Norse – Ascetic Review

A month ago in the low coast range hills, I found Hellinsia homodactylus folded beneath the lamplight – the modestly named plain plume moth. Mute white in the shape of a Beksiński cross, the insect appears impossible when still, betraying the feathery wings that gasp in the still pockets between oak leaves and wisp in the pupil of the ash-yellowed moon. Theirs is a gaunt beauty, beauty which Norse have both embodied and spurned in their last seven years of stark and intimate black metal. Since 2014’s Pest EP instrumentalist and primary composer Forge (Robin Stone) has developed a knotty yet spacious sound that pulls from Gorguts and Deathspell Omega, accentuated with idiosyncratic production that revels in both rawness and painstaking precision. It is with these strange tools that Ascetic continues Norse’s – to crib a phrase – “accelerated subversion.”

Forge and bassist Kyle Southcott play with a ritual diligence that borders on trance. Chitinous melodies imbricate above Forge’s complex drum work and flick faltering wings in the rapt gaps between percussive bouts. Southcott’s angular bass lines sprawl and scuttle through the record, rasping through pitted distortion. In “Parasite Warmongers,” the right and left guitars chirp and whine in call and response over the bass’s growl. Adric Ryan’s accompanying gasps and shrieks are just as persistent and focused, shamanic commands through the fluttering screen. But Norse are not just any black metal band; they pick away at expectations and erode the commonplace. Far more impactful than any instrumental performance on Ascetic is the studio manipulation, most notable in “Radical Depression.” In this brief reprieve from the album’s intensity, numerous production shifts produce a textural collage, alternately muting and distorting the drums, vocals, and guitar.

These textural experiments are Ascetic’s greatest offering and greatest weakness. They’re savored in the record’s repetitive, deliberate melodies, which are rarely left bare of manipulation. “Fearless Filth Seeker” opens with a quiet melody planed down to a thin veneer by an aggressive volume limit, while the end of “Zero Insight” defaces melody through a flanger effect. None of these timbral excursions feel inconsequential or tacked-on, but in the absence of particularly strong songs or melodies, their ubiquity appears as a mask. Running a simple melody through a few pedals creates interest where otherwise there might not be much, and the more I listen to Ascetic, the more I feel that its songs are rather unambitious. The record is mid-paced and revolves around contrast between these steady, uncomfortable melodies and gusts of intensity, both of which Norse have played with plenty before. Especially compared to 2017’s The Divine Light of a New Sun, Ascetic feels like a marked retraction of Norse’s ambitions.

In its modesty, Ascetic still has much to offer, especially to listeners less inured to the harshness of bleeding edge black metal. Like Ars Magna Umbrae, Norse pursue their diligent dissonance through clear-cut repeating melodies—not surprising for a band that began their career closer to Dissection than Dodecahedron. Album highlights “Fearless Filth Seeker” and “Useless” make much of their central melodies, both as a structural touchstone and a subject of timbral experiments. Despite their idiosyncratic sounds, they’re easy to follow and quite memorable, and Norse’s sound is as distinctive on Ascetic as ever before.

Any band as peculiar as Norse is a joy to hear from, and though I have come away from Ascetic less impressed than I had expected, I wouldn’t say it’s in any way a bad record. Ascetic is a new experiment for the band, just one focused on texture at the expense of text. What’s here is all right, but Ascetic lacks the driven and captivating riffing of The Divine Light of a New Sun, replacing it with an array of interesting but unsatisfying pedalboard tricks. Like Dodecahedron, Norse are experimenting with production as composition, and I’d never want to discourage a band from doing just that. Yet Ascetic falls short when I had hoped to see it take flight.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Transcending Obscurity Records
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: October 8th, 2021

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