When I tell people I listen to black metal because I find it “relaxing,” I’m often met by bemused stares. How could such ferocious, pummeling music, in any shape or form, be relaxing, they ask? Yet it is precisely the cacophony of noise and shrieking that allows, if only for a few blissful minutes, my overactive brain to rest. Much like children with hyperactivity, who take a stimulant to focus their restless minds, the anxiety, sadness, and worry that constantly swirl around in my brain are temporarily and gloriously cocooned in the chaos of furious blast beats and thunderous riffs that only the most extreme music can provide. Enter Black Cilice, a one-man project from Portugal, that has garnered a fair bit of attention over the years by playing an ultra-lo-fi form of raw black metal. Transfixion of Spirits is the fifth album from the prolific band, following 2017’s Banished from Time. While each album has been thoroughly enjoyable for fans of this kind of music, they all sounded pretty similar. I was curious to see if Black Cilice was going to bring anything new to the table this time ’round.
Transfixion of Spirits is not a radical departure for the band, but it takes the existing formula and offers a few beneficial tweaks. There is a slightly improved, yet honey-dense, mix which adds some clarity without sacrificing mood. The minimalist sound is beefier than before, bulked up with a more hypnotic drone buzzing, alá Sun O))). Otherworldly vocals, buried deep in songs, add to the unsettling and dense aesthetic. All combined, we have a darkly compelling yet distinctly listener-unfriendly beast on our hands.
For new listeners, the immediately noticeable aspect of Black Cilice‘s music is the extreme, lo-fi production. While it will turn many away, this is clearly an artistic choice and one that bears exploring. The raw production of early black metal was borne out of necessity because bands were recording material on what were, essentially, glorified tape decks. These devices were simply overwhelmed by the cacophony of sound that engulfed them. While this meant that nuance was lost, a hypnotic and claustrophobic aura was created. Most bands have since jettisoned this technique as recording and mixing equipment has improved, but an important consideration was overlooked: what if the unique sound, which captured the rawness of feeling, could be exploited for artistic purposes? Black Cilice cleverly uses the aesthetic to heighten the sense of claustrophobia and realism, but to appreciate it requires a degree of listener buy-in. Transfixion of Spirits’ mix is, amazingly, slightly better than its predecessors. This makes it the band’s most accessible work. It’s still ridiculously compressed (with a DR of 5, there are cement blocks less dense), but partly clearing some of the murk enhances the melodies without sacrificing the choking atmosphere.
The album’s sheer density is also, paradoxically, a strength. I found the best way to listen to Transfixion of Spirits was to simply drift down its misty route. It’s too impenetrable to shine the flashlight of analysis through, and too forceful to attempt to navigate. I could talk about songs, but individually they don’t matter. I could mention specific moments, but it would be futile because the album must be experienced as a whole. Beneath the lo-fi surface, riffs are occasionally discernible but then drift out of view. Hooks dangle but then submerge. Vocals flow around and then dissolve as you attempt to decipher them. Because of the volatile and shifting nature of the music, this is not for the impatient. Yet I found this tortured journey intensely soothing and meditative. The drone and repetition create a profound sense of hypnotic peace, while the album reveals more and more secrets upon each listen.
With Transfixion of Spirits, Black Cilice have created an enigmatic and dense work of art. Everything, from the production to the song length, to the lack of discernible hooks, is designed to frighten off the uncommitted. Despite the slightly improved mix, this is still an extreme and raw form of music that will only ever appeal to a certain few. But if you surrender to the noise, and if you’re the kind of person who finds peace in chaos, listening to this album is like being lost in a dense and noisy cave, and finding blissful relief from the pointless distractions of the outside world.