mayhem, expanding the raw chainsaw buzz of black metal and incorporating transcendental ambient offshoots. A bold move, but the dream-like atmosphere that replaced much of the music’s aggression with lighter aesthetics struck a chord with many; even surprised indie journalists embraced the new sound. All pretty common knowledge stuff right? Well that gets us half way through this history lesson.
The early 90s were also a time when a genre of music called shoegaze struck a high with bands like Ride, Slowdive, and (the poorly named but I assure you excellent) My Bloody Valentine cementing names for themselves in the big book of influential bands. Although short lived, at the time the washed out and psychedelic take on punk/rock was a hit. Perhaps more importantly, towards the end of the 90s saw post-rock bands like Mogwai, Sigur Ros, and Godspeed! You Black Emperor take shoegaze and indie music to the logical extreme: 15 minute long build ups, noise fuelled epics, and albums drowned in delay effects and crash symbols.
OK, so even ignoring Power Rangers and tribal tattoos that's an extremely simplified version of the fertile days of the 90s. The important thing is we arrive at the turn of the millennium and the now highly regarded album “Dead As Dreams” by the Californian band Weakling. The album was a progressive mix of post-rock, psychedelica and black metal that largely helped birth the “suicidal-depressive black metal” scene best associated with bands like Xasthur, Leviathan and Silencer. A sound that has a lot in common with the post-rock bands we’re hearing now.
Another critical force that emerged at this time was of course Agalloch. While too much of a chameleon over the years to pin as anything but a progenitor, Agalloch's lyrical themes, post-rock leanings, clean vocals and folk infusions have all had strong influences on many bands today. In the end when it comes to newer underground acts like Austere or Heretoir we get to a similar situation, normal fans throw some sort label on it and call it a day leaving nitpickers to fight down the pointless details.
But instead of me painfully picking these strands apart, let’s go back to the very distinctive sound of Alcest which is definitely being milked. The “Les Secret” sound (vs. Xasthur if you need a telling comparison) seems to be a truly telling sign that a band is riding the current shoegaze wave - hell, take a look at the logos from half of these acts and that’s enough to see the common thread of whispery hand written text, perhaps inspired by the other of Neige’s shoegaze projects, Amesoeurs. And could Falloch’s logo be any more Agalloch-y? The basic musical sound takes the intense build ups and soundscapes of the post-rock/shoegaze template and injects black metal staples - blast beats, distant screamed vocals, and those well-known necro punky chord changes. Arpeggiated clean guitars, ambient sections, and clean vocals are also common features of the music many of these bands tend to fall more on the post-rock side of the fence rather than metal.
To be fair, I did invert the black and white for Onryo's logo
Another interesting commonality in the wave of newcomers is that of naturalism. Perhaps it only makes sense that bands choosing to eschew rigid black metal musical customs would also be accompanied with more liberal thematic topics. The new direction could also be attributed to a combination of the rise environmentalism over the 00s and the fact that pantheism, ecologicalism, feminism, and general “hippie shit meets black metal mysticism” is far more palatable to general audiences than the violent and satanic face of 90s black metal. Also, it doesn't take much for artistic types to revolt against a scene that had grown distinctly less “evil”, and a lot more comedically overblown with machismo and rockstardom as it rose to prominence.
...oh boy, where do I even start?
Of course, with the more palatable musical traits of shoegaze and post rock comes an extended fan-base. Initially all factions generally seemed happy enough to celebrate acts like Agalloch and Alcest, with many hailing them as success stories that metal could evolve new branches without bending over to the mainstream.
But as indie kids and metalheads go together like oil and water (and a probably a lighter), Alcest’s prominent explosion in popularity brought a good amount of elitist rage at the notion of socialist hipsters sipping their mild green tea in cardigans emblazoned with a Wolves In The Throne Room patch. Although contributing nowhere near as much as the Wolfmother ilk to the term “hipster metal,” that and other phrases such as “nigel hipster” (humorously coined by Nachtmystium frontman Blake Judd) have quickly become communal molotov cocktails all too easily flung by metalheads trying to distinguish friend from foe and defend the walls of metal from artistically bankrupt delay pedal bedroom bands.
"Nokturnal what? Hellhamm-who?"
So to the average Bathory emblazoned, Marduk blasting black metal fan, post-rock/shoegaze black metal may be an unacceptable step down of aggression and evil. But with the conjoined popularity of depressive black metal, the new guard has generally received a warm welcome over time; especially in comparison to the “we ride at dawn!” response to anything with a -core suffix got in the last decade.
So where to from here? Well I can only guess we are experiencing the heyday of this post-rock/shoegaze mini-wave. I’d expect to see another few bands make their bid to be among the roster of the larger labels, especially seeing the way many are struggling to sell anything that isn’t a current sound. Germany is definitely getting in on the deal with bands like Lantlos, Thränenkind, and Soliness staying true to the formula, and others such as Dopamine, Onryo, Les Discrets and Fen have popped up worldwide. On the other hand, with Caina and Ludicra already bowing out of the game, I would say the limelight will be brief. Final thoughts? Spinning Alcest's full length may or may not endanger you by attracting vapid hipsters, but fear not - blasting some Slayer will still send them scattering.
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