It’s not easy to distinguish yourself as a black metal act in 2016, and it’s even more difficult to sustain a progressive and captivating career over a span of several releases, especially in a year where reformations and revivals of a lot of bands across different genres seems rampant.
With black metal, there are a couple routes you can take—focus on the technical and progressive songwriting of the craft and nab the laughable title of “thinking man’s metal,” dig deep into the occult ritualism, atmosphere and mysticism to reach out to armchair Satanists and devoted practitioners alike, or play dirty as shit, raw and fast as possible, to appeal to the traditionalists, the so-called trve and kvlt bastards that lurk at the back and shit all over anything that anyone has the audacity to say they enjoy.
And when a group strikes a vein, goddamn, is it good. The first waves of winter have washed over the north, and the cold reaches of black metal are calling at the year’s death. It’s that time again.
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Ash Borer’s third full-length ‘The Irrepassable Gate’ definitely scratches an itch, but it’s an album fraught with growing pains. The second major release of the group on Profound Lore finds them exploring new territory and playing with new sounds more indicative of old school death metal, but they have yet to rediscover the hypnotic spark that made them so captivating from the beginning.
Two major shifts happened—Ash Borer ditched the synths, and Randall Dunn, renowned producer of acts like Sunn O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room, brought in a cleanliness that the group hasn’t quite filled out.
The loss of atmosphere is immediately apparent from the opening title track—clear, running bass lines and upper-register complex ruffs tumble over the relentless drums, crisp as can be. The song bleeds into the next slow, thumping, monumental sort of riffing you’d expect from older acts; a structure emerges, a putrid edifice to match the gorgeous cover art and the endless construction of a journey into death.
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But something never clicks. When Ash Borer is at their strongest, you forget you’re even listening—endlessly repeating riffs and hypnotic atmosphere drags you into an unending sense of unease, a distinct lack of relief that is fraught with cold otherworldliness. ‘The Irrepassable Gate’ tries to make up for some of the loss with calculated ambient sections and drone tracks like ‘Lustration I and II,’ but there’s really only one moment where the music locks into the vortex. It comes late—‘Rotten Firmament’ is the last proper track on the album—but after easing into the song with several minutes of buildup, Ash Borer tap into what they do best: relentlessly pursuing a riff with dynamic, blistering drums until the track loses all sense of time and place, until the movement is all that is left.
The guitar work is better than ever, and the drums haven’t lost a single bit of aggression or precision since the group’s inception, but with a major shift in tone, atmosphere and songwriting, Ash Borer is going to have to fill in a few more gaps to produce the sort of transcendental, terrifying black metal they came up on.
‘The Irrepassable Gate’ is good, solid. It hits the cold, nihilistic spot that swells up this time of year. It shows extreme musicians willing to push the limits of their talent and of the genre with every pummeling note. Let’s just hope they keep digging.
‘The Irrepassable Gate’ is out now via Profound Lore.