Black Metal Pariah: Satyricon and their Polarizing New Album
Its highly unlikely that any of us would have been able to predict that the quietly touted new sound of Satyricon would sound exactly like what we’re hearing on their newly released eighth album. When the band announced a lengthy hiatus after completing the touring cycle for 2008’s “The Age of Nero”, they walked away saying that a comeback would have to include a revamp of their sound, which was essentially a silent way of saying that they had taken their straight ahead, black n’ roll style of the past decade as far as it could go. Upon reading that statement I found myself wondering, well, where could they take their sound?
Its either go back to their roots by bringing back the symphonic elements of the Nemesis Divina era and perhaps mix it with slight touches of black n’ roll, or go off into some totally random avant-garde offshoot ala Ihsahn and perhaps “treat” us to bewildering saxophone laden weirdness. The thing with black metal is that when you really boil it down to its component parts to attempt to merge it with other non-black metal elements, there’s not a lot left out there that hasn’t been done. And maybe I’m just reading into something that was never there, but I felt that when Satyricon made that pre-hiatus declaration, they were speaking in reference to black metal as a whole, and not just the sound of Satyricon.
The new sound of Satyricon is perhaps the most radical, mind bending, and just plain strange expansion of the black metal mold since the arrival of Alcest’s Souvenirs d’un autre monde. I’ve listened to this album many times now, and I think I’ve finally settled on a reasonable way to describe it in one sentence: This is the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression. Gone is the buzz-saw, feral, raw guitar attack of their past three records; and Satyr’s vocals are no longer upfront, but now mixed in further back alongside the instrumentation. The logical response to hearing such a description would be to ask, “Well, why did they strip away the surface aggression?” This is the most intriguing question surrounding this record, which by the way I think is addictive and captivating for that simple reason alone — I’m relishing the challenge of trying to figure this record out. In the meantime, I’ve realized that its drawn me in with some really powerful, gripping songwriting that’s hidden behind the sheer “softness” of the recording.
And when I describe the album with a term like that, I suppose I had better really explain what I mean. This is proving to be the most difficult album I’ve ever had to write a review for, because I believe I understand what Satyricon are trying to attempt to capture here, but I’m finding it difficult to spell it out in words. I’ll give it a shot here: If you can look at older Satyricon as symphonic driven black metal, and recent Satyricon as a raw, unadorned, black n’ roll reaction against that, then new Satyricon exists not in between those polarities, but outside of it —- looking in. Their musical shift from their earlier sound to their recent sound was a process of addition by subtraction. Their new sound then, is born not from further addition or subtraction of black metal musical elements, but by simply rewriting the equation with new elements altogether, some black metal, and some just plain musical. The most distinct element is a noticeable sense of softness that comes not only from an organic, warm analog production, but from the liberal manipulations of space in relation to instrumentation.
Take for example the first non-intro track on Satyricon, “Tro Og Kraft”, an almost Sabbath-esque paced song that has no guitar riffs… just a relatively simplistic guitar figure repeated as the driving melody line. Meanwhile underneath we get Frost’s typical double kick intensity, yet the rest of his percussion is kept very spare, simple, and determinedly non-complex. This results in a surprising amount of space, shockingly so… because we’re so used to hearing black metal as a condensed form of music no matter how its adorned. The results come to our seasoned black metal listener minds as something acutely softer than what black metal “should be”. Yet at the same time we can’t deny that this does sound like black metal in its tones, its expressions, and there’s a pervasively dark melancholic vibe throughout the song. I wrote in an another article some thoughts on “Our World, It Rumbles Tonight”, being the first track released from the album, and weeks later, its still as powerful to me. Here again, the band inverts the idea of a black metal musical arrangement in the chorus by choosing a muted choral vocal instead of symphonic dressing, and purposefully slows down the chorus from its rock steady verses to better conjure a sense of solemnity and awe during the refrain. The result is a track that is full of texture and space, and moments of purposeful quietude.
Then there is the album’s strangest, most non-traditional styled track yet, “Phoenix”, a delicate, almost rock-like song with guest vocals from Norway’s Sivert Høyem, a vocalist who brings to mind a mix of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy with HIM’s Ville Valo. The tone is kept sombre and melancholic, and sustaining guitars that ring out provide a bed of soft melodicism that is strikingly unusual for black metal. This is rightfully the most talked about song on the album, and as such has become the focal point for those who love and hate the record as a whole. There’s no denying its a departure for the band, but only in purely sonic terms, as the mood the song evokes is one that corresponds to the rest of the album. And even when the band gets close to approximating their traditional black metal stylings, such as on “Walker Upon the Wind”, and “Nekrohaven”, they sidestep the expected approach by shedding tropes like riffage in favor of more open chord sustains and the use of simple guitar figures as drivers of melody. In “Nekrohaven”, they finally open up the playbook to riffs a bit more and unleash one that recalls the best moments of their Now, Diabolical era, except there is a laid-back feel to the tempo and aggression of this song than anything on that feral album. This isn’t a bad thing by the way, as it proves to be the catchiest song the band has done in years, and oddly enough the happiest sounding as well.
As I wrote before, I could not have ever imagined a Satyricon album sounding anything like this. And when I begin to shift my analysis from what makes this album sound this particular way to why the band intended on it sounding this way, I think about the possibility that perhaps Satyr and Frost have gotten to a point where black metal tropes sound predictable and boring. Its a suggestion that is bound to inspire some vitriol, and perhaps its why the band has avoided commenting on it directly as of yet. But if its true and my suspicions are vindicated, then I’ll understand how they could have gotten there. At some point in all of our metal loving lives, we’ve gotten to points where loudness and heaviness are no longer all that we need to sustain us. As listeners we are free to shift to and from as our moods see fit in order to placate our musical wants, but I imagine its far more difficult to do anything about it if you’re an artist known for working in that medium of aggression.
Its been suggested recently that black metal’s rebellion to almost everything had only one remaining frontier, namely —- itself. Many bands have been examples of this new rebellion, in the form of merging together shoegaze and ambient influences with the black metal aesthetic (to varying results). Satyr and Frost’s Satyricon did not authentically have that stylistic option, and as a result they have responded to their vision of a post-Satyricon Satyricon by deconstructing the very medium of aggression itself. Its a decision that has angered many admirers, but we shouldn’t be surprised by that fact at all. This is perhaps the most divisive black metal band in the history of the genre, spawning doubters and flat out haters with every album release. That they inspire such fanatical, extreme opinion is a mark of their success —- no matter how mad people get, they will always come back to listen to whats next. Satyricon is a milestone not only for the band, but for Norwegian black metal as a whole. The style has been manipulated, poked and prodded outside of its ancestral home, but this is the first time that it has looked inwards to revitalize itself.