Greek black metal seems to earn its fair share of acclaim, be it Acherontas’ latest album, meloblack torchbearers like Rotting Christ, or the epic pagan-isms of Macabre Omen. But while I love the bigger names, exploring the scene in depth has always been something I’d do ‘one day,’ just like finally watching the episodes of Twin Peaks after Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed, or cleaning up that mysterious stain in the corner of my living room. Truthfully I may never scrub away those dried Crunchwrap Supreme juices, but with Nocternity, I’ve finally taken the plunge into Greece’s seedy black metal underbelly.
For those sharing my ignorance, Nocternity are an Athens-based group formed in 1997, led by sole constant member Khal Drogo (presumably when he’s not busy with the Dothraki). Khal contributes vocals, guitar, and bass, and is joined here by vocalist W. (Whyrhd of Lunar Aurora) and drummer N. S. (V. V. of Dead Congregation). Harps of the Ancient Temples is Nocternity’s third-full length and first since the Summoning-meets-Drowning the Light abrasiveness of 2003’s Onyx. Considering their Greek origins and ancient warrior artwork, you may already know what to expect: searing blastbeats, bombastic choirs, archaic streaming tremolos…
…except on Harps, you’ll find none of those. Instead, Nocternity use repetitive morose riffs, sluggish tempos, and an enveloping, mystical atmosphere to establish themselves as atmospheric black metal played at doom-death speeds, with Greek flair retained. Forget Burzum-y static, most of Harps’ chords shuffle forward with both clarity and vague triumph, like Macabre Omen slowed to quarter-speed, and only sounding forlorn due to their lethargic pace. Some Varg-isms still appear – namely misty synthesizers and marching, lockstep drumming – but thankfully Nocternity avoid leaning too heavily on bare-bones repetition. Take the title track: despite repeating its main progression for nearly eight minutes, it avoids tedium with the measured inclusion of faraway guitar soloing, chunky rhythmic buildups, and ‘wandering-through-a-castle’-style synths.
But whereas here the synths provide moody background texture, follow-up “River of Woe” has them playing an eerie cyclical melody, while highlight “Opaline Eye of Death” harmonizes them neatly with the riffs. Nocternity are obviously clever at varying their sonic elements, as further demonstrated by the cleanly-picked riffs of “B.O.D.D.” and “River of Woe” (which sound like the first minor-key notes ever played on electric guitar), and the vocals, which shift from faint whispers to ghostly spoken word to dry raspy croaks – sometimes all in the same song (opener “The Black Gates”). Similarly, the wonderfully audible bass makes welcome forays away from the guitar in a few eyebrow-raising moments, and even the drums break their ambulatory pace, though unfortunately not often enough – see “Titans” with its rapid thumping bass drums under high-pitched tremolos, or standout closer “Andromeda,” following its medieval opening melody with a clunky rolling beat.
Sure, it’s atmospheric black metal, so a few ideas remain past expiration – but the guitarwork’s quality remains surprisingly high despite the repetitiveness and simplicity, and a few slithering, celestial leads on “Blood Rite Tree” and “Andromeda” add welcome archaic color. This is further complemented by the somewhat soft analog production, imbuing a sense of distance while leaving everything entirely audible, in a dynamic range big enough to herd cattle (peaking at 11 with “Opaline Eye of Death”).
However, having now heard Onyx’s rough, ethereal mix, I find myself a bit more partial to the otherworldliness of that album – and likewise, the ancient grandeur generated by Onyx’s blasting upheavals make Harps’ near-constant slow pace feel somewhat tired and one-dimensional. For better or worse, this is simply more meditative than its predecessor. Ultimately, one’s enjoyment of Harps will be aided by the context in which it’s listened: this is mood music, tailored for moonless midnight strolls and wistful late-night study of ancient mythology (or more likely, browsing online metal forums). A more varied tempo and some truly striking moments would still have helped, but Nocternity‘s ability to leverage the genre’s sonic palette and keep things engrossing throughout these 47 minutes is highly impressive nonetheless, even for a casual listener of the genre like myself. No doubt dedicated fans of the style will find even more to enjoy.