Deathspell Omega‘s new album is an Orwellian critique of today’s ideological Left presented as an address from would-be demagogues to their cadres. Some may say that the band’s commentary can be applied to either side of the political spectrum, that both Left and Right are equally confident in the virtue of their assertions to the exclusion of all others. That may be so, especially as pertains to the nature of totalitarianism and propaganda through the ages. The difference between Left and Right, however – and I bring up these polarities only as a convenient way of discussing two opposed lines of thinking – is that what the Right considers to be proper applies only to a niche subset of interests and therefore remains localized. On the other hand, the Left’s model of propriety is inherently universalist, reducing all humanity to a common putty, homogeneous and indistinguishable in all respects, and hence fit to be inscribed with intellectual formulations which may or may not have a basis in reality. But be that as it may, that the Left presumes to speak for all men, imbues it, at least in its own collective consciousness, with a legitimacy and a hubris far greater than what the parochial Right can muster. With this charge fabricated from self-serving pretenses, then, the Left proceeds in solipsistic bliss, bullish in its moral rectitude, to enlist, to admonish, to purge, and to vilify. The high ground belongs to it and it alone, built as it is from the loftiest utopian ideals, and from this bridgehead it conducts its operations, seeing fit to consign those who fail to toe its line – frequently, even those from among its own ranks, for after all ideological purity can never be pure enough – to the wrong side of history.
Deathspell Omega can’t help but be a product of their time and therefore it is unlikely that their guns only accidentally happen to be trained on the most conspicuous leftist cultural developments of the last thirty years. Thematically, The Furnaces of Palingenesia is as unesoteric as the band have ever been. These observations will resound with all those who with keen eyes and common sense not so common have discerned the preoccupation with the self that has come to be the hallmark of post-millennial life, where individualism is cynically promoted as an exercise of free will but is in fact group-think acting guilelessly in the service of greater interests. True to their own tradition, Deathspell Omega refuse to rail against this sorry state of affairs, instead considering man’s squalor as his native raiment, fit to be celebrated and even embellished with fresh decrepitude, as the noose which he has woven with delusions of grandeur now tightens through warm and welcoming degrees around his own neck.
These ideas are fleshed out in no small detail by the band and enunciated as an unwavering monologue unconcerned with the punctuation and emphasis of traditional song-lyric formats. The music itself has influenced for better or worse nearly all black metal and death metal since the Kenose EP of ten years ago; however, the question that continues making the rounds in underground circles is whether Deathspell Omega in their zeal to stand out from amid a stale black metal genre have burned one bridge too many and if their oeuvre is even representative of black metal anymore.
Here are a few qualities above and beyond stylistic devices that I believe black metal should overwhelmingly possess:
(1) Mood: A much-maligned and a much-abused term, mood is in fact what separates black metal from its immediate cousin in death metal. How it is conveyed separates the bawdy from the sublime, but the best black metal is more felt than heard; not coincidentally, then, it is also best experienced during certain seasons and at certain times of the day.
(2) Duality of tone: Black metal, fully realized as a genre in its own right, allows melodic expressions of music more readily than other genres of metal. This glimpse of beauty however is contemporary with harsher undertones; like blood dripping from a wolf’s fangs as he sits enthroned inside a palace of eviscerated flesh, magnificent in power yet terrible in what he portends, pregnant with uneasy dichotomy, and ultimately a simile for just how tenuous, and yet, beautiful and necessary, too, the relationship between life and death in nature truly is.
(3) Continuity of movement: Black metal can be riff-based like the first wave, or it can utilize repetition as songwriting trope, but in either case it advocates a continuity of movement. Disruption in this flow may conceivably contribute to either mood or tonal variation, but it is never an end in itself. What has been described as the wallpaper effect elsewhere is anathema to black metal; that black metal can ensorcell as well as it can invigorate should not be used as an excuse for lapsing into a miserable quiescence. The best black metal always rouses one to the cusp of emotional vitality, albeit across an emotional spectrum wider than that available to other genres of heavy metal.
(4) Transcendent theater: The best black metal rises above the stuff of daily reckoning. Be it the advanced themes of Emperor or the primal convulsions of Beherit, true black metal brings the mind out of the material and into the plane of the ritual, the aetherial, and the cosmic. In this much, it can be regarded escapist, but this escapism isn’t trivial; rather it is the same fiercely ascetic state of mind that has influenced, and in turn been influenced by, religious liturgy through time. Perhaps it is this shared lineage with traditional perspectives, arbitrarily designated to be superficial to human needs by the secular materialism of the present time, that makes black metal amenable to being used for explicitly conservative purposes.
Deathspell Omega’s sound does not conform to any particular regional aesthetic as black metal goes; while enjoying music is not predicated on taxonomical concerns, the band ostensibly still considers themselves black metal, therefore it is only fair to judge this album as such. The Furnaces of Palingenesia remains rooted in the post-Si Monumentum style, meaning, this is still intensely dissonant and syncopated music; however, it is also more recognizable as a batch of songs than anything the band has done in this period. Where previously identity, slim as it was, resulted from clean, arpeggiated bookends soon enough subsumed in a welter of clashing tones, the stuffing of this album benefits from a more rounded and accessible aspect to riffs. Riffsets themselves are resolved into arrangements easier to anticipate than before, while the rhythm, chopped up as ever, at times carries a groove that helps to dilute the more volatile tendencies of songs.
However, the mood derived from these technical flourishes is not one normally associated with black metal. The frequent addition of coloring notes to chords coupled with punk rock-style strumming and picking has the effect of brightening what otherwise ought to be uncompromisingly dark music. Perhaps it is pertinent to mention here that Deathspell Omega, over the past decade, have concerned themselves thematically with the plight of man, fallen, forsaken, debauched, undeserving of grace and beyond redemption. A vision tethered to the earth such as this is liable to be informed with the sentiment of melancholy, but from there is only a step before it changes into a kind of wallowing narcissism; after all, a man who laughs in the face of adversity is heroic, but he who derives happiness out of self-pity is an embarrassment and a cancer.
On previous albums, chaos prevailed against order, so that entire songs resembled one unanimous churning until the odd sliver of melody pierced through seemingly as an afterthought. That balance has been appreciatively changed in favor of the melodic on The Furnaces of Palingenesia which, on the surface, should make contrast or duality of tone be heard in greater relief; the thinking here being that a drop of melody barely makes a ripple in a sea of white noise, but a violent tear in the fabric of melodic progression should make those melodies resonate even further. This never quite materializes in the way that it should; the obsessive tinkering with time signatures ensures that no such melodic progression achieves its full potential before it is interrupted with a spastic dissonance, which in turn renders said dissonance meaningless. It is no coincidence that the single, ‘Ad Arma!‘, the most straightforward song on the album, is also one that feels most suited to achieve the band’s mission statement.
These many breaks have a decidedly retarding effect on momentum, whatever may be the band’s intentions in including them. The Furnaces of Palingenesia may suffer less on this front compared to prior albums because of its more pronounced melodic bent, but there is something distinctly gratuitous about this approach to writing. Improvising within a bubble, as instrumental release more or less, and in a dissonant paradigm at that, does no service to the greater composition. It is an influence borrowed from outside of metal at large, and obstructs the propagation of a true and consistent emotional energy within the song.
As commentary on current socio-cultural power dynamics, The Furnaces of Palingenesia is worth investigating on a lyrical level. It is also a better album than anything else done by the band in this style; however, that does not absolve the style itself of inherent flaws. The greater prevalence of melody is welcome, but by being constantly juxtaposed with staccato measures, it also appears more discontiguous than before. As black metal, however, it feels spiritually enervated compared with previous achievements in the genre; there is no latent thread of greatness to it, nor any spur to a liberation of dormant energy; it is curiously empty but simultaneously all-too-willing to obfuscate in the absence of inspiration.