Black metal is a relatively new genre in the hard rock world, having arguably only first began in the early ’90s Swedish underground. In only a few decades, it has solidified its place among the most influential music genres today. Yet, as with any art form, when left in its purest state can lead to tropey repetition and stagnancy. This problem certainly exists in black metal, as it does in any music genre—or artform for that matter—that becomes popular enough to gain a substantial following. If you don’t believe that, visit any local music venue on a metal night and note how many bands use the same droning song structures, the same vocal styles, the same lyrical content—when it can be deciphered. Hell, they even use the same font for their logos. While this can lead to a fun atmosphere and generally head-banging, slam-dancing good time, overindulgence in black metal’s general sameness can lead to disinterest. In the words of MacBeth, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” That is, unless practitioners of the genre find ways to keep it fresh and most of all, make it their own.
Some time ago, I reviewed the band TOMBS and discussed the ways in which that group, though distinctly black metal, transcends its own genre by focusing not upon common themes of demonology, murder, and supernatural horrors, but on a more Lovecraftian terror that is existence within the chaotic, emotionless machine of the universe.
However, whereas the TOMBS dealt with the cruelty of the universe, Inter Arma’s Paradise Gallows narrows its focuses on humankind’s cruel place within it. Consider, for example, the lyrics to “Primordial Wound” which state:
We reap a lurid pleasure in burying once noble ideals like intelligence and compassion. We writhe enraptured in willful ignorance, apathy and rampant arrogance. We are Man, Earth’s primordial wound, and we have made no attempt to convalesce by means of enlightenment.
Black metal has always had a certain darkness to its opinions concerning the human race, in one way or another. Pioneers such as Mayhem and Darkthrone assaulted listeners’ ears with morbid lyrics reflecting, if not embracing, the baser elements of our nature. Yet these lyrics almost always filtered said opinions through the lens of the occult, via descriptions of burning churches, ritual sacrifice, demon-worship, and other horror themes. This is not where Inter Arma focuses their attention. Instead, the band chooses to mine themes of war, politics, and history to express the inherent connection between violence and human nature.
However, all is not doom and gloom as we walk the landscape of Paradise Gallows. Consider, for example, the track “Transfiguration” which, despite its droning, demonesque delivery, serves as a cryptic warning to the world at large:
Transfigure! / At Earth’s behest / Transfigure! / The Earth commands / Man has transfigured the Earth, now we must transfigure ourselves!
These statements are significant and can be taken to have at least two meanings. On the one hand, the song could be describing the way human cruelty has reshaped the very landscape of the earth through war, and that to prevent the world from becoming uninhabitable, humans must cast aside their old ways. On the other, it could be a deriding of the so-called benefits of technological progress, how since the industrial revolution, we have metamorphosed the earth from green forests to gray concrete jungles—to the determent of our psyches. Yet if humans “transfigure” to be closer to to the natural order of the planet, would it make us better or simply reinstate our violent place as a “primordial wound,” albeit one which again fits into the ecosystem instead of opposing it?
The album does not give a clear answer, and is all the better for it. For doing so puts faith in the listeners’ own intelligence and challenges them to think about larger existential questions. What fans are currently hearing in bands such as Inter Arma and TOMBS is black metal’s descendents branching off from the demonic misanthropy of its forefathers and into more expansive and philosophical ideas, an important move in the genre’s brief history which secures its place in the vast sonic environment around us.
Lastly I’d like to focus on the music itself. At first, the album doesn’t seem to offer much different from the usual haunting drone commonly found in black metal. A closer listen, however, will reveal some interesting deviations from the norm, and into areas of influence ranging from psychedelic and avant-garde to classical and prog-rock. Examples of this can be found sprinkled throughout the album, yet the most prime exist near the center of the album, beginning with the reverberant and layered “The Summer Drones,” followed immediately by the moving instrumental composition “Potomac,” then back to the nearly orchestral “The Paradise Gallows.” Though less aggressive than the rest of the recording, these three songs are perhaps the highest point of the album, and not only serve as well-timed rests between the more harsh and brooding pieces but also showcase the artful potential black metal has when allowed to transgress beyond its own shadow.
Paradise Gallows is available July 8th 2016.
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See them on tour:
Jul 5 Washington DC DC9
Jul 6 Philadelphia PA Boot & Saddle
Jul 8 NYC/Brooklyn NY St Vitus
Jul 9 Boston MA Great Scott
Jul 10 Buffalo NY Waiting room
Jul 11 Cleveland OH Grog Shop
Jul 12 Detroit MI Pike Room
Jul 13 Chicago IL Empty Bottle
Jul 14 Milwaukee WI Cactus Club
Jul 15 Minneapolis MN 7th Street Entry
Jul 16 Fargo ND The Aquarium
Jul 19 Seattle WA Barboza
Jul 20 Portland OR Dour Fir
Jul 22 San Francisco CA Thee Parkside
Jul 23 Glendale CA Complex
Jul 24 San Diego CA Soda Bar
Jul 25 Phoenix AZ Rebel Lounge
Jul 28 San Antonio TX Limelight
Jul 29 Austin TX Sidewinder
Jul 30 Dallas TX Three Links
Jul 31 New Orleans LA Gasa Gasa
Aug 1 Birmingham AL Spring Street Firehouse
Aug 2 Atlanta GA The Earl
Aug 3 Asheville NC Mothlight