Written by Kep
Stormruler – Sacred Rites & Black Magick
> Black metal
> Missouri, US
> Releasing October 14
> Napalm Records
I find Stormruler to be somewhat of an oddity in the landscape of American black metal. While most USBM bands seem to be focused inward, at personal agonies and torment, or downward, at the infernal lord’s pit itself, the St. Louis-based duo’s albums are exercises in ebullience and bombastic outward-flung war cries, thrown out and up and as far as they can reach. It’s an approach that feels distinct in a sea of groups that can often feel like clones of each other, and their music makes for a refreshingly bright listening experience as a result. Last year’s Under the Burning Eclipse was a strong debut, though not without its flaws—a lengthy 60-minute runtime bloated by interludes is one of the more notable ones—and so an even stronger follow-up is the natural expectation.
Enter Sacred Rites & Black Magick. Stormruler’s second offering keeps the brand strong: ten tracks of highly riffy black metal with plenty of warlike flair and fretboard fireworks, intercut with ten atmospheric interludes/intros. Drummer Jesse Schobel and guitarist/frontman Jason Asberry put on a show of vibrant songwriting made all the more exciting by wizardly technique and a plethora of moments that catch the ear so forcefully it’s like they’re compelled by dark magics. I’ve had a blast with this record, though the biggest quibble I had with Under the Burning Eclipse is still present.
There’s more fire than ice in Stormruler’s sound. These aren’t frozen battlefields on the barren tundra that they’re depicting; they’re valleys strewn with broken bodies in gleaming armor, littered with tattered banners and scarred by the scorch marks of dragons and sorcerers alike. Part of this is accomplished by Asberry‘s fiery fretwork, highly acrobatic riffage (especially for black metal) that crackles out of the speakers and puts the hooks right in. Rarely is he content to tremolo pick in long melodic arcs like many other outfits do, instead laying down a variety of exultant rising arpeggiated motions, like the one that kicks off opening song “Internal Fulmination of the Grand Deceivers”, bulky but agile semi-melodic passages that underscore the violence of combat, and glorious soaring lines and solos that sweep over the blood-spattered melee beneath on the wings of enormous eagles. The roots of it are all in black metal, of course, but he clearly pulls a hefty amount of inspiration from other styles—melodeath in particular. There are riffs of that sort all over the record: scrub to :35 in “To Bear the Twin Faces of the Dragon”, for example, and you’ll hear the back end of a medieval-inspired tremolo passage shift seamlessly into classic melodeath for 20 seconds or so.
I could ramble for a long time about how exciting and catchy Asberry’s guitarwork is, because I’ve been humming various riffs from Sacred Rites & Black Magick around the house for a couple weeks already. Even the more stately and eerie moments are captivating, like the opening of “Apparitions Across the Ravencrest” with its opening riff rising and falling above the texture like a jagged line of craggy mountains in the distance. That song is an excellent example of another notable tool of the band’s fully-stocked arsenal: acoustic guitar. Asberry makes excellent use of it, both in featured moments like intro track “Hymns of the Slumbering Race” or the end of closer “A Malice Dead & Cold”, and as a layered folklike element that haunts sections of songs like “Apparitions”. That layering is a fresh idea that wasn’t in Under the Burning Eclipse, and it’s an extremely nice touch.
Of course, none of that guitar action is as impressive without strong performances around it and fitting production, and luckily Stormruler deliver handily on that front. Schobel does it all behind the kit, driving the war chariot with blasts, galloping into the fray with rolling double bass, and getting downright grotesque and groovy at various sharp to support Asberry’s solos and ruminations—start at the middle section of second single “Upon Frozen Shores”, for example, to hear a passage that runs the gamut from viciously pointed to evocative to quirkily restful over the course of a couple minutes(!) worth of time. The mix and master are notably better than Under the Burning Eclipse, and still hold the band’s most underrated feature—the audible, dynamic bass—in a place of importance. I’m very pleased by how subtle but clear that layered acoustic guitar is, too; its presence always notable but never forced above Asberry’s hoarse screams or the body of the electrics.
So let’s talk about the intro/interlude situation and its relationship to the album’s protracted runtime. Sacred Rites & Black Magick is well over 70 minutes long, but this is primarily because they’ve again chosen to put an intro or interlude between every song, meaning every odd-numbered track is essentially just a short dose of atmosphere. That adds up over time—in this case to 11 minutes and change. They mix them up stylistically, from straightforward guitar-based introductions and piano tunes to Summoning-esque dungeon synth to ambient soundscapes, so there’s plenty of variety. The issue is that they’re mostly unnecessary, at least to this writer’s ears; it’s not like they’re being used to introduce musical themes for the tracks that follow them. And, because they want each song to flow into the next interlude, they’ve chosen to end a number of main songs with a meh-inducing fade-out. Yes, the interludes add atmosphere, but the songs already create plenty of that fantasy atmosphere themselves, and little of consequence would be lost if you cut, say, eight of the ten. Keep the opener, repackage track 7 to just be part of track 8, and we’re golden.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you loved Under the Burning Eclipse, there’s no question that you’re going to love Sacred Rites & Black Magick. Stormruler’s second offering is a powerhouse of high energy black metal warfare and sorcery, rife with the sort of riffs you’ll be singing to yourself for days on end. Despite my grumbling about interludes and runtime, this is an undeniably awesome record and a delightfully fresh listen that outdoes its predecessor.