When black metal functions as more than just black metal, it’s amazing. When it can tell a story that entertains as well as informs, it is serving a higher purpose. Normally we don’t look to black metal for bildungsroman or moral tales, but that does not mean that there is not a wealth of story within the murky black depths of black metal. Every album has a purpose, whether that purpose is actually valid is debatable but I would like to think that most people that actually write the music and record it have a purpose beyond simply making music. They are trying to tell us something, they are trying to reach out to something beyond them, or they are trying make sense of their own emotions. Black metal is cathartic like that. It scares off a lot of would be fans with the imagery that surrounds it but honestly the imagery isn’t what makes black metal. It’s the stories in the music, the stories about the music. It’s about finding beauty in darkness. Zhrine, an Icelandic band, put out an album this year called “Unortheta” and while I’m not actually sure what that title actually means (I’ve searched but most of my searching simply led me back to the album itself) the power of the storytelling and message behind the music is not something that can be denied.
The album has atmosphere, atmosphere that I have seen in only a few places before. It’s vast and terrifying. Zhrine’s music is the sound of human frailty against the immeasurable void. The sound is a terrifying mixture of layers of guitars and bass and monstrous vocals that sounds like something you’d find in a horror soundtrack (more on that a little later), and this is all just one the first track. If a band can hit you this hard with atmosphere, ambience, and power on the first track, you know the album is going to be good. Look at World Funeral, the opening riff on that Marduk album is still my favorite of any they have ever done more than 10 years later. The opening track for Unortheta is an unapologetically misanthropic howl. This is black metal at its most bestial and most introspective. It’s not just terrifying music, it’s an overture to a dystopian black metal opera.
The world has been consumed, is being consumed. What’s tearing it apart? Surely it’s some extraterrestrial threat or some malevolent supernatural being right? Wrong. While writing my notes for the review I kept coming back to one things: Brave New World. We have been given so many options in which to learn things, so much information readily to consume that either we have decided to starve ourselves or we have gorged and choked on it. The world is spinning out control because there is not more control left. There’s no one in charge, we would like to think that there are shadowy figures watching and controlling the whole mess but the reality is far more terrifying.
What will we do in such a world? A world so gutted by “information” that the word information itself is utterly meaningless. In a Cormac McCarthyian discourse, Zhrine has essentially made it clear that we have made ourselves, knowledge, and truth obsolete. We flooded the market with so much nonsense and so much “fact” that it’s all worthless. We are paying for metaphorical bread with diamonds.
Our lives are empty, our lives are hollow shells that cannot contain meaning because meaning is subjective and no one has time to stop and actually figure out what meaning is. It’s a sobering thought. What do we do with this? What can we do to prevent it? Can we prevent it at all? Are we already on the inevitable downward spiral into madness? Such nihilistic thoughts are usually preserved for Nietzsche and McCarthy, not black metal. But there is it. What we choose to take from that and what we choose to do about it is on us. Do we watch the world burn to ashes and dance on its grave, do we despair of life and construct an exit through the use of drugs?
Another thing that kept nagging at me throughout the album, was the similarity of sound between Zhrine and Deathspell Omega, particularly the song “Shrine to Mad Laughter.” The entire album is haunting, it’s the kind of sound that scrapes up against the sanity of the listener. I appreciate albums that can do that, and there are very few that can actually pull something like that off. It takes not only great musicianship, intimate knowledge of the instruments themselves and the sounds that they are capable of, but production and the careful tailoring and culling of each note to give it the exact power that they hold within. The production of Unortheta is perfect, every second is absolutely brilliant. There are moments of intense intimacy where the vacuum of nothingness pushes against the listeners ears and times where the chaos of guitar, drums, and bass create a torrent of brutal black metal. There are knives for hacking and there are knives for slicing. Unortheta uses all of them and each to their own potential. This is a devastating album that belongs on the top of every chart.
The entire album plays out like a horror soundtrack, it’s creepy but it tells the parts of the story that can’t be expressed visually. We depend on music more often than we think when watching horror films to tell us things. We are told to fear certain images not because of the images themselves but by the accompanying music. Horror and metal are so intertwined I’m surprised it took me this long to really talk about the structure of horror music and that of black metal. They both serve to give us answers that we don’t, or can’t, search for in the everyday soundtrack of humanity. Horror soundtracks, though meant to instill fear and unease, are often beautiful and ethereal. Look at Tubular Bells, the epic song from the Exorcist, it’s iconic but not just because of its connection to the film, but because of the atmosphere it creates. It’s a legendary piece of music and it evokes strong emotional reactions from anyone who hears it.
Zhrine’s music, I’m convinced, will eventually be able to do the same. They have a beautiful piece of music with Unortheta and it’s only a matter of time before the sounds and songs here seep into our subconscious. It’s haunting and it’s harrowing. It’s darkly beautiful and evocative. It’s an album that makes you go “Holy shit!” If you haven’t heard it yet, you need to. I highly recommend this gem.
Listen and support!