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Mysterious, evocative new black metal - 92%

Erebusmag, June 19th, 2011

The concept of “authenticity” has long been a thorny nexus of contention among metal fans, no matter what genre one primarily follows or considers oneself to speak for. For the last decade, at the very least, I believe this idea and its relation to black metal bands has been the primary locus of stressful argumentation (and hasty or shallow attempts to even define the related questions) in the scene as a whole and it’s not too difficult to understand why. Black metal, from the very beginning of the whatever-wave coming out of Norway in the early ‘90s was supposed to be about primal expression, a certain return to one’s roots, a looking backward to Bathory, Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, etc. for stimulation as the death metal scene at the time grew increasingly cloying, suffocating and shallow beneath the weight of innumerable Swede-death or Florida-death clone bands. Initial freshness and sparkling inspiration from death metal (in itself a reaction against thrash) grew into a sterile boredom and artistic frustration as the entire world was drowned in unoriginality. So, in league with a root-seeking route of escape there existed the ideal of such searches being a method of returning to music that was somehow more authentic – this in the sense of a sound that more accurately reflected what was happening in the musicians’ lives at the time. Instead of playing a form of music that had grown increasingly stylized and flailingly ineffectual, a repetition of single cell music motifs combined in infinite forms (never original, never emotional, losing all atmosphere, losing a direct contact with the experiences and thoughts of the musicians), one must return to the basic building blocks of metal and build upward again on a path of singular, original evolution. That was the ideal at the time, anyway.

As it goes with most forms of music, there were a few strict adherents, a few originators, a few brave players (I’m mainly thinking of Darkthrone, Burzum, early Emperor, early Enslaved, maybe Abigor) and then as the ideas these people produced like mutations of ancient viruses spread, newly virulent, the typical process of proliferation and replication (or simple duplication) again reared its timeless, malignant head. These mechanisms of replication seem to be timeless in art: one originator, a thousand clones “influenced” by the new concepts. If the original theories of the primary expressers are in themselves mutations on timeless (within metal’s history itself – and so, within a certain history, not timeless at all) themes, these memes seek further mutation as they spread to the internal worlds of other musicians. How many musicians have the means to further alter the proliferating memes, however, and what force or process is involved in this reshaping? In my opinion it mainly sources from one primary function: the personal imagination, the original experience and honest, emotional expression of the receiving musician.

If an artist doesn’t reflect his own life and strive to communicate his own emotions in his music do his creations have “value” in relation to musical tropes that relentlessly seek innovation and new mutations through the eye of novel, personal reflection? I don’t believe so. In relation to other concepts, tastes or desires for pleasure in music these creations of course have a different form of “value.” These concepts and tastes are in themselves entirely personal and subjective. This is why arguments about “value” in art are, at least in my opinion, almost completely superfluous as one tries to hint at or play with the seductive forces of what is, for most people, a concrete clarity and direction in a perceived objectivity.

What does any of this have to do with Ash Borer?

A little, at least for me. It’s mainly because in the Northwest United States there has risen a distinct genre of black metal mainly descending, as far as I can tell, from the bands Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room. A few names exist for this: Pac-NW black metal, Cascadian black metal (because of the exact location of the bands, inhabiting Northern California, Oregon and Washington state, centered on the Cascade Range of mountains – in itself a romantic ideal and concept, a signifier), etc. These bands have a readily identifiable source sound or initially-inspiring basic cell of musical ideas – mainly condensed around or circling the use of long, droning, slowly moving, melancholy guitar melodies played over rapid drumbeats that don’t often slip into death metal-inspired double bass. Add certain elements from post-rock, doom and a stylistic aesthetic seemingly derived from Discharge and Doom-referring crust punk and anarchist fashion: voila, one has Cascadian black metal. Of course this is a cliché and doesn’t actually define anything, it simply exists as an idea that people can tie other perceptions to and somehow obtain judgments of musical concepts and expression in bizarre aesthetic calculations of “influence” and idiom.

Ash Borer has already been placed in this genre category – perhaps against their will. Why would any honest musician who sees avenues for innovation in his work want to pigeonholed or aesthetically “defined” unless, at the very beginning of one’s work, it allows easy definitions for listeners to latch onto in a process of seeking out new music – a method of “understanding” which can later be shed or altered?

Among most of these bands I tend to mostly gravitate toward Ash Borer because something in my personality responds to their melodies. This is certainly completely subjective, someone else might remain utterly unmoved by their music – hearing nothing in it, feeling nothing because of it. I believe it to be supremely, originally (at least in this genre category) emotive, its melancholy is disseminated in an effective fashion, the melodies don’t overstay their immediacy and fertility even as they are cast outwards and expand through (Burzum-following) repetition and tendencies towards trance. As the music is certainly evocative (building outreaching, immersive atmosphere) and supremely effective in its emotional communication, I can only anticipate, in the minds of its creators, that it directly reflects their own experiences and sentiments. Why? At least for me, it’s because I can locate their melodies in any direct, linear development of tradition. They are combining tried and true (boring) tropes in an effort to influence the emotions of listeners, outside of the structures of linking melodies and genre-defined songwriting. So: authenticity, originality, music worth listening to.

The songwriting displayed here is also worth mentioning. Ash Borer’s previous efforts hinted at a maturity to come but they were still hesitant reachings towards an original sense of melodic expression and structural prowess. On this self-titled debut album I believe the band has mostly obviated these thorny issues (so many bands never escape them – in fact I believe the majority of groups never do). The songwriting is now practiced, adroit, flexible, effective. If one is interested in current trends in American black metal, bands that are displaying these trends while simultaneously attempting to escape them, or simply suggestive, depressive music that rings with a hollowly echoing, yearning grasp towards open freedom of ringing musical reflection, I suppose one could do a lot worse than this Ash Borer release.