Written by Kep
Welcome back to your favorite celebration of the underappreciated acts of the metal underground! This is a special edition of The Z-List—it’s a showcase of fantastic one-man black metal acts. Metal is full of these one-man passion projects, cranking out quality release after quality release in their home studios. They write, perform, mix, master, hype, and self-release, working with whatever resources they have. Today’s Z-List edition features five of these projects, all creating amazing black metal efforts despite no label support. Let’s dive in!
Nostalghia – Lifeless
Atmospheric post-black metal from Mexico
Released February 23, 2021
Mexican post-black metal project Nostalghia is less than a year into its existence, but has already released two records, and they’re both damn fine efforts. The most recent of these is Lifeless, which came out in February of this year, and it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of extreme metal you’ll hear in 2021. It’s 37 minutes of elegant instrumentation, poignant melodies, and grief-stricken sadness, and you should absolutely be taking the time to check it out.
This is a project that fully embraces the nontraditional aspects of its sound, featuring prominent use of string effects, piano, flute, and acoustic guitar to create a multifaceted whole. Sure, Alex Becerra, the man behind the music, isn’t afraid to write more traditional aggressive passages of pounding drums and tremolo-picked angst with plenty of shrieking harshes above. But he’s also in his element when writing meditative, pensive melodies and accompanying them with simple acoustic, or when tempering a galloping double-bass rhythm in the drums with an oddly calming electric guitar line. Becerra pulls it all off in superb fashion; all the elements feel complete and no passage or instrument feels tacked on. It’s one wondrous sound, centered in the bleakness of black metal but offering so much more than just that.
Nearly every track on Lifeless stands out on its own merits, but first and last tracks “A Murder of Crows” and “White Light” are excellent bookends that make sure your listen will be one you don’t soon forget. “Crows” begins with a simple motif in string effects that is taken up by the full band, full of introspection, and then introduces my favorite riff in this entire feature at :35, a desperately regret-filled melody. The track includes spoken vocals, an acoustic and flute interlude, and the massive payoff of the return of that excellent riff near the end. “White Light” attacks in full black metal splendor after a beautiful piano-only track with a dark tremolo riff that seems to want to leap upwards in hope but is continuously pulled back down. When it does finally pull up out of the depths to a glorious major chord, it’s only for a few moments, but later, over 4 minutes in, that hopeful riff motion takes over the lead from the darker one that led before. It’s a special moment.
Lifeless is available on Bandcamp right now, and I promise that by the time you get to the piano postlude, you will have been moved. Check out Nostalghia and let us know how you felt about it!
Ghost Horizon – The Punishment of Life
Atmospheric black metal from Arizona, USA
Releasing July 9, 2021 (pre-order available)
The absolute quickest way that a black metal outfit can catch my ear is with melody. Yes, I’m listening to the vocals, and I’m checking out the guitar tone, and I’m paying attention to the mixing and the accuracy in the drums, but the thing that will get me to buy in quickly is to hit me straight away with a well-written riff that lets me know that the person who wrote it understands melodic lines. Ghost Horizon got me to buy in within 60 seconds of “Sunrise _ Sorrow (Morning Air)” by doing exactly this. That opening riff, which starts a touch after :50, is full of life and melancholy and it swept me right up into The Punishment of Life, the upcoming debut full-length from the Arizona-based project.
Dan Stollings, the man behind this effort, clearly knows a thing or two about creating melodic lines that capture the feeling of heartache and isolation. He’s got a comfortable songwriting formula: open with a calmer, thoughtful introduction, then launch into an evocative main riff that carries body of the song. There’s usually an offsetting section with a something more chord-based, and sometimes a few more moments of restful calm, but that first outstanding riff always appears again to bring the track towards home. It’s a formula, sure, but the songs don’t sound formulaic; they’re moving and emotional, and the music serves as the perfect vessel for the lyrics.
Those lyrics are centered on grief and loneliness and emptiness, and they’re delivered by Stollings in visceral, throaty screams. Vocals for The Punishment of Life were recorded in a single take and are unprocessed, so they contain natural imperfections and feel genuine. It’s the best possible approach for music that’s so openly desolate and committed to the cold aura of aching loss: “Stab me in the heart / with your icy knife…/…The snow fell / Like falling tears”.
Frog Magus, an Australian drummer, covers session drum duty, and he does quality, precise work, with some particularly fast and clean double-bass. Stollings does a great job on every other instrument; the guitar tone is biting but not abrasive (partially due to recording via an amp and mic) and there’s a grounding, full presence to the bass. All parts together equal a cohesive band sound that feels fleshed out and delivers soundly on the chilling atmosphere of bleak, heart-rending anguish. The Punishment of Life is available for preorder on Bandcamp now!
Cainhurst – Cainhurst
Raw black metal from London, UK
Released February 22, 2021
Cainhurst is one of those superb musical projects that takes place in the intersection of a ton of awesome things and is even better than the sum of its parts. You’ve got Bloodborne themes, anti-fascism, anti-homophobia and transphobia, ideas of liberation, touches of dungeon synth, kickass raw black metal, and a beautiful dose of dark ambient all mashed up together in one extremely gratifying package. Greg Shaw, who makes quality music under several different banners, is currently gearing up for the project’s first full-length Dark Have Been My Dreams of Late, and in the meantime I’m giving February’s self-titled EP hefty play time.
If you press play on opening track “Winter Lantern” expecting to be bowled over with a frigid blast of black metal hostility, you’ll be in for a surprise, because what opens the EP is a gorgeous synth intro built simply on the first three notes of the minor scale; it’s one of two extremely well-done dark ambient tracks. It’s an unexpectedly tender way to set up the ears for what follows, which is “By the Wrath of Mother Kos!”, the first of two very strong raw black metal tracks. The hallmarks are all here: guitars that buzz like a swarm of angry insects, drums that sound distant but drive mercilessly forward, a light bottom end, and hoarsely screamed vocals above it all. There are two things, though, that push Cainhurst above other acts in the space: Shaw has a tremendous ear for melody and letting the music breathe in the right places, and his production keeps every element of the music audible without sacrificing the raw aesthetic.
To that first point: the catchy melodic riffs on this EP are the thing mostly likely to catch your ear. They’re not constant; “By the Wrath” doesn’t introduce its version until 1:30, but when it arrives it *really fucking arrives*. “Cainhurst”, on the other hand, begins with its big melodic riff, an eerie but formidable sequence of descending lines. Both songs also have a calm, thoughtful passage that allows the track to breathe for a few moments, which drastically increases the impact of the violence around. To the second point: the production is some of my favorite modern raw production ever. The best part is that I can hear the bass; the bottom end is characteristically light, but the bass is clearly audible as a distinct element. Combine that with the excellent vocal/guitar balance and the intensity of the blast beats in the drums, and you’ve got a winning package.
Dark Have Been My Dreams of Late is available for preorder now, and I highly recommend dropping some cash for it and picking up Cainhurst in the meantime. We’re all in for a frosty treat on July 27!
Eurkuh – Not at All
Black metal from NSW, Australia
Released January 7, 2021
Eurkuh is the definition of a hidden gem. An anonymous one-man project from New South Wales, Australia, they released their debut EP on the first release day of 2021. It was a relatively quiet release from where I sit; I think I’ve seen one post in my Twittersphere, and outside of that there hasn’t been much talk about it. This is a damn shame, because Not at All, that debut EP, is a really strong first effort that deserves to be heard!
What we’ve got here is undeniably a bed of black metal, but there are strong death metal influences in both the vocals, which would fit comfortably if you dropped them straight into a OSDM band, and some of the riff designs. When you take those elements and combine them with Eurkuh’s breakneck, vehement passages of black metal fury, it all comes out to a potent package of power and ire.
The EP is a standout in overall sound, and its four tracks and 19 minutes are a tight, well-conceived experience. The runtime flies by, and I found myself ready to start the whole thing over again as soon as it finished. The throaty, potent vocals inject a palpable hostility to an already aggressive overall vibe, and the use of varied influences in riff styling makes each track feel unique. Grand blackened death openings transition into slow-moving, evil melodies, and these blast forward into true black metal ferocity. Some songs, like my favorite “Entfesseln”, find brief meditative restful moments before ripping back into life with groovy riffs that feel lifted straight from a death metal track.
The lyrical themes of Not at All contain strong anti-religion sentiments and general distaste for the hypocrisy of humanity. The words are hard-hitting and don’t pull their punches: “Attendance at daily mass despite their own needs and intentions…/ Were they assisted in their time of need?…/ Not at all!” These passages from the title track are the core of the album’s ideals, and they’re delivered with vehemence. It’s an approach that’s embraced wholeheartedly by the chunky, massive guitars and girthy bass; every riff feels aggressive, like it was played with the sheer force of wrath and hate. This is the “heaviest” album included today in more ways than one. Make sure you give it a listen, and be ready to be crushed.
Spell of Dark – Ghost from the Past
Atmospheric black metal from Russia
Released February 26
From the frigid wilds of Russian comes Spell of Dark, an atmoblack project that so closely embraces sadness and hopelessness that it could almost be called DSMB. Turn on Ghost from the Past, close your eyes, and you’ll be transported to a snowy forest, alone and surrounded by nothing but bleak pines and the icy moon above. All is despair here, but, you know, in a relentlessly picturesque sort of way.
In some ways the music here reminds me of Grima: the themes revolve around nature and sorrow, the tempos aren’t breakneck but aren’t morose either, and it feels like mournful owl calls and howling wolves would fit right into the musical texture. But the production, handled along with the instruments and vocals by V.T., is a good bit rawer, there are no accordions, and the vocals are sunk further back into the whole of the sound. V.T. loves to include clean-toned melody cues and counterpoints above the main, distorted riffs; they feel like little nods to the beauty of the unforgiving forest and to dear lives lost.
Take my favorite track, closer “Summer of Hopes”, which opens with sorrowful guitar playing a melody built on broken arpeggios. A wall of sound arrives, driven by chords and deep counterpoint from the bass, and crying above it is a simple but meaningful melody which eventually gives way to allow the vocals room to be heard. V.T.’s delivery is hissing and breathy, almost like an incensed whisper, with a huge amount of reverb that causes the words to echo all around. The crying melody returns as the song continues, and at 7:30 the guitar rises above the distortion below for a beautiful clean-tone melody that feels like a perfect coda to the entire album. Loss and memory are everywhere on this record, and in no place are they more transparent than when a melody climbs from the turmoil like that.
Ghost from the Past is available for purchase on Bandcamp, as is the entirety of Spell of Dark’s discography, which includes three more full-lengths and two EPs. I give Ghost a full recommendation, so go give it a listen!