In 2017, I can safely say that I’ve had my fill of black metal. I mean, you can only rehash icy cold Norwegian riffs or French angular awkward atonality so many times before it becomes old hat. And in North America, things are a bit different. When you mention American black metal to anyone, you’ll either get Agallochian followers of differing quality, or guys who write manifestos and tell you what is or isn’t true black metal while doing bad Bone Thugs-n-Harmony impressions. But Nightbringer? They’re a bit different. While their fellow country mates are pushing the black metal boundaries by barely being black metal, these Colorodoans don’t stray too far from the left hand path, carving a niche for themselves with their ferocious riffing and atonal string-skipping acrobatics. And on their fifth full-length, Terra Damnata, they don’t let off the gas one bit.
That seething viciousness makes itself known once opener “As Wolves Among Ruins” blasts forth from my headset. For those uninitiated with Nightbringer, picture the sharp, angular weirdness of Deathspell Omega mixed with the grandiosity of Emperor. But instead of that mixture being a classically-inspired homage to the Horned One, Nightbringer instead use the riffing and melodies to instill a sense of esoteric chaos and uncertainty. Guitarists Naas Alcameth, VJS, and Ophis create these cascading melodies that lean towards the soundtrack of a dungeon in a classic NES game possessed by Satan than your typical black metal trappings. And yet, it all works. Combine that with absolutely frenetic drumming by Menthor, and alternating screams by Alcameth, Ophis, and fellow vocalist ar-Ra’d al-Iblis, and you have the makings of something truly bizarre and yet attention-holding.
This intensity and weirdness holds up well during Terra Damnata‘s first half. “Misrule” sounds both majestic and chaotic, with its icy tremolo melody soaring above Menthor’s driving blastbeats. “Of the Key and Crossed Bones” slows the tempo down a hair, building an eerie atmosphere with well-crafted keyboard melodies and foreboding basslines. Yes, audible bass in black metal! But the biggest highlight of the album belongs to “Let Silence Be His Sacred Name.” Beginning with a piano melody that screams Paradise Lost post-metal-revival, it rips heads just seconds later with some of the most vicious riffing the band has penned to date. Then, it slows down to a doom-ish crawl peppered with those fast-picked melodies that draw you in before returning to blast mode, sucking you into an awesome atmospheric vortex of cacophonous beauty.
The production on Terra Damnata commendably remains largely listenable, despite the chaos on display. While the bass doesn’t stand out, the simple fact that it’s even audible in the first place is nothing short of amazing. The guitars, especially when going for tremolo, take the stage with authority. Even then, though, the riffing and the layers upon layers of tremolo melodies don’t smother the drums or vocals. The album does suffer a bit towards the second half, as a feeling of deja-vu begins to settle, with the exception of both “Let Silence Be His Sacred Name” and instrumental “The Lamp of Inverse Light,” which stand out due to the differences in both tempo and the delivery methods of the atmospheres contained within them.
Yet, despite the familiarity, I keep coming back to Terra Damnata for my fix of primal, atmospheric black metal. I don’t know if this will make my year-end list or not, but it did reinvigorate my waning love of the genre. It also prompted me to check out more of their back catalog to see what I’ve been missing over the last decade. Black metal needs more head-fuckery. Black metal needs more bands like Nightbringer.