Dissonant black metal is having a bit of a moment. With the late-aughts explosion of woodsy atmoblack now a decade old and on the wane—if ever so slightly—and artists turning to other inspiration for blackened evolution, those reclusive and mysterious French musicians of Deathspell/Aus Nord who first pioneered a more technical, terrifying sound are suddenly elder statesmen of a mini-movement. A new crop of predominantly European acts are hocking their Bandcamp wares and touting their various combinations of dissonance and melody. Meanwhile in Iceland, a shocking number of like-minded bands—considering the small base population—are piling out of Reykjavik like corpse-painted clowns from a comically small hearse. Now there’s K. M., the appropriately cryptic single member of Poland’s Ars Magna Umbrae, with a new album of dissoblack tunes that will hopefully make his mama Mgła proud.
Lunar Ascension is the first full-length by K. M., and it’s a remarkably self-assured debut. Opener “Through Thorns and Bones” picks things up where Dodecahedron‘s last album left off, with oscillating riffs that slowly unfold into quasi-ambient passages later in the song. This is not to say Ars Magna Umbrae is derivative, as K. M.’s own unique take subtly reveals itself over the album’s crisp 40-minute runtime. “Daughter of Endless Light” distills this vision into four and a half minutes that seem to pass in the time it takes to exhale. The song underscores the excellent sense of pacing found album-wide, and is in turns brooding, rollicking, dense and yes, dissonant. The last minute of the track erupts into a guitar solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a classic heavy metal album, but in this context takes on an outsized emotional heft.
There are snatches of melody buried beneath waves upon waves of twisting riffs throughout Lunar Ascension. On the instrumental title track, this comes more to the forefront. A spacey intro melts into warped melodies that climb, stumble, then start the Sisyphean climb again and again. In a way, “The Feast of Shades” is the mirror image of this. I suspect, but am not certain, that this title is a reference to Odysseus’ time in the Underworld speaking to the blood drinking dead. If it isn’t, the shoe certainly fits. The song closes the album on a depressive note, with a doom-like dirge that transitions into tense black riffing over a persistent tolling bell, signaling a finality that implies more than just the end of a hero’s journey, or a record.
Thematically, Lunar Ascension is filled with references to outer realms and places beyond our world. Ostensibly that means space, but not in the tech-death sci-fi way. We’re talking about the “firmament” of an earlier time when magic and science were entwined. Think Baron Munchhausen setting sail on a terrestrial sea, yet somehow sailing to the moon. The aesthetics of this album, from the striking cover painting to the movements and moods of the music, support this theme well. I’ve pontificated before on my disdain for interlude overuse, but Ars Magna Umbrae utilizes one, “A Whisper from the Void,” admirably to inject atmosphere that amplifies, rather than interrupts, the flow of ideas. K. M.’s relationship to the A word is similar to Iceland’s Carpe Noctem, though the results are slightly less harrowing. Yes, it’s all very bleak and surreal, but moments of wonder crop up in much the same way they would in a David Lynch or Terry Gilliam film.
Lunar Ascension is very of-the-moment. Had it been released just a few years ago, it would have been revelatory, but in 2019 it captures the zeitgeist of a black metal sound that’s still fresh and gaining traction. If blackened dissonance, off-kilter melodies, and smartly layered compositions are your thing, Ars Magna Umbrae is a project to follow closely.