One-man black metal EPs always create apprehension in a reviewer. Will it be yet another bedroom project from somebody who embraces anonymity and the comfort of batting away criticism with an appeal to raw authenticity? Or will it be a forward-thinking approach that takes black metal and adds something new and ferocious?
To be fair, Richard Stevenson, a stalwart of the Hertfordshire metal scene, makes no appeals to TRVE black metal and does not insulate his art with the defiant message that those who criticise it are incapable of comprehending the essence of the music. (See Mayhem and Darkthrone’s early days for an example of this self-righteous attitude.) Stevenson is a passionate creator who writes from the gut, and emotion and grit are the two qualities that illuminate underneath the dark landscapes of his audio output, like glow worms in a vast acreage of forest.
Opener, ‘From Womb to an Unsightly Shallow Grave’, employs the lo-fi ‘necro’ production beloved of the early 90s Norwegian scene, which is a blessing and a curse. It lends the music a spontaneous rage and primitive darkness that’s hard to achieve with a clear mix and extravagant guitars. The root notes of the bass guitar bubble underneath the surface like faulty underfloor heating and add more bottom-end to the muffled blast beats. This is deliberate and understandable. Nobody criticises a punk band for employing 4/4 time-signatures and leaving out the sweep-picking guitar solos – it doesn’t fit the aesthetic or the spirit to do it. No, the fuzzy and chaotic mix is not a problem, but the guitar tone is an issue. Black metal needs to be heavy and terrifying, not subordinated to fast tremolo riffs that sound like an indie rock guitarist attempting to master his fretboard with little understanding of the techniques that can enhance its power and capability. At times, Sombre sound like Dutch blackgazers, An Autumn For Crippled Children, in second gear. This is most unfortunate because the spleen-rupturing screams are invigorating and the progressive structures impressive. You’ll find nothing predictable here.
‘Endeavour Not to Dream of Death, and His Hand’ is much better and heavier, like the recent Hulder record. Now the guitar downstrokes glug with the thirst of a tramp necking a bottle of Iron Bru. Listen to those crash cymbals and the Medieval melodies vibrate with uncontrollable distortion. This is a tune! The emotive guitar solo and frenetic vocal rage work wonders with a rocking beat, like Satyricon in prime Rebel Extravaganza mode. It makes the experimental ‘Dancing Static (Interlude)’ even more important to the listening experience, where Richardson takes radio control dialogues and ambient static loops as a backdrop for dreamy arpeggios coated in chorus-effect distortion. This is an impressive mood piece and hints at a post-metal future for the project.
It may start with an irksome lo-fi sound unworthy of the metal tag, but Sombre end the EP with a stronger edge on ‘Tiresome Be, The Plight of Life’. Yes, the tremolo riffs are more indie rock than extreme metal and the studio trickery used to enhance the volume of the fry screams needs to be addressed, but this is an agonising affair for artist and listener alike. And that’s never a bad thing. Richardson’s cathartic aggression has a unique pathos to it, like Harakiri For The Sky. You can overlook the musical flaws when the emotion burns with such molten heat.
The debut album should be more of a challenge for Richardson. A run through the early Ewigkeit and mid-career output of Immortal will offer guidance on how to make those riffs more metal and more muscular without sacrificing the chaotic noise assault that defines his music. We look forward to observing how his art evolves from here.
Release Date: 21/04/2021
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: Endeavour Not to Dream of Death, and His hand; Dancing Static
Suggested Further Listening: Hulder – Godslastering: Hymns of a Forlorn Peasantry (2021), Ewigkeit – Starscape (1999), An Autumn for Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet (2020)