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Though the metal community (the black metal community, anyway) has been fairly divided over the Burzum-influenced-yet-progressive post-rock flavored black nature metal of Wolves in the Throne Room, their last album proved to be a critical success even after deviating even further from the black metal norm. Hell, it even began to deviate significantly from the ambient black metal norm, what with the slow, doom-laden sections, atmospheric intro pieces, tribal drumming and of course those clean female vocals.
Malevolent grain seemingly takes that newfound experimentation (and the praise it received) and runs with it. Opener "A Looming Resonance" takes every aspect of the black metal formula and alters it enough to make the song seem like something from an entirely different genre, but I contend that this is still a black metal song. The drums are fast and propulsive, but the lack of a snare hit every quarter means this isn't your typical blastbeat. The drums gain intensity over the length of the song, but never devolve into what you'd call typical black metal drums. The riffs are exactly the same chord progressions you'd expect in an ambient, depressive black metal song. However, there's no tremolo picking to be found - what we have here is reverb-heavy strumming. The vocals are mid-range female vocals, not of the most technical variety but rather evoking some sort of indie band (think Band of Susans or something similar). The delivery, the intonation, the lyrics - these are 100% black metal. If these were screeched or rasped as usual, there would be no doubt about the genre. So, black metal has been turned on its head to make something truly interesting. It's glad to finally see this level of progression in the black metal scene, if you ask me. The song ends with an extended ambient outro that is done as well as the top-tier post-rock bands have accomplished.
The success of the first track makes the second, "Hate Crystal," that much more disappointing. Unlike "A Looming Resonance," this one explodes right out of your speakers, blastbeats and all. However, with a title like "Hate Crystal" I was honestly expecting the most brutal WitTR track yet; instead I'm treated to "traditional" ambient black metal that doesn't touch the technicality of Diadem, the atmosphere of Two Hunters, or the aggression of the angriest moments on either of those albums. The lack of a quality hook (like the mighty refrain in "I Will Lay Down My Bones....") makes this just one just plain drab. Eventually, just before the five minute mark, the snare transitions to accent beats rather than full-on blastbeats and a more memorable riff takes shape. Half a minute later, the bass drums back off of the double overtime, and we really get to see the meat of the riff. The rasping vocals subside and we are treated to some nice backing vocal harmonies while the riff contines to wind down with some pounding, tom-heavy drums. Again, another excellent outro takes place; I only wish the beginning of the song had been either more aggressive (as in the moment the band kicks into overdrive halfway through Two Hunters' "Cleansing") or more akin to "A Looming Resonance".
So, all in all I was very happy with this EP. Only the first half of "Hate Crystal" left me disappointed, which is about a quarter of the run time, accounting for the missing 25% of the score. Presuming the band decides to stick to the extremes of black metal ambience/progression and intensity and doesn't muddle so much in middle-of-the-road mediocrity like the first half of "Hate Crystal", Black Cascade is looking to be one of the better records to come out this year.