Album Review: Białywilk – “Zmora” (Atmospheric Black Metal)

Written by Kep

Białywilk – Zmora
> Atmospheric black metal
> California, US
> Releasing September 1
> Vita Detestabilis Records

The sheer range of styles and production values within black metal is so vast that a simple subgenre descriptor really only gets you part of the way to understanding a band’s sound. Atmospheric black metal production, for example, can be as highly polished as Imperium Dekadenz or Aodon’s recent Portraits, as coldly grim as Australia’s Callous Void, or as warmly lo-fi as fellow Aussie Fathomage, and the songwriting, riff design, and vocal style can vary just as much. Similarly, Białywilk is a project that is atmospheric black metal by definition, sure, but to leave it at that would be inadequate. 

The solo project from Marek Cimochowicz, former frontman of USBM giants Vukari (if you’re somehow not familiar, by the way, fix that), Białywilk is a more intimate project of great personal meaning. Cimochowiczhas stated that he began it as a means to write music that explored his own struggles and internal being. To that end, the debut LP Próżnia was tightly focused and felt less expansive than the efforts of many other atmospheric black metal outfits, and now Zmora seems even more intimate and close. Six tracks including a short intro and outro spread across a scant 28 minutes, the songs straightforward and the opposite of overwrought. Białywilk as a project is nothing if not earnest, and you can hear that particularly well here.

Zmora, or “nightmare” in Polish, is a concept album about sleep paralysis and insomnia, and as such is best experienced as a whole (which isn’t a tall order given the brisk runtime). The trajectory of the tracks from start to finish is captivating: bookended with moody ambient synth tracks “NDE” and “NDE II” (courtesy of guest Adam Harris), the interior four songs progress in tempo and agitation. It’s not so heavy-handed as to come across like a narrative, but there’s a clear progression that ramps up in feelings of anxiety and stress. The songs are built around uncomplicated structures, with riffs that have refreshing directness. 

The title track fades into existence with fraught and penetrating tremolos before Cimochowicz’s vocals join in devastating fashion, a deliberate and depressive tempo with weeping melodies that feel familiar and somber. “Fever Dreams” moves forward with a more bracing tempo and punchy kick drum, a somber repeated chordal motif eventually transforming into a simple yet intensely anxious set of tremolos. “Nine of Swords”, a reference to the tarot card that represents fear and anxiety and features an alarmed sleeper awoken in bed, ramps up the harrowing atmosphere with driving speed and a continuous uneasy melody over frantic blasts as its main riff. The second half features some nice touches on the cymbals, a powerful new riff, and seems to grow in intensity and size. Finally, “The Apical Drive” ratchets the agitation to its peak, faster still and with a much more active main riff that arches and twists as if in pain. Unlike the previous songs, this one introduces a second big riff before the vocals enter, a panicked line that tries to escape but instead ends up descending in sinking steps. The progression of the track’s final stretch, guitar rising higher and higher before dropping back into the opening riff, is goddamn rapturously harrowing. 

Album art by Dereck Gutierrez

Production-wise, Zmora sits in a happy middle ground between raw and polished—though it definitely skews rawer than Próżnia—that should be satisfying to fans of both ends of that spectrum. The drums, played by session performer Joey Spares, are strong, direct, and have good thump to them, particularly when he’s emphasizing the kicks, while the bass guitar takes on a mostly unobtrusive supporting role that second wave diehards will appreciate (though there are some damn tasty licks you’ll catch if you’re paying attention!). Cimochowicz’s guitar burns with a frayed metallic buzz that doesn’t hurt its clarity, and momentary turns into short melodic motions (like near the end of “Fever Dreams”) stand out as though brightly glowing within haze. His vocals remain one of the strongest pieces in his arsenal: they’re wide hoarse screams, without any screech, and his ability to drop down for sounds more throaty and growling allows for highlight moments (the first growl on the record, near the end of “Zmora”, is downright petrifying). The package as a whole has weight but also has room within the mix, and is well-designed to keep that intense, personal focus. 


The sophomore outing from Białywilk confirms what the debut showed us: this is not some side project that should sit in the shadow of its mastermind’s older outfit. Zmora encapsulates the strength of Marek Cimochowicz’s more personal approach to black metal, and it leaves a mark despite its brief runtime.