There are few things in this world as pleasant as raw black metal. The kind that barely registers as music to the ears of the unwashed. The kind that gives all of your family members doubts about your competency. The kind that elicits concerned glares from passers-by. You know what I’m talking about. So it was with great anticipation that I plucked Finland’s Celestial Grave from the AMG promo vault for a look-see. Considering the gorgeous album artwork accompanying debut album Secular Flesh, I felt secure in my choice ov blackened black metal.
Celestial Grave‘s formula consists of three basic building blocks. Step one, evoke a palpable air of despair with trem-picked guitars and purposefully low-fidelity production. Then, apply howling screams and rattling roars to burrow the listener deeper into the haunting atmosphere. Lastly, offer the slightest glimmer of hope within a seemingly endless void through the use of delicate melody. The formula as it’s applied isn’t new, but it is executed with grace, spread out across four sprawling numbers in a tight thirty-two minutes.
At first, I regarded Secular Flesh as an album of paradoxes. It’s considerably shorter than many black metal albums like this one—for reference, Paara‘s brilliant Riitti packages the same number of tracks into forty-two minutes—yet this feels just as whole, just as fulfilled. Tracks entrench themselves in melancholy and woe, and yet embedded deep within these thralls of misery runs a sparkling effervescence. The closing duo of “Gasping from the Lips of Night” and “Calamitous Love” are perfect examples of both contradictions. “Gasping from the Lips of Night” demonstrates immeasurable sorrow and anguish, but at vaguely defined thresholds melodies I would sooner associate with more uplifting music pierce through. “Calamitous Love” is downright romantic in its dramatic expression, at once haunting and warm, somehow refusing to feel overlong at ten-plus minutes as you melt into its embrace. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Upon my fifth or sixth spin, it hit me. Secular Flesh is alive. It should come as no surprise that something as vivid and organic as this would be capable of both negative and positive emotion, both separate entities yet dependent on each other’s existence. But accessing this undeniable condition of Celestial Grave‘s music requires of its audience two sacrifices. The first is time, and it comes in the form of the first two tracks. “Lamentation” and the title track are both excellent slabs of black metal as far as pure songwriting is concerned. However, at some point, these twelve minutes only serve to accentuate how much more successful the second half is, which in turn weakens the record as a whole.
The second sacrifice is you. You have to give yourself entirely to this album if you want to feel its pounding heartbeat. It’s almost as if the album needs you to grieve with it, to experience every heartbreaking wail as if it were your own. Audiences will not be able to force themselves to like Secular Flesh, nor will they be able to enjoy it fully without letting it take control.
Those who are willing to relinquish themselves to Secular Flesh will find endless enjoyment of the material Celestial Grave has so intricately penned. Those who aren’t will nevertheless find themselves face to face with a raw black metal record that is beautiful, though imperfect. The first half holds the record back, and if I nitpick I would also mention that the low-fi production does not always enhance the music, especially as it pertains to the muffled drums. Regardless, Celestial Grave represent black metal in fine form even in the face of stiff competition.