What started as an aside last year became a full-blown phenomenon this year for music scribes to scrounge for and delight in black metal bands that were releasing dramatic recontextualizations of the genre into something more palatable and, thusly, more divisive. I do not doubt that such a movement is occurring, but, as I have said in my reviews for recent records by bands such as Liturgy and The Body, what has come out so far from these artists has been hardly as interesting as the movement they represent. While I acknowledge that this shift could be exciting, I have stubbornly resisted fawning over their forebears simply because they are innovative.
That is until I broke, of course.
An Ache for the Distance, the second album from Chicago’s The Atlas Moth, could very much be filed under the movement I just mentioned. And yet, unlike almost all the records that it has yielded so far, it engages you with sounds both serrated and majestic. It tries just as hard as Liturgy’s Aesthethica and Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestial Lineage to stretch the boundaries of black metal, but it keeps you listening for more reasons than simply academia. In a way, the album performs its task more effectively than both those records, because it tricks you into shifting your impressions of the genre. That you don’t notice the boundaries expanding while you listen to it is a testament to its strength to stand up on its own.
There’s a reason for this. It’s not like The Atlas Moth did the exact same thing as Liturgy and somehow got different results. No, they brought a personality to their craft, which, apparently, makes a world of difference. Their songs are propulsive. Even when they roam, it feels like to a definite end as opposed to a mirthless purgatory. Movements alternate, songs ebb and flow. Hell, there’s even a hint of what you could call swagger in the riff to “Perpetual Generations.” Genuine surprise is generated when the title track switches to a waltz halfway through its runtime. The track fades out with band members interchangeably hollering for “the open road.” It’s a harrowing moment, despite its relatable subject matter.
Shrieking vocals abound on An Ache for the Distance, but it’s interesting, because they are layered meticulously and accompanied with sung and spoken passages as well as effects such as conservatively applied reverb and echo. Even if you don’t like this mode of expression, it’s impressive to hear a metal band take the production of their singing just as seriously as their guitar sound. It’s a welcome innovation from a bright piece of music in a movement that hasn’t been nearly as fruitful as it could be. If the direction of black metal has discouraged you over the past few years, pick this up to soothe your nerves. Perhaps there’s hope for a greater learning curve after all.