English Black Metal is in absurdly rude health these days. Not that often you get to make such self-congratulatory statements but on the basis of these two stonking releases that surfaced towards the tail end of last year the genre's potential for evoking mood and pastoral charm has finally been matched by our musician's talents. Neither of these bands are new of course, Manchester's Winterfylleth being four albums into a resolutely focussed career of nature-loving BM whilst Voices incorporate the compositional backbone of noughties extreme metal stalwarts Akercocke whose nerve-shattering ballast saw them leap forth from the ranks fifteen years ago and proceed to decimate much of the ensuing decade.
BM's capacity for thunderous excess allows for its subject matter to be amplified to such an extent that it becomes almost unbearable, sensations projected onto a widescreen of sensory overload and cathartic bliss to allow for - or in most cases demand - the listener's physical engagement in the matter at hand. This can allow for cartoonish devilry or simple shock value theatrics but in more delicately handled cases provides for an experience that takes you somewhere completely new, allowing you to soak up the highs and lows of an emotional voyage from the epicentre of the action by dragging you out of your musical comfort zone and pressing your face right up against the screen. Winterfylleth's shtick since their inception in the late noughties has been to evoke the savage melancholy of the British Isles via a musical tribute taking in landscape, weather and several centuries of stark folklore. It's been an uncomfortable journey at times, England's fractious relationship with its own heritage leading many to draw lazy parallels between the band's choice of subject matter and perceived regressive political ideas but what's become apparent as they've progressed is that these guys are only doing what most of their overseas peers have done over the years - fashioning the distinct characteristics of their homeland into a brand of extreme metal that transports the listener there and lets them breathe in the air themselves. Varg Vikernes' remark about his pioneering BM project Burzum evoking the sensation of walking through a Norwegian forest comes to mind when 'The Divination of Antiquity' rages forth from the speakers, the band's chaotic assault coming together like a stormcloud hanging over wild green hills fixing to lash the land with rain and hail - the sensation is violent and unsettling yet strangely comforting at the same time, particularly on the title track which underpins the whirlwind blastbeats and raspy vocals with a subdued strain of resonant melody that almost edges into post punk territory (imagine hearing 'Unknown Pleasures' emanating from someone's car window through a February hailstorm and you're somewhere close). They may seem more comfortable at full tilt but the pace slows on cuts like the sombre 'A Careworn Heart' which drops the violence to mellow to an almost defiant sense of melancholy a la Metallica's 'To Live Is To Die', paring down their sound to incorporate solace without detaching the end product from the belligerent rage surrounding it. In fact there's more than a little vintage 'tallica in Winterfylleth's canon - they pace their records like Hetfield and co did back in the 80s, knocking out epic slabs of volatile metal that weave enthralling narratives around intoxicating rushes of raging turbulence. You'll be coming back to this and its predecessors for bouts of late night headphone magic, tuning out life to be transported to the rain-lashed fields of rural Britain to feel the wind blow through your hair as another raging stormcloud beckons. If my Metallica metaphor holds true then these boys should be on the cusp of dropping their 'Black Album' next time they hit the studio - whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your perspective but in any case it promises to be worth sticking around for.
If Voices fit into the same national template it's through the distinct link with the capital that they've chosen to make the central theme of their second release in two years, striding forth from the abstract background of Extreme Metal to plant their flag squarely in the centre of the sprawling metropolis that sets the pace for modern Britain. 'London' isn't so much a critique of the capital's less likeable side as an acknowledgement of it - Akercocke alumni Jason Mendonca and David Gray always had a distinctly metropolitan air to them even when they were belching out odes to vestal masturbation over torrents of bowel-quaking blastbeats in their previous guise and the pair were happy to embody the sort of erudite perverts that hold most of the major positions in the British Arts industry. Here they step into the heads of the corporate financiers, angry virgins and ruthless landlords that roam the city's streets virtually unnoticed, characters key to the capital's mood yet rarely embodied in its musical output. 'London' is basically what a trip through the headspace of your average tube carriage of commuters might sound like, a maelstrom of frustration and disgust barely held in check as the city's inhabitants force themselves to coexist within its imposed behavioural patterns - imagine if a radio frequency could pick up the collective thoughts of your average Patrick Bateman tycoon, bile-filled 4Chan troll and vindictive shirked lover and broadcast them at face-melting volume and you're probably in the right area. Cuts like 'Music For The Recently Bereaved' and 'Imaginary Sketches of a Poisoned Man' take the sensory excesses of Akercocke's finest moments and transport them from dark fantasy into vivid reality whilst that recurrent fascination in pleasures of the flash returns in Metropolitan format in 'Vicarious Lover' and the deliriously unsettling 'The Fucktrance', Mendonca's Royal Shakespeare Co. delivery booming over the proceedings to add a thunderously theatrical edge to an already intoxicating mix. 'London' encapsulates the stripclub coke parties, corporate tax deals and directionless misanthropy that underpin life in the capital today, a lifesblood that the band have decided to embrace rather than ignore to bring their coruscating Extreme Metal into stark focus at the heart of everyday life - it's a move that suits them and will doubtless yield yet more thrilling forays into the sewers of the Metropolitan experience. Match up Voices' commuting soundtrack with Winterfylleth's pastoral weekend retreat and you've got a perfect Metal soundtrack for England in 2015.