It took me three full listens of one-man German black metal project Sun of the Sleepless’ debut while thinking “Gee, this guy sure likes The Vision Bleak!” before I realized “that guy” is actually The Vision Bleak’s Ulf Theodor Schwadorf. In retrospect, I can’t blame myself for my ignorance. While SotS actually predates TVB by a year, Schwadorf spent nearly two decades honing his aesthetic through the latter band’s death-soaked riffs and gothic horror atmosphere, whereas the former is only just now poking its head out from the underground after a decade of inactivity. While it’s totally unsurprising that traits of TVB would be present in this solo outing, Sun of the Sleepless is much more than just The Vision Black1. To the Elements is a triumphant modern black metal record, folding old and new corners of the style together in a work of stark beauty that feels unique and relevant in the current field.

Sun of the Sleepless’ handle on black metal is supremely confident and impressively nuanced. The first proper track, “Motions,” is a sprawling, bittersweet piece that immediately establishes Schwadorf’s surefootedness, gorgeous melodies naturally flowing into each other through the subtle adding and subtracting of guitar, synth, and choral layers. This fluid songwriting remains static throughout To the Elements and offers a sense of craftsmanship that’s sorely absent from most traditional black metal records. “Traditional” isn’t quite an accurate descriptor, though. While SotS owes much to traditional black metal (see the wonderfully authentic Darkthrone worship in “Realm of the Bark”), it often emulates the rhythmic blast beating and major scale melodics of atmospheric black metal and post-black metal, respectively. Schwadorf harvests traits from these genre offshoots without ever fully conforming to them, resulting in a colorful playbook that fully fleshes out TtE’s concise run-time.

If the progressive compositions represent the brains of Sun of the Sleepless, its persistent, authentic atmosphere is its vibrant, beating heart. The blossoming song structures and the melodies contained within feel organic and seamless, a quality perhaps born of Schwadorf’s infatuation with the untamed forest. I often neglect to touch on lyrics and themes (especially when discussing extreme metal), but To the Elements music feels intrinsically tied to its words. The topics, which range from the ceaseless forces of the wilderness (“Motions”) to the cleansing properties of fire (“Phoenix Rise”), are beautifully written celebrations of evergreen environs synonymous with black metal, nailing what makes the genre function on an emotional level without succumbing to Satanic or anti-Christian tropes. This atmosphere is so consistent in both the lyrics and the music itself that “The Forest,” a brief acoustic number that heavily recalls Schwadorf’s Empyrium project, somehow feels completely at home among the chilly tremolo runs and abrasive, barking vox.

The atmosphere is persistent throughout, yet To the Elements isn’t lacking in weight to anchor its aura. This is an uncommonly heavy black metal album akin in style to fellow countrymen Secrets of the Moon, Schwadorf importing his signature downtuned guitar style to craft weighty passages that the genre typically leaves behind in favor of frigid, blistering blasting. The latter certainly isn’t in short supply here, but moments like the doomy, methodical crush of “Where in My Childhood Lived a Witch” (which builds towards an immensely satisfying payoff in a blastbeat run that had me positively grinning on first listen) and the stomping melodeath crunch of “Phoenix Rise” lend the album not only weight, but an impressive level of variety that never feels forced. My only minor disappointment with the song structures is that certain tracks (namely “Motions” and “Where in My Childhood…”) opt for extended fade-outs rather than proper conclusions, but the record is so engaging on a whole that this is an easily glossed-over quibble when I’m not in review mode.

On multiple occasions I’ve seen instances where one of our commenters asks a question that I feel is one of the most common among metal fans: “Where do I start with black metal?” This is never an easy question to address as individual tastes widely vary, but To the Elements might be a prime jumping off point as a celebration of the genre’s entire history without reverting to low-fi “throwback” production gimmickry. Sun of the Sleepless has forged a gorgeous record, not just in the bleak, sorrowful mode endemic to black metal’s atonal nature, but in the more conventional sense that implies sweeping melodies and thoughtful construction. Genre newcomer or no, you’d be lucky to find a more instantly and thoroughly appealing black metal record this year.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Prophecy Productions
Releases Worldwide: July 21st, 2017

Show 1 footnote

  1. All credit goes to Dr. Wvrm for thinking of this pun at the drop of a hat.
  • ssorg

    On first listen, this sounds quite promising. The sound and production is quite soft, softened further by the ghostly clean vocals. Its tough to tell whether this is a plus/minus without spending more time. I like a balance between melody and menace in my BM, and this toes the line pretty closely… will def have to give it a proper listen.

    • ssorg

      I have reached my conclusion:

      • Name’s Dalton

        BRUTALIST_RECEPTACLE – is that you?

        • ssorg

          Sorry I am neither concrete nor a trash can

    • Dudeguy Jones

      I was gonna add:

      I agree, but I think something about the chanted vocals and, just in general, the vocal delivery, has a bit more of the ominous as opposed to menacing, and I really like that distinction in my evil shades of metal. And yet that is a notch towards melody, but like, up one and over one. Or something. Lol.

  • The Akerstache

    Was introduced to this via a NCS Premier, stunning record. I really enjoy when black metal goes down more emotional routes (Anagnorisis’ last album was my 2016 AotY), so I eat this shit up.

  • welyyt

    That cover looks like if Darkthrone made Ghost reveries.

  • Slam Grandpa

    4/5, yes I’m glad you liked this… Potential ROTM?

    • Eldritch Elitist

      That’s up to AMG and Steel Druhm to decide, Slampa.

    • Dr. Wvrm

      I fuckin hope so.

    • Eli Valcik

      This VS Integrity for ROTM

    • ssorg

      Strong AOTY frontrunner for me so far. And I *really* didn’t want to like it.

      • Myron

        I would you ever want to dislike something?

        • ssorg

          sounded wanky and whiny on casual first listen. won me over pretty quickly.

  • hallowed

    Yeah, it’s good.

  • Kmill

    Had never heard of the Vision Bleak until their AOTM. Loved it instantly. This sounds incredible on the first listen. Thanks for the review.

  • Eli Valcik

    mmmmmmm this felt good

  • Ferrous Beuller

    I’ve been swimming in this one all evening. It’s a beaut.

  • Brooks Ploskina

    This album is great. Love it!

  • OzanCan

    The embedded song is awesome, I am liking it m/

  • El_Cuervo

    Good though this is, gimme more Empyrium pls

  • sir_c

    the video sounds pretty good, nice find!

  • Wilhelm

    This sounds like a 90’s BM album, well done.

  • EnslavedEld73


  • Levly

    This sounds very tasty, can’t wait to sink my teeth in. Thanks for the review and the find!

  • Sometimes a record gets a stellar review here and I have to listen to the thing for ages before I can make a decision about it. This album however seems to be an instant buy based on the embedded track.

    Thank you once again, you magnificent bastards for making me spend more money on quality metal music. :)

  • Morbidly Obese Angel

    This is stellar! Definitely need this kind of black metal in my life. The copious amounts of post black/black gaze and avant-garde/dissonant tropes are becoming quite overbearing

  • Christopher

    I want to like Black Metal so much, for the street cred. But it just bores the fuck out of me. Someone help.

    • Finq

      Mgla – Exercises in Futility
      If this bores you, Black Metal really isn’t for you.

      • Drew Music

        Where they’re by no means pure black metal – blackened hardcore would be most accurate, I suppose – I would recommend Ancst, specifically Furnace. If you need a bit more melody to pull you in, Harakiri for the Sky’s III: Trauma should do the job. If not, you’re probably just not into black metal (yet). Patience, you’ll probably get there. I started with Children of Bodom, Opeth, Meshuggah, Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage and In Flames and pretty much anything of their ilk for years, now I find myself listening almost solely to black, avant-garde and death based material.

      • Christopher

        I’ll put that on my list as well. Thanks!

    • Dr. Wvrm

      It took me nearly a decade of listening to metal to really get into black, so I know what you mean. Drew has the right of it, there’s a number of ways you can work your way into the genre. If you start off with really heavy, raw stuff like Gorgoroth and Darkthrone, that aesthetic might not work for you but I wouldn’t give up unless you’ve seen what the genre has to offer. Try Emperor or Dissection or Immortal. Try newer stuff like the aforementioned Mgla. Try working your way in via circuitous routes like Destroyer 666 or something more “approachable” like Bathory. There’s definitely something in here for you.

      • Christopher

        I appreciate the reccomendations. I’ll check them out. I have a wide range of interests. I’m a big BTBAM homer (while they get very mixed reviews on this site), love Haken, and even atmospheric prog stuff. On the flip slide, I’m a slut for grime slam. Vulvodynia’s Psychosadistic Design was my personal AotY. I seem to like everything except Black Metal. And modern metalcore. (Even though Darkest Hour came back to form with their latest, and Zao really impressed too). I actually like Mayhem, for what it’s worth.

    • Dudeguy Jones

      Immortal is a really great place to start. Especially if you aim right to the center with At The Heart of Winter. Its technically a lot of thrash riffs, but with lots of black metal speed and trem riffing.
      Go backwards for classic, traditional, tremolo blur black metal and go forwards for more teutonic thrashing insanity. You’re sure to find a classic to die with.

      I’d also recommend Dissection, as, previous to my full delve into black metal, they were the only band I liked that were considered black metal. I kinda still think of them as more melodic death metal, but it does dovetail nicely with old school bm, in both visual aesthetic and sound and speed. Storm of the Lights Bane is what you’re looking for.

  • Nukenado

    How disgustingly fun and not quite-evil this is.
    I love it. Now it’s time for me to put on my poseur glasses and give this album a warm and unbrvtal hug.

  • John Mosley

    Jammed this album… eh… competent. Not wowing me.

  • Malhorne

    Whoo this embedded track sounds gorgeous, I really do like the atmosphere, I can’t wait to hear the full album!

  • Wally

    Thanks for the review, just found out he’s playing at the festival I’m at tomorrow. Definitely have to see this.

  • maartje

    Based on the samples I’ve heard so far, I’m very disappointed by this album. Not because it’s bad, but because I was hoping Schwadorf would elaborate the triphop meets blackmetal style he experimented with on the Tausend Kalte Winter EP. I’ll give it a chance on its own merits though.

  • Tom Hardy

    “On multiple occasions I’ve seen instances where one of our commenters asks a question that I feel is one of the most common among metal fans: “Where do I start with black metal?” This is never an easy question to address as individual tastes widely vary, but To the Elements might be a prime jumping off point as a celebration of the genre’s entire history without reverting to low-fi “throwback” production gimmickry.”

    There’s a lot wrong with that ending paragraph and I think you’re not giving older BM records the credit they deserve by slamming their sound as ‘low fi throwback production gimmickry’. If someone wants to get into BM, you’re not going to recommend Immortal, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, Emperor are you?

    If someone wants an introduction to DM, you refer to albums of old to start with. Same for Doom or BM or any genre. Production standards or expectations these days are out of whack if you’re willing to believe old school production was just a gimmick. A DM band for instance wanting to sound raw – there’s nothing wrong with it if it sounds like you’re at a live rehearsal versus cold sounding production. I mean if you come to think of it, everyone has a preference at the end of the day, you can’t please everyone. But for one to mention old school production as being a gimmick sounds careless.

    • Dudeguy Jones

      I actually take a different tack, depending on who Im introducing metal too. Some people need to hear the roots of a thing to appreciate the whole. Some people need to be drawn in by the leaves first.

      • Tom Hardy

        Righto, Mr. Jones.

  • HeavyMetalHamster

    This is a nice compliment to the latest
    Violet Cold… kind of black metal.

  • Dudeguy Jones

    This is a really great record. I think you did a great job describing it and, especially, noting it as a good jumping off point for new black metal heads in the making.

    Yet, I’d quite aggressively state that this is not “post-black metal” even though I think this will appeal to many fans of that genre. I feel like that term could turn a lot of potential fans off to what is essentially, a great black metal record.

  • Serjien

    So this is the album that is going to make me enjoy and appreciate black metal?! We shall see!

    • Eldritch Elitist

      Report back!

      • Serjien

        This album has definitely moved the needle for me. I really enjoyed it and the vocals are tolerable.
        My biggest issue with BM and DM in general, has been the vocals. But that s a personal choice and it doesnt usually mean that I don’t like the instrumental parts.
        Are there similar acts you would recommend to check?

        • ssorg

          Blut Aus Nord’s Memoria Vetusta II is a favorite of mine, on the melodic BM side of things. Vocals aren’t any “better” (I think they’re great) but they’re buried in the mix, which is a bit trebly, if I’m honest.

          • Serjien

            Thanks, I will check it out.

  • WIRED_Metal

    I love the embedded track. Songs like this are what I play for people who don’t believe black metal can be beautiful… it doesn’t always convince them, but every once in awhile, it clicks for someone.

  • themetalbeernerd

    I’m finally listening to this. When the review came up it piqued my interest, but I didn’t have time to really read it or listen. The Burden got me interested, and gods damn, Motions hooked me.

  • TLFernandes

    I’m really sorry for the criticism, but how couldn’t you know who was the man behind Sots??

  • ssorg

    Awesome find. One the one hand, the SotS’ version is such a perfect cover… on the downside, it’s disappointing he didn’t label it as such (as far as I can tell)