Noisey

Utrecht’s Black Metal Scene Exposes Its Progressive Character

With a DIY mentality and a diverse and robust musical output, the Dutch city's black meal scene is steadily growing in stature, and rightly so.

by Luís Peña Pires
Apr 18 2018, 5:30pm

Photo of the Black Decades by Johan Boonstra

Despite a population of only about 345,000, throughout history, Utrecht has been one of the most important Dutch cities, and today, it's one of the most international cities in the Netherlands, because it’s home to the country’s largest train station and one of its largest universities. Second only to Amsterdam for its cultural relevance, Utrecht’s most notable music event is the Le Guess Who? festival, whose diverse and well crafted line-ups have turned into one of Europe's most interesting festivals, serving as a perfect complement to Roadburn in terms of proportion between heavy and non-heavy music. In the past decade, a fascinatingly uncommon black metal scene has grown within the city.

It’s a scene whose music and image arguably owe more to left-field 90's names like Ved Buens Ende than it does to their more traditional counterparts. During a time in which dutch politics have mostly been known for the rise of the right-wing populism of PVV (or the Party for Freedom, a Dutch nationalist party), Utrecht's 2018 municipal elections were won by the left-wing GroenLinks. In other words, Utrecht is not representative of the overall right-leaning political developments that have taken place in the country, and its black metal scene is not what one might imagine a local black metal scene to be. As I sat down in a cafe in Utrecht to talk with Laster's N.*, from one of the scene’s leading collectives, he elaborated on the contrast between this scene and others he has observed over the years. He said that while kinship among musicians is certainly common in local black metal communities, more often than not “it's built on hatred or a certain dislike. A dislike of either certain music, certain people, certain races, certain political agendas.” However, the foundation upon which the Utrecht scene is built is one of “mutual love for harsh, loud music in general. It's no longer about dislikes, it's about what we enjoy within the sounds we make,” he concluded.

A few days later, in an Amsterdam bar, I met with Johan van Hattum, Terzij De Horde's bassist and one of its lyricists. During the band's early days, they noticed that while it was not difficult to play shows in Utrecht, where they knew most promoters, they didn’t have the same experience in other cities. They were too black metal for hardcore punk bookers and too hardcore for black metal ones. According to Johan, this led them to say, “fuck it, we're going to do shows for bands that are not that easily pigeonholed.” With that, Footprints In The Void was born, an ongoing series of concerts put together by Terzij De Horde and local venue and rehearsal center dB's studios, in which a good chunk of the bands discussed below started rehearsing.

Footprints In The Void “brought all the great aggressive, atmospheric, dark, blackened bands to Utrecht that you knew about and really wanted to see. Bands like Fell Voices, Ash Borer, Vampillia,” N. told me. This meant not only a regular influx of challenging black metal artists over the years, but also that young local bands got to perform with them early on. It also help to set the tone of the scene, allowing its musicians to, in N.'s words, “freely embrace the progressive character of the genre.” He further explored his view on the genre's nature, adding that “black metal started as a progressive genre and then, thanks to the big hype, it became this conservative beast. Now, places like Utrecht opened up this progressive character that has been stowed away for too long to my taste.”

If you ever wonder what black metal would be like if its more experimental early practitioners had become its standard bearers, Utrecht might provide not just one, but many glimpses into this idea. At the end of the day, according to Johan, it's not a particular sound but passion that unites them, but “a passion for living, a passion for music, a passion for discovery, a passion for improvement in the broadest sense possible. If you didn't know the persons and listened to records from these bands, you'd never put them together, you'd never think that it's a collective of friends and individuals who share ideas.”

Terzij De Horde

When Terzij de Horde formed in 2010, they wrote a few sentences (they still appear on their Facebook page) that describe the band better than anyone ever could: “This is raging passion.” Their music, a blend of black metal with hardcore and screamo traits, is visceral and intense. This is particularly true as a description of their live performances, which can be so strong so as to conquer a crowd from a literature festival that hasn't heard black metal before—this actually happened during Lost & Found at Muziekgebouw in 2016, with audience members later telling the band that even though they had no idea what had happened, the “energy and the passion were such that they could connect,” Johan said.

The reason they were included in such an event ties back to the band's name, which roughly means “apart from the horde”. It was taken from a poem by dutch writer Hendrik Marsman, whose vitalism is a constant influence in the band's compositions. In 2015, they released A Crooked Flower In Cosmos' Flailing Mouth a book of Marsman poems translated to English for the first time by members of the band. The accompanying track, “Wacht / Lex Barbarorum,” is one of the highlights of the band's career so far.

They released their first full-length Self later in 2015 to a warm reception from fans and critics. Complex and conceptually ambitious, the album is not only an historical mark on the Utrecht scene itself—it led to a release event at that year's Le Guess Who? and to their fantastic performance at Roadburn the year after—but also proved that they are able to properly translate that burning live energy into the studio work. From talking to Johan, you get the impression that every single facet of expression as part of Terzij De Horde is treated very seriously. This is captured by his argument that underlying it all, there's “an aspect of our being that finds it necessary to create and construct, instead of being only a criticizer or a vapid taker of things. You need to deliver something, to add something to life in order to be a more complete person.”

Photo of Terzij De Horde by Mirko Meerwaldt

Laster

Laster's story is one of change. Their first demo “Wijgeer & Narreman” was the result of a jam between W. and N. in which the latter used riffs he had previously written for Northward (an atmospheric black metal project he had with S., who joined Laster after the demo), but had been deemed “too warm” by the band's drummer. Their first full-length De verste verte is hier, already written as a trio, further incorporated elements of shoegaze and post punk to the demo's atmospheric black metal and gave rise to the “obscure dance music” tag, mainly due to its title track. Last year, they took a gigantic step with the release of sophomore album Ons vrije fatum, where they further add elements that can be traced back to the influence of artists like Ved Buens Ende, Fleurety, or Virus. By that time, their lyrical approach had also undertaken considerable mutations.

After the Faust-themed lyrics of the demo, the first album focused on a “dualistic theme built on a very personal and individualistic perspective,” N. explains, pointing out how this is reflected in the artwork crafted by the guitarist / vocalist. In between full-lengths, there was “Vederlicht Verraad” in a split with Wederganger. If one looks at the song literally, “it's about a girl drawing circles in the snow.” The girl initially attaches a huge importance to these circles but eventually questions whether this is really the story she wants to tell, and the song then evokes the melting of ice and the coming of spring. As N. explains, it's “kind of us warming up a little, becoming less cold and individual-focused.” By the time Ons vrije fatum came around, the focus was on the “individual in relation with those around him. No longer are we looking inward but we are looking outwards.”

Ons vrije fatum is a black metal album that deals with “love, friendship, social pressures, and anxiety.” It reaches its peak in the second half, which perfectly illustrates the idiosyncratic entity Laster has become. For instance, “Helemaal naar huis” uses black metal a la Czral as its linguistic building block, includes an excellent saxophone passage, poetic spoken word, and tells a story of anxiety with the rather dutch flavor of mentioning stolen bikes. The last two songs of the record, “De roes na” and “Er wordt op mij gewacht” tell personal stories with a cinematic feel induced by explicit invocations of Utrecht's main canal and tower. Above it all, the record includes some of the best music within these fringes of black metal released last year.

Photo of Laster by Daan Paans

Verwoed

When it starts to seem like Utrecht only yields black metal sounds full of influences from other genres, Verwoed shows that this is not the case. The solo project of Erik B. caused quite the stir in 2016 with the release of its debut EP Bodemloos, impactful to the point that its first ever live show, organized by Footprints In The Void at dB's, sold out well in advance. The same venue would host the also sold-out debut show from Black Cilice a few months later, once again with organization by Footprints, this time in collaboration with promoter Tenebrous Haze.

Less out there than the other bands on this list, Verwoed displayed in Bodemloos a careful craftsmanship of black metal that is equal parts melodic and asphyxiating. When I ask Johan what strikes him the most about the album, he says that “this is the closest reflection of the Erik that I know. That doesn't mean that he's a cold, distant person, but he's someone who thinks a lot, who keeps to himself.” With their next album reportedly coming out in the not-so-distant future, Verwoed's live performances have earned an increasing amount of praise for their cohesiveness, something which will surely be on display when they play the upcoming edition of Roadburn. For their second performance in the festival, they have been chosen for the “Roadburn presents” highlight, succeeding Laster in that distinction.

Black Decades

While Black Decades has have only been active for six years, its instrumental section has been playing together in different projects (such as Cathode) for the better part of the last twenty years, albeit mostly outside black metal. In 2016, they released This Hideous Life, a furious statement of blackened crust that does not let go from start to finish. Last year, their original singer Mark Van de Maat left and was replaced by Johan from Terzij de Horde, with whom the band has been composing since. I caught them opening for Alkerdeel with the new formation some months ago and got the impression that the new tracks leaned a bit more toward death metal, something that Johan confirms will be the case in the upcoming record, adding that “we want to have more breathing room, more space to let the riffs be the riffs.”

When I prompt him for a comparison on writing lyrics for Black Decades and Terzij De Horde, he points out that “Black Decades gives me space to be very direct in my anger and in my emotions.” Befitting of the crust influence of their sound, the lyrics approach political topics, with the upcoming album tackling themes such as “animal rights and the necessity or lack thereof of borders,” adding that even when it touches on the personal, it's all about “struggle, destruction, and overcoming adversity. On the one hand it's a very common punk hardcore theme, on the other hand, it's what life is. Why would you not do that?”

Project Nefast

When I first discovered the then-called Nefast through “Discomfort”, I had mixed feelings. Amidst a cascade of interesting influences, it seemed clear that it reflected a band still searching for its artistic identity. As it turns out, what they were missing was a good dose of drone, not exactly the Sunn O))) type, but more the one practiced by Gnod. This direction was hinted at in their second album Dogma and properly explored in last year's SEX MONEY POWER, whose reception was such that they now find themselves billed for Roadburn. Their last album is also particularly relevant to the scene's history.

In the release show of SEX MONEY POWER, not only did Project Nefast play the new record, but they also presented the so-called Project Nefast Drone Ensemble, in which the trio conducted around twenty musicians from both Utrecht and elsewhere in the country. Both Johan and N. played in the ensemble, with the latter saying that the whole experience was “gorgeous. It was a celebration of friendship, a celebration of sound,” and that everyone who played there “was struck with this weird feeling that they participated in something special, really unique, and truly local. That moment was to me one of the many confirmations that we have something truly special going on here, in the sense of the characterization of black metal. We all know black metal, we've been there, we've done that, and we're still doing that. But the combination of this vile, cold genre and what happened with the drone ensemble and what's happening in Utrecht in general, it's something unique that I haven't seen anywhere before.”

Grey Aura

Consider a story about a man traveling from The Netherlands to his family's home country of Spain in order to witness the works of El Greco at Toledo's Cathedral. Imagine now that two people decide to write a novel with this premise, as well as four black metal records as accompanying pieces. That's what Grey Aura started last year with 1: Gelige, traumatische zielsverrukking.

Regardless of how one feels about the ambitious project, its first installment was a success. Somehow, it manages to go coherently from flamenco-singing in opener “Martinete”, to twenty minutes of experimental black metal that include trombone, guest vocals of various styles, flamenco themes on acoustic guitar, and samples of spoken word written for the occasion. It's scary to think that the two men responsible for the concept and every instrument other than drums and trombone are only 22 and 23 years old.

Verval

Outside of the dB's, the second most important place in the Utrecht scene is arguably the Catacomben studio, owned by Laster's drummer W., and where all Laster records so far came from (the next one is set to break this tradition). Also recorded or produced there were records by Project Nefast, Grafjammer and a lot of W.'s other projects, such as the now defunct White Oak, and his solo project Willoos, which started as depressive black metal and has grown to include elements of post rock and electronics in its compositions.

The most recent release from the studio is from “Wederkeer”, the debut of the newest project of the drummer/producer, Verval, where he reunites with former White Oak partner R. Schmidt. The record was released earlier this year by Canadian label Tour de Garde and displays neo classical elements amidst the atmospheric black metal that characterizes most of W.'s output outside of Laster. The record features guest vocals from Galgenvot with whom W. plays in Nevel, an atmospheric black metal project whose debut Teloorgang came out in 2014. Later this month, Verval's guitarist, bassist and cellist R. Schmidt will debut yet another project, Wesenwille (with Wrang drummer, Valr), which plasys a considerably less atmospheric style of black metal than the one usually found in his projects. Think of an even more restless, clean-produced Svartidauði and you get a small idea.

Cer

Earlier I alluded to the particularly eventful evening when Black Cilice played their first-ever live show in front of a sold-out dB's, accompanied by dutch artists Folteraar, Faceless Entity, and Warden. While that show was eventually co-organized by Footprints In The Void at dB's main venue, it was originally supposed to be a rehearsal room show put together by Tenebrous Haze. These extremely intimate shows used to be a regular occurrence, often organized by the somewhat related group Violence Action. Regardless of who was putting them, that was the place to see “the under underground,” as Johan puts it. This sub-level was a good way to witness live appearances by bands from the extremely prolific Dutch tape label The Throat, which specializes in raw black metal.

One of the new members of their roster is Cer, a one-man project from Utrecht whose first full-length “Void Emissions” was released last year and has that lo-fi quality one would expect given the label. On top of this, it can best be described as an even more twisted and relentless take on the sound of Darkspace. Cer's composer, R. v. R. is also active in a few other solo projects, chiefly among them Seer's Fire, where the black metal takes a back seat to some keyboard-driven soundscapes with a background of epic fantasy.

Kaffaljidhma

Among The Throat's vast roster stands another purveyor of fascinating black metal from Utrecht, Kaffaljidhma. If you happen to stumble head-first into their demo “II” and are not particularly a fan of the noiser fringes of black metal (their last outing, “IV” is much more accessible), the band's name might be easier to pronounce than their music to hear. If, on the other hand, proper lo-fi atmospheric black metal is the kind of thing that gets you going, you might want to keep the Kaffaljidhma name on your radar. In the last two years, this one-man project by multidisciplinary artist T.J. released four one-track demos of harsh atmospheric black metal with a penchant for cosmic themes, as clearly displayed by the song-titles and the beautiful, minimalistic artwork.

Kaffaljidhma can also work as a gateway for the myriad of other projects of its creator, which range from drone, synthpop and, of course, black metal. Highlights of the latter include the melodic and somewhat soothing atmosphere of “Primitive Casket”, the debut EP from Olxane, another solo project and, on the other end of the spectrum, Mirre. Mirre is a trio whose harsh but rewarding raw black metal is not so much noisy as it is drenched in noise to the point that everything else on this article sounds considerably clean by comparison.

*Some names in this piece are listed as single initials in this piece to protect the artists' privacy.

Luís Pires is a freelance writer and physicist. You can find him intermittently on Twitter.