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Blackgaze: A Marriage Of Metal Extremity And Atmospheric Dreaminess

Blackgaze is one of rock’s most unlikely crossovers. And Alcest, Deafheaven and rising stars MØL are exploring its darkest corners…

In early 1990s Norway, a gang of young musicians emerged to continue the legacy of predecessors like Venom, Hellhammer and Bathory. Based mainly in Oslo and Bergen, their shared influences swiftly coalesced into a movement. Faces hidden behind corpsepaint, staring out at their audiences, they built sonic temples to Satan, forging a musical identity characterised by wintry brutality.

Meanwhile in Britain, a gang of young musicians emerged to continue the legacy of predecessors like Spacemen 3, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. Based mainly in London and the Home Counties, their shared influences swiftly coalesced into a movement. Faces hidden behind long fringes, staring at their effects pedals, they built sonic cathedrals, forging a musical identity characterised by wintry beauty. With hindsight, there are parallels between these two points in musical history. In 1993, however, nobody imagined what a collision of black metal and shoegaze might sound like.

And yet 25 years later, this very blend has become one of the most exciting developments in extreme music. Over time, people on both sides of the spectrum started inching closer to each other. As shoegaze morphed into post-rock, Mogwai took its shimmering, effects-laden sounds and ramped up the noise, fighting their way onto these pages. Opeth named their 1996 album Morningrise after an EP by shoegaze maestros Slowdive. Neurosis and Godspeed You! Black Emperor came from very different places to arrive at common, crescendo-laden ground. Justin Broadrick, once of Napalm Death and driving force behind industrial metal outfit Godflesh, founded his Jesu project, explicitly drawing on My Bloody Valentine and other shoegaze influences. And most pertinently, Wolves In The Throne Room emerged in the early 21st century with a sound that took black metal away from its Satanic origins, drawing on environmental concerns and embracing the crystalline feel of ‘80s arthouse label 4AD, in a way that only enhanced their majestic sweep.

The genre that became known as blackgaze really developed with the appearance of French band Alcest, whose debut album Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde was released in 2007. Speaking about his initial influences, founder Neige couldn’t sound further away from black metal.

“I used to have visions about a place of indescribable beauty, and a state of consciousness that doesn’t belong to anything we know down here,” he explains. “To this day, I still don’t know much about the nature of what I saw and felt. It could have been a memory from a previous life, or a different side of reality, beyond the limit of our usual senses. Alcest is about that place – its otherworldly beauty, but also my struggle to live with one foot in our world and the other foot in this other world.”

Such a personal vision was never designed to spark a movement, but Alcest proved hugely influential, as an increasing number of bands transcended their blackened origins to pursue music of a nobler bearing. Ireland’s Altar Of Plagues, East Anglia’s Fen and An Autumn For Crippled Children from the Netherlands were all responsible for records that further fleshed out this emergent sound. It was, however, a band from the other side of the Atlantic who would help bring it to a wider audience.

It might be an exaggeration to describe 2013 as the year blackgaze broke, but only just. According to Metacritic, Deafheaven’s Sunbather was the most critically acclaimed album of that year, garnering 92 per cent approval from its aggregated reviews. The San Francisco band had successfully located a sweet midpoint between pummelling metal and lush dreampop, attracting notice far beyond the usual gatekeepers of black metal. For a while, it looked like blackgaze was becoming the latest hip genre, a development that didn’t exactly go down well in certain circles. Away from its reviews, reactions to Sunbather swiftly became polarised.

“The controversy was shocking,” vocalist George Clarke told Kerrang! in 2015. “People seemed to have such strong opinions. The positive ones were just as crazy. Sometimes we’d see audience members crying or people saying Sunbather was the most beautiful thing they’d ever heard. I’m happy they believe that and don’t discredit or hate it whatsoever, but it’s just as baffling as the guy that’s like, ‘I hate you and want you to die.’”

While this tension between those seeking to expand black metal’s parameters and those dedicated to defending its boundaries has never fully resolved, the last few years have seen no shortage of bands willing to brave the ire of internet trolls by infusing the genre with the atmospherics and sensitivity of shoegaze. Leading the new breed of dark-hearted heroes are rising Danish outfit Møl, with aims and ambitions that stretch beyond the noise.

Møl are not a band who’ll easily be mistaken for Watain any time soon. With nary a dab of corpsepaint in sight, you’ll find them rocking Swans and Sonic Youth T-shirts in place of cowls, leather and spikes. For these musicians, black metal is a flavour to contribute to the recipe, rather than a way of life.

“We come from different musical backgrounds,” confirms vocalist Kim Song Sternkopf. “Nicolai (Busse Hansen), our guitarist and main songwriter, didn’t get into metal until later because he grew up on shoegaze. I’ve played technical death metal and hardcore before. Fred (Lippert, guitarist) is into Godflesh and stuff like that, and Holger (Rumph-Frost), our bassist, used to play melodic death metal.

“Musical crossovers happen so much these days,” he continues. “I think there will always be some diehard true black metallers out there that will feel, ‘This isn’t the way it’s done, you’ve just borrowed this stuff.’ I don’t know if you have to pay respects in some way, because there’s a whole community surrounding those typical genres, but if you try to accommodate everyone… well, you can’t.”

Like Wolves In The Throne Room before them, the influence of nature is of greater importance to Møl than writing paeans to the Dark Lord. “The name of our album Jord means earth, soil, and the elements,” explains Kim. “Music sometimes conjures up vast landscapes, it widens your imagination. Both music and nature have this quality of conjuring up something otherworldly. You get to take a deeper breath, and take the whole thing in. The elements do have a huge place in the imagery I work with in my lyrics.”

The recently released video for Bruma makes this connection explicit. As a piece of music, it’s a perfect encapsulation of what Møl are all about. Opening with delicate, twinkly guitars before plunging into a thrilling barrage of blackened fury, points of beauty and optimism remain audible in the maelstrom. Visually, the video takes in the sea, snow and forest on its way to the sort of torch-lit cave in which you’d expect to find hooded ghouls.

“There are some heavy black metal tropes on there,” agrees Kim. “There’s a spiritual side, too. The images relate to how humans interact with nature, and I think that’s something that resonates a lot with black metal.”

Despite their different backgrounds, if there’s one band Møl all find common ground on, it’s Alcest. Like their French forefather Neige, they express emotions beyond the rage and depression that usually dominates heavy music.
“It’s an exploration of the dynamic between melancholy and jubilation,” says Kim of their focus. “It makes the music really energetic, and it’s something you don’t usually see in black metal. We have this focus on the major chords that in certain circles would count as blasphemy (laughs)! You can feel both uplifted and contemplative at the same time.”

There’s no doubt that blackgaze can reach people otherwise immune to blastbeats and heavy riffs. Deafheaven certainly proved that with Sunbather, while Alcest have been invited by Robert Smith to play at The Cure frontman’s Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in London this June. On a line-up that includes shoegaze veterans My Bloody Valentine alongside Mogwai, Deftones and Nine Inch Nails, their appearance could hardly be better placed to attract more mainstream attention.

If Møl’s debut UK dates in May will be a little less high profile, they’ll be an excellent opportunity to catch this exciting band up close and personal. As well as enthusing about the bands they’ll be playing with over here – Svalbard, Helpless and Monolithian – Kim is looking forward to checking our audiences out.

“I enjoy watching people when we play live,” he says. “I see so much going on out there. Even when they’re standing still with their closed eyes, I see so much activity in terms of what’s happening in their thoughts and in
their associations.

“The melodic aspects of our sound speak to a wider audience – people who really enjoy acts like Sigur Rós or the post-rock movement,” he continues. “And at the same time, we get diehard black metallers who show up in battle vests. We like how this atmospheric dimension in our music can bring all these people together, even if just for a moment. That’s what keeps me going, this instant where you can just lose yourself. You get to this place where, whatever you’ve done during the day, whatever troubles you have, you have a place that’s your own – together with a lot of people (laughs)!”

The only apparent problem with blackgaze, then, is the fact that nobody who plays it actually seems to like the term.
“I am not comfortable with labels when talking about Alcest,” says Neige. “Genre is unimportant. What matters is its essence: melodies, lyrics and emotions.”

“If you summarise something with one word, and more and more bands are described as this genre, it puts you in a box in some way,” reckons Kim.

Regardless, while geographically separated and inhabiting their own distinct worlds, these bands all share a sound and ethos. My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive shimmer and glide through their music as surely as Darkthrone and Emperor inform their aggressive sides. The melancholy and jubilation that Kim talks about make unexpectedly affecting bedfellows, and so do black metal and shoegaze.

Words: Olly Thomas
Photo: Dieter Skovbo

(This feature was originally printed in Kerrang! 1717 April 14, 2018)

Deafheaven grace the cover of Kerrang! this week. You can pick it up in UK newsagents now, or order online for delivery to anywhere in the world from this link.

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