One of the more interesting paths in the last decade of extreme music has been that of the genre of black metal. After older groups largely became mired in the pristine offerings of orchestral black metal, newer bands began to shift their focus, pinpointing their favorite aspects of the genre, from its formative years on, to take it to strange and as-yet-uncharted places.
This specialization and hybridization within the genre spawned, among a host of others, Arcata, California's Ash Borer. They excel at extracting black metal's most astral and most abstractedly occult moments and stretching them across a canvas of trance-like, long-form song structures. Nowhere in their catalog is this approach and its lineage more apparent than their Bloodlands 12", the follow-up to their critically acclaimed second LP Cold of Ages.
The first sounds on the album, from A-side track "Oblivion's Spring," have more to do with what we think of as black metal in an atmospheric sense than a sonic one. Echoey, chiming guitars and a haunted-house organ synth pad wind into and out of synch with one another, creating a mood that feels pulled straight from the eerie opening credits of a horror film. Tension mounts with each introduced phrase and variation, but no blood is shed in the first few minutes of the song.
That all changes when the track suddenly jump-cuts from that creepy (but relatively clean) introduction to a full-out, distortion-wrapped black metal sprint. What gives this shift an organic quality is the fact that the organ riff employed in the introduction is carried over into the firebombing extreme metal core of the song, tying the ambient, otherworldly aspects of the band ably into the violent, immediate ones.
In the song's last half, the riff explored in the intro returns, but is at this point incorporated into the black metal meat of the song for a middle-paced buildup that caters equally to the part of the brain interested in repeated hooks and the ancient, primal one that feeds on music's violent, pummeling tendencies. Its eventual degradation into melting, howling drones sees both of these aspects of the brain evolved into oblivion, leaving the listener adrift in a post-mental wasteland that recedes in a long, siren whine at the song's close.
On the record’s b-side follows the aptly-titled “Dirge,” an atmospheric, swirling lament that builds at a more measured, deliberate pace than the introduction to “Oblivion’s Spring.” Where the instrumental opening of that piece felt like it was moving toward something and its draw was as a vehicle for reaching that goal, the purpose of “Dirge” is in the journey itself. Like time-lapse footage of a flower blooming, the track thrives in individual moments, unfolding slowly to reveal a whole.
“Purgation,” the b-side’s second half, is a blackened, accelerating slow burn that builds momentum around an undulating, circular riff. Around the halfway mark of the nearly 20-minute second side, the band slides into a galloping traditional black metal style (still hearkening back on occasion to that riff) that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Emperor’s first LPs. However, to quote the excellent and massively over-quoted William Butler Yeats poem, “the centre cannot hold,” and within minutes the onslaught is reduced to a single guitar, buzzing against the emptiness. A thick doom metal carapace forms around the riffing, which gives way to mid-paced, headbang-inducing black metal and another inevitable return to the nullifying womb of piercing feedback.
As well-liked as last year's Cold of Ages was, one of the complaints it received was that it seemed to lack some of the aggression and presence found on previous releases. While those hoping for another "Rest, You are the Lightning" may be disappointed, Bloodlands does sport a purer, more satisfying sound, thanks in part to its being recorded live and mixed down to 1/2" tape. This is the first of Ash Borer's records to be produced in this way, as the previous LPs were both recorded onto 2" tape and mixed digitally, resulting in a warmer overall sound and a more immediate delivery than any of their previous releases.
What most impresses about Ash Borer is the way in which they can manipulate the black metal form while remaining firmly rooted in that genre. Despite divergence into drone, doom and ambient instrumental territory, their sonic aesthetic stays tied to the isolated, individualistic outlook of black metal, in a stronger sense than many “roots” black metal groups of the present day.
Bloodlands sees the further growth of the band, past the transitional qualities of Cold of Ages into something darker and more expansive. There’s no road map to where Ash Borer goes from here, which only makes it all the more exciting to follow them there.