Black Funeral has been around forever. Among the earliest black metal bands out of the United States, their debut full length, Vampyr – Throne of the Beast, is over twenty years old at this point. Over the course of those twenty-plus years, there’s always been a central sonic theme to Black Funeral’s music: it’s always raw, and there is always a mysterious aura to it. That aura is something that the subgenre has, in a broad sense, lost over the years, instead replaced with a more musically direct atmosphere. With Black Funeral, that character owed a lot to the style of recording itself. Even when working with new cohorts, those two factors have always remained in place, no matter who is at Akhtya Nachttoter’s side over the years (these days it’s Azgorh of Drowning the Light).
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some pretty dramatic changes over the years. 1998’s Moon of Characith was essentially dark ambient ritual music. Ordog, from 2004, had a borderline whimsical character to it, using blown-out synths to add a new dimension to Black Funeral’s over-arching sound. Still, even for a band prone to the odd musical excursion, they’ve always maintained a certain feeling that remains consistent throughout their discography.
Which brings us to Ankou and the Death Fire, Black Funeral’s ninth full length album, and their first in six years. In contrasting this album with it’s predecessor, it’s worth pointing out that while still very raw and obscure, the album’s considerably less harsh than Vukolak. That album was hissing white noise at points, and as harsh as anything the the band has ever released. Ankou and the Death Fire is less corrosive and considerably more melodic. In that sense, the album might be something of a musical cousin to Empire of Blood, from 1997, although, as is always the case with Black Funeral, this album has a very different personality from any that came before it.
It’s not just that it’s melodic, but that it’s so sorrowful. The chorus of “Gwyn ap Nudd (King of the Underworld)” represents some of the most beautiful melody in the band’s career, which is a strange thing to type, when talking about a Black Funeral album. Elsewhere, the album has a strange, but engaging bounciness to it, thanks to some deliberately-paced thrash beats, and further driven home by some uncharacteristically lively rhythm guitar work.
Another constant throughout the Black Funeral’s tenure, though this one less specifically musical, is that the band has always been something you get or something you don’t. Understandably, people have struggled with the lo-fi nature of Black Funeral’s albums, and if that’s the case, it may very well remain an issue for you here as well. The album is murky dim sounding by design, putting atmosphere before clarity as an artistic choice. If that’s something you can get along with, Ankou and the Death Fire should be a rich, rewarding experience. If it isn’t, you may find yourself reaching for another album. For my part, this is one of the black metal albums I’ve enjoyed most all year.