Album Review: Norse – “Ascetic” 7.5/10 (Black Metal)

Written by Kep

Norse Ascetic

Dissonant black metal from NSW, Australia

Released October 8th, 2021 via Transcending Obscurity Records

7.5/10

Somewhat obscured by the massive resurgence of OSDM over the last few years has been an enduring niche of the black metal scene made of purveyors of haunting, dissonant black metal. You’ve got Serpent Column and Skáphe, both signed to the enigmatic Dissociative Visions sub-label Mystískaos. There’s Autarkh, born out of the ashes of avant-grade masters Dodecahedron, and then there’s Spire, who put out an outstanding sophomore LP earlier this year. Even Imperial Triumphant fits into this box, even though they’ve got plenty of jazz theory mixed in. Meanwhile, bands like Ulcerate, Suffering Hour, Ad Nauseam, and Replicant continue to show that dissonant death metal is alive and more than well, too. 

Australia’s Norse, now four albums into their career with Ascetic, are an important member of this scene. Theirs is an inscrutable sort of deathly blackened enigma, but it’s far more accessible than the music of, say, Skáphe or Portal. Ascetic is, in fact, a very meaningful album both in concept and in execution, because of how it exhibits that characteristic pervasive dissonance in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm the senses.

I’ll explain, but I’m gonna quote the dictionary to do it. Merriam-Webster defines “ascetic” as “practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline.” The idea is one of austerity: stripping away the unnecessary, the extra, the ornate. Simplicity with a purpose. 

It may not be immediately apparent, but I think that this concept works quite well to capture the core of Norse’s offering. There are no gimmicks in Ascetic: they use standard instrumentation and their approach isn’t the kind with layer upon layer upon layer of dizzyingly whirling motifs. What they have in spades is a purposeful starkness. Their approach is one of bleak nihilism, cold angular guitars clashing with a strange detachment over harrowing drums. Their sound is impeccably recorded and mixed, in a way that draws attention to the spareness of the writing; there’s an abundance of bare space and harsh emptiness juxtaposed against simple repetition.

Norse does a ton of things extremely well, but they’re all built on the drumming of multi-instrumentalist Forge. Even though all of Ascetic’s songs are mid-tempo affairs, his work behind the kit is extraordinarily fast much of the time. His insanely precise double-bass work lays a foundation of sound that allows the rest of the music to stand tall. Second track “Parasitic Warmongers” is a great example: its simple but haunting major-second theme is formed over top of blindingly rapid 32nd-notes from Forge’s feet, along with appropriately crashing cymbals. The unpretentious repeated bit of dissonance that is the main riff doesn’t work without that stark, coldly detached drumwork beneath. It also serves to really drive home the sudden arrival of the lurching, Replicant-esque groove, driven by strange chirps and strummed chords from Forge’s guitar, that lands next. 

That’s the other thing that makes Norse really stand out: their propensity to juxtapose stark fury and manic blasting dissonance against calm, trancelike grooves and groovy headbobbing riffs. There’s a point in “Accelerated Subversion” that breaks out into triplet chugs, heavy as hell and completely out of the blue after the spacey slow section that preceded it. It’s the kind of moment where your first thought is, “Wait, what the hell?” and then moments later you’re banging your head. Hostile dissonance, alien grooves, or sweeping atmospheric eeriness, Forge’s work as instrumental mastermind is effective. Session bassist K. Southcott acquits himself well too, fitting naturally and neatly into Forge’s eccentric rhythmic style.

Vocalist/lyricist ADR is impressive as well, delivering a remarkably unique performance across the album’s 8 tracks. He covers quite a range of vocal approaches, from spoken word (on “Blight“) and eerie cleans (on “Accelerated Subversion“) through to atmospherically filtered screams (on “Radical Depression”) and the expected throaty roars and inhuman bellows. I tip my hat to him, for not just delivering such a range but making it all work successfully. ADR’s vocals are responsible for my single favorite moment on the album, about 1:20 into “Parasitic Warmongers”, where he snarls the word “ruination” with a vicious rolled R and so much vehemence that it left me shaking my head in wonder and chuckling. If you’re looking for the most impressive illustration of his abilities, though, look no further than “Zero Insight”, an absolute hurricane of unhinged vocal vitriol and spite. 

Ascetic is a hell of a record, but it’s not without a few warts that don’t quite work as well as intended. While the album’s length is optimal—8 songs over 42 minutes—it’s a listening experience that can drag a bit because of the similar feel of many of the songs. So much of what they do is built around that excellent combination of racing drums beneath oddball mid-tempo dissonant riffs, and though the individual songs are excellent, as a package the alikeness is hard to ignore. I’ve also got questions about track 5, “Radical Depression”, which feels for all the world like an interlude that got unwillingly stretched to 5 full minutes in length. 

I think, though, when we look back at Ascetic in December, we’ll be seeing it as a special moment in the year for black metal. Their sound is unique and their Ascetic vision is clear. Norse’s latest offering is abrasive and ferocious, but there’s a stark elegance to it. It’s a vision of bleakness that is absolutely worth hearing.

Favorite track: Parasitic Warmongers

Score: 7.5/10

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