Though I appreciate black metal and listen to my fair share of the genre, generally I’m more of a death metal guy, so I’m particularly selective when it comes to choosing artists to engage my black metal fix. When perusing the promo portal, for some reason the band name, album title and unsigned status of American/Armenian trio Highland was enough to pique my interest and curiosity. Plying their trade with a minimum of fuss, Highland channel Scandinavian second wave influences, spiked with shades of the livewire thrashing energy of Absu, riff-driven groove of Vreid, and seething wallop of Mantar, delivering an aggressive and dynamic album. Los Angeles doesn’t seem like the most fitting location for Highland’s vicious black metal to evolve, but here the hungry young band eclipse the beautiful sunshine, vacuous celebrity lifestyles and pristine beaches of their home city, unleashing a blistering attack of spiteful blackened destruction and white hot intensity.
Highland don’t complicate matters through their cutthroat and traditionalist mindset, aiming their assault straight for the jugular throughout an uncompromising journey free of bells and whistles, but full of toughness, grit and deft dynamics. While Highland’s sound isn’t the most innovative or original style of black metal going around, they compensate through careful craftmanship and slick songwriting, lending the album tremendous variety without sacrificing one ounce of the band’s concentrated aggression and raw, appropriately grim disposition. Adroitly executing high octane bursts of infernal hellfire via scything tremolos, relentless drum battery and bleak, slicing riffs, Highland engineer a solid foundation from which to expand upon. Proving as catchy as it is relentlessly scathing, Loyal to the Nightsky’s accomplished strengths are testament to Highland’s well developed songwriting and exceptional guitar work, loaded with addictive, chilled-to-the-bone riffing and tons of variety.
Loyal to the Nightsky may excel in all its primal savagery, however it’s Highland’s impressive compositional prowess that gives them the edge and crucial point of difference over the competition. Strong variations in structure and tempo makes for a diverse and frequently enthralling experience, filled with top-notch riffs, church-burning grooves and malevolent shreds of melody. When shifting gears, Highland skillfully offset their searing, speedy potency with gloomy, robust slow downs and headbangable grooves, dripping with malice and razor sharp hooks. Excellent mid-paced number “Burning in Forgotten Times” benefits by keeping the speed in check and relying on its sinister melodies, grave atmosphere and creeping dissonant riffs to make a powerful and catchy statement. By contrast, the two-minute “Wallachian Night Terror” drops a perfectly concise blast of cold, deranged mayhem at top speed. The songwriting maintains a high standard from start to finish, with Loyal to the Nightsky’s second half featuring several notable highlights to match the album’s strong first movement. Frankly, there are no major concerns I can identify to drag the album down. Perhaps some tighter editing could have created a slightly leaner package, but despite its nearly hour long duration, Loyal to the Nightsky rarely relents or loses focus.
You want riffs, riffs and more riffs? Loyal to the Nightsky delivers them in spades, all in their beastly, unhinged form. “Abu Sindi” leans on its see-sawing leads and exceptional dynamics, switching between shadowy and ominous slower passages into ripping bouts of blasting chaos. Meanwhile, the gloomy, riff-driven majesty of “Immortal Queen” and the thrashing lunacy of “T.S.F.t.” are another pair of outstanding highlights. With their varied delivery and riff-focused approach, the guitar work of vocalist Gevork Matevosyan and Narek Avetisian forms the driving force behind the album, however, Matevosyan’s biting rasp and the exceptional drum work of Michael Semerdjian more than hold their own. Overall, I’d prefer a stronger snare tone, but otherwise the production is very serviceable, offering ample clarity, piercing tones and decent dynamics without dulling the band’s sound or ever feeling too polished.
Tired of the atmospheric, blackgazing offshoots of black metal and craving something a little more savage, orthodox and to the point? Highland has you covered, jamming a boot on your throat and keeping you pinned through a hugely impressive debut LP brimming with confidence, uncompromising aggression and intelligent songwriting that brings the riffs and blackened grooves tenfold. Loyal to the Nightsky may not come with the profile of more established acts, but Highland have punched well above their weight and triumphantly succeeded in crafting one of 2017’s finest black metal albums thus far.