“The title translates roughly along the lines of ‘Darkened Moon’, a fitting impression of the near total absence of light contained within its 43 minutes.” – MacDara gets his TRVE KVLT on with Nihill‘s Verdonkermaan
Music has the power to move, to evoke and elicit strong emotions. When we hear melodies, harmonies and rhythms, they stimulate the chemicals in our brains that make us feel joy, or sadness, or even anger (if you’ve heard any chart radio recently). But does music also have the power to harm? I’m not talking about Elvis shaking his hips and upsetting Fifties squares, or military experiments with infrasonic weapons, but music itself. Can it inflict real wounds upon the psyche? Can it induce existential nausea? I think of the palpable air of menace that envelops the Butthole Surfers’ ‘22 Going On 23‘. I think of Australian death/black metallers Portal, whose other-worldliness invokes a Lovecraftian sense of cosmic horror that’s as alluring as it is stomach-turning.
Dutch avant black metal outfit Nihill profess similar aims. “We exist solemnly for the drive to create a nauseating nightmarish atmosphere,” declared their unnamed spokesman in an 2010 interview, and it’s one they’ve attempted to establish over two albums of bile-drenched coldness, Krach and Grond, liberated from the deep underground by Aaron Turner’s Hydra Head label. Those long-players represented first two parts of a trilogy inspired by the aesthetics of alchemy: from death, to nothingness, to “painful rebirth” – the subject of the third instalment, Verdonkermaan. The title translates roughly along the lines of ‘Darkened Moon’ (feel free to correct me on that, Dutch speakers), a fitting impression of the near total absence of light contained within its 43 minutes.
Opener ‘Vuur: The Deathwind of Resurrection‘ kicks off with a thundering, unrelenting wall of noise. It’s a white castle of fear of a song, swept up in a blizzard of trebly axe-shredding, the blastbeat pounding like battering rams against the stone walls and battlements. But there’s more than just intimidation to Nihill’s master plan, as halfway through comes a slowed-down, churning riff that introduces a significant tonal shift. It’s impossible to tell whether it’s by accident or design – black metal isn’t known for its high fidelity production quality – but the guitar sounds alien, robotic or mechanical even, a stark contrast against the typical pagan, luddite atmospheres of the genre.
‘Spiral: The Tail Eater‘ takes this shift even further, bearing much more in common structurally with a post-metal dirge. There’s even, dare I say it, a solid bass-driven groove beneath the tormented vocal howls and distorted, static-laden guitars. Such avant (for black metal) tendencies are reined in on ‘Oerbron: Returning to the Primal Matter‘, a blazing slice of old school trve kvlt – that is, until it suddenly collapses upon itself with a chaotic middle section not a million miles away from the free noise jams of early Sonic Youth. It’s remarkable, too, that the transition from form to formlessness and back again is virtually seamless, and it feels much shorter than it’s nine-plus minutes.
It’s followed by ‘Gnosis Pt IV‘, to me the most interesting chapter in this collection, in its distilling of black metal’s misanthropic nihilism to the bare minimum: no more than whispered back-masked chants adrift in a windswept void, absent of any structure to hold on to. It’s the closest Nihill get on this record to the profound occult mystery of Portal. Then they change the rules again with the album-closing blackened doom of ‘Trauma: Crushing Serpens Mercuriales‘, completing the trilogy on a solidly back-to-basics note.
Overall, Verdonkermaan is a work to be greatly admired amid a prolific period for boundary-pushing efforts in black metal. In other words, it’s great stuff. But does it have the power to harm? Is there ‘diabolus’ in Nihill’s ‘musica’? Maybe I’m inured to its effects, but it didn’t leave me with the nightmares I expected. That’s probably not the news the band wants to hear, if they even care about such trifling mortal matters.