Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Greetings, Loyal Abyss Reader!
The completely uninformed jibberish you'll read below are the sole opinions of JPR. They do not reflect those of the nameless, faceless editor, who actually owns some Burzum albums.
And so we find ourselves at the end of 2020, which means that music journalists and pseudo-journalists alike are proudly bestowing Album of the Year honors on our respective picks. If you were one of the many, many persons (read: Almost 10) to have peeked my choice for Death Metal Album of the Year, you'll know that I have as much business writing about extreme metal as I do relaying instructions to astronauts during a space walk. I didn't grow up on Mayhen or Venom. Never once have I put black and white paint on my face and crept around the woods. I own no goats.
Lame tropes and stereotypes aside, I have, however, become a convert to all things post-black and atmospheric metal. Wisely foregoing the lo-fi production of old, the static delivery of shrieks and guitar buzz, and the overtly satanic themes, modern post-black metal takes something of an all-in, melting pot approach. You want cellos, a marimba, a children's choir and lyrics about conserving natural resources with your wall of guitars and blackened wails? You want fractured, dissonant and progressive verses played against uplifting, even joyful choruses? Not a problem. Bands like Alcest, Deafheaven, Soulless (more on that one another day) and Vvilderness are not simply incorporating elements of traditional black metal into their sound, they are writing the next chapter in the evolution of the genre. Bearing witness to the explosion of new bands and their harsh yet beautiful music has been one of the great pleasures in my musical evolution.
And in a year that carpet bombed us in the best possible way with great- I mean great- post-black metal albums, one of them stands horns, head and shoulders above the rest. Italy's one-man-band Emyn Muil took Tolkien lore, the equivalent of a full orchestra, and crafted an extraordinary piece of epic, ambient, blackened folk metal in his third LP and my pick for Black Metal Album of the Year, Afar Angathfark.
Can't pronounce it? Me either. For brevity's sake (since that's SOOOOO important to me), "Afar" is a concept album that, according to Emyn Muil's composer, Nartum, is "inspired by the character of Feanor and his war against Morgoth to claim back the Silmarils. Fitting, then, that this album feels no less grandiose than its conceptual inspiration. From the whispers, flutes and brass section over pulsating toms that open the album on its title track, to the celtic-inspired mournful violin and plaintive piano that weaves their way through In Cold Domain. Afar Angathfark is the blackened metallic score to an epic quest set in the First Age of Middle Earth.
I know what you're going to say: Summoning! Falls of Rauros! Numenorean Sun! Heck, Cirith Ungol (who, by the way, released their first LP in almost 30 years this year). You've heard Tolkien inspired metal before, and you don't need yet another album about elves and lyrics with łőťš õf ťhĕśe thìňğs over the words. While each of those bands have released albums that explore and expound upon the darker places of Middle Earth via harsh tones and often harsher vocals, Afar is as balanced an album as I have heard in as long as I can remember. It's as though the orks of Mordor and the elves of Lothlorien laid down their arms and composed a symphony together.
Nowhere is this symbiotic relationship better experienced than on Noldomírë. A light, almost playful synth/woodwind intro is, measure by measure, joined by deep strings, monotonous, foreboding drums and a buzzing guitar before alternate verses of clean female vocals and blackened screams take turns advancing the story. There is no push and pull here, no tension between the screams and cleans or the cascading strings and searing guitars. Even when the screams are the dominant voice, they're tempered, augmented and carried along with sympathetic, soothing tones. The track takes a monumental and emotionally stirring left turn with the introduction of a narrator repeating "War of the Jewels has come!/War for the Jewels has begun! " The multi-tracked female vocals that carry the rest of the track into a fade are nothing short of exquisite, and the stuff albums of the year are made of.
Even a track like Heading Eastward, with its synth and war march drum intro is first accompanied by and then yields to what I'll call an elven lament. This yields back, rather than being bludgeoned to death by, the original synth and drum lead. Nothing is taken by force on Afar, and the result is an album that is completely at peace with what should be warring sounds.
The Yin and Yang and my praises for this remarkable achievement of an album go on and on (I didn't even get around to mentioning the equal parts compelling and addictive dungeon synth tracks, did I?). As your patience is likely strained by this point, I'll simply encourage you to go to Bandcamp and experience Afar Angathfark for yourself. You can also follow Emyn Muil on Instagram and Facebook, and encourage Nartun to release more physical copies of this and his two previous LPs. You can also harass and annoy us via the comments section on our Facebook page. Please do, it's been a solid 45 minutes since I made the Editor cry.