A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.
One of the most intriguing recent trends in black metal doesn't even have a clearly codified name, which is strange considering that heavy metal fans really love to classify genres (a moment of silence for Lykathea Aflame and progressive technical brutal death metal). There are those who call it "cosmic black metal," those who call it "space black metal," and those who simply call it sci-fi themed black metal, but regardless of what you want to call it, it's nothing new. Black metal and its associations have more or less always flirted with stars and space, so much so that, back in 1994 in Norway, Arcturus titled their first EP Constellation. But the first to deliberately abandon Planet Earth were two guys and a gal from Berne, who in 1999 decided to bring the devil's music to the next level, giving life to what remains a beacon and manifest for the entire "movement": Darkspace.
Since the Swiss trio tends to be extremely cagey and resistant to any direct contact with the press and the public, we only know the bare essentials about the band (even though they formed almost 20 years ago). Wroth, Zhaaral, and Zorgh are two guitarists and a bassist, respectively. The first two are leaders of cult one-man bedroom bands (Paysage D'Hiver for Wroth; Sun of the Blind for Zhaaral), and all three of them have an obsession with black cardboard slipcases with white dots. Only Wroth acknowledges his birth name, and the others don't even do that. And that's it. Theydon't give interviews, they play live once in a blue moon, and they update their Facebook page roughly three times a year. And yet Darkspace's position in the modern black metal economy is of absolute importance.
The trio was initially inspired by another seminal Swiss group, Samael, who on their 1996 album Passage had begun using a synthetic drum kit and begun to combine the classic themes of black metal with hints of astronomy. But Samael, while maintaining an "extreme" sound, also clearly distanced themselves from black metal itself, orienting themselves towards their own electronic and industrial influences (which made sense commercially speaking—after all, The Downward Spiral was a product of these years).
In the case of Darkspace, however, it was the complete opposite: Wroth and company made use of these ideas in order to bring a genre that had already started off cold and detached down to zero kelvin, aiming for complete dehumanization. Following a digitally-released 2002 demo, in 2003, the unprepared world of underground metal fans was violently shaken awake by the band's debut full-length, Darkspace I. With a drum-machine consistently spiraling past 120 bpm, their formless guitars painted the void of deep space, in which inhuman and indistinguishable screams are the only trace of life. Compared with the cruelty and impenetrability of Darkspace's work, Alien's Nostromo and Pandorum's Elysium seem like safe havens.
From the release of Darkspace I onwards, the number of black metal outfits devoted to science fiction has only increased, and almost 15 years later the number of groups and projects that regularly release quality material in this vein is decidedly noteworthy. It's as if heavy metal music fans have suddenly realized that fantasy and science fiction are close relatives, and that nothing is more inhospitable, nihilistic, and misanthropic than the cosmic void. At the same time, space allows nearly infinite expressive freedom: From pure narrative to a more scientific, speculative, or philosophical approach, these artists have started to define new ways to confront the vault of heaven and all that is hidden beyond it.
One such great narrator of deep space is Tony Parker (known as Dis Pater), who helms Midnight Odyssey. Originally from Brisbane, Dis Pater has carved out a place for himself in the overcrowded black metal scene thanks to his exemplary compositional skills. Starting off as a simple atmospheric black metal project with 2008's The Forest Mourners demo, it was on the debut album, Funerals From The Astral Spheres (I, Voidhanger, 2011), that Dis Pater made himself known to an international public. The album exhibits very strong darkwave and neoclassical components (including the exorbitant use of keyboards and filters) and unfolds over an expansive hour; its successor is even longer. For each of his releases, Dis Pater develops a coherent and organic concept, telling stories in which the main characters are the "external forces, natural forces of the cosmos, many of which are currently unknown,"and enriching the packaging with illustrations that he himself has painted. Midnight Odyssey's supersized combination of atmospheric black metal and darkwave succeeds in transforming compositional logorrhea, the greatest limitation of this artist, into a point of strength.
Midnight Odyssey's I, Voidhanger labelmate, 27-year-old Californian Jacob Buczarski of Mare Cognitum, takes a decidedly more synthetic, atmospheric, and more properly metal approach, confronting the cosmos in a more reflective and philosophical way. The West Coast musician made waves with his third full-length, Phobos Monolith, which saw him unite excellent guitar instincts with a sort of cosmic romanticism; as he said himself, "romantic and naturally esoteric interpretations are extremely common in black metal, and space is just another aspect of nature." Buczarski's vision remains consistent in his side projects and collaborations as well, for example, 2016's split release between Mare Cognitum and the like-minded Ukrainian-American project Aureole, Resonance: Crimson Void (Avantgarde Music), which follows the story of Alunar, a citadel around which Aureole's debut album revolved.
Speaking of Avantegarde Music's impressive label roster, Progenie Terrestre Pura also stands out for their success in seamlessly mixing extreme metal and electronica with synthesizers and drum machines, in the service of black metal as much as it is purer psy-ambient. Electronica and metal have ceased to be antithetical genres for some time now, but the synthesis between art and technology as it is now being performed by these two guys from Belluno, Italy is without precedent. Even the newspapers that usually snub the genre have taken an interest, even as most of the metal world has given these strange creatures a more tepid welcome.
Continuing to rummage through Avantgarde's catalog, we can't not mention Mesarthim. Over the past two years, the two prolific Australians who present themselves to the world as "." and "." have somehow managed to release one single, two albums, and five EPs. Much like Progenie Terrestre Pura, they too have toyed with both black metal and electronica, aiming this time towards trance, which taken on a more prominent role with each successive recording. Their latest release, Presence, recounts a journey of linear cosmic exploration backed up with a relatively solid scientific basis, which explores the Great Filter, the Kardašëv scale, and finally, the presence of alien life in the universe, which for the band seems to coincide with Eschaton.
Greece's Spectral Voice, on the other hand, has a completely different sense of poetics; removed from hard scientific notions, band leader Ayloss prefers to privilege speculation. The project shares not only a label with Mare Cognitum (with whom Ayloss collaborated on a split, Sol, in 2013) but also a more humanistic approach to the writing of music. Spectral Lore features a strong philosophical vein, which sometimes turns toward Planet Earth, but more often takes the road towards the cosmos via a heady combination of black metal, synthesizers, unlimited expansion, and songs that travel swiftly between seven and eighteen minutes of duration.
In terms of other black metal bands seamlessly infiltrating the cosmic context, Finland's Oranssi Pazuzu is perhaps the biggest. Born in Tampere ten years ago, they have had the idea to combine black metal, with its indispensable demonology (Pazuzu was a demon from Ancient Babylon), and psychedelic rock from the late 1960s and early 1970s, ("Oranssi," which means "orange-colored," is actually a reference to Orange amps, a symbol of psychedelic rock). The result does an insane amount of damage, bolstered by very long songs, very long pedal boxes, and very long hair, distinctive traits that amount to albums with titles like Muukalainen Puhuu (Speaking in Alien), or Kosmonument. And when they aren't getting into space, they find plenty of space for drugs, preferable hallucinogens. Compared with all of the others that preceded them in this article, Oranssi Pazuzu are not as interested in the mysteries of deep space, or in its narrative, as much as they are in chemically expanding their own perceptions of the self—an extremely noble goal, especially if it makes you get into the studio and record a masterpiece like Valonielu.
This list could be even longer (I haven't even brought up the drone/industrial experimentation of Tome Of The Unreplenished, or Alrakis' more depressive black metal currents) but I'll spare you for now. The general impression I want to leave you with is that, while "cosmic black metal" is a fun concept, in reality, this supposed subgenre unites artists who are profoundly different—but interesting enough that I hope it will continue to grow and develop.
As we've seen here, black metal musicians have only begun to catch a glimpse of Hell below their feet—let alone the heavens from which they've drawn such cosmic inspiration.
Andrea is one of the lords of the Aristocrazia Webzine.