We begin with crisp, melancholic piano placed directly in the foreground. A twisting tremolo picked guitar line unspools somewhere out in the distance. Turn up the volume and start it over as needed. You want to hear this at least four more times. It’s an idea that’s been done before, but rarely – if ever – pulled off with as much grace. Guitars quickly and effortlessly flow into a greater presence. Drums and bass burst forward while the piano holds this ship together in a role typically reserved for rhythm guitar. Hoarse screams are the sound of knees buckling and the weight of the world collapsing down on Atlas. Galloping blast beats propel the track as brooding depictions of hearts being scratched out and left to die build to the Big Black nodding chorus “I wish it was kerosene/ Just to set myself on fire”.
In the span of one minute and forty five seconds, Harakiri For the Sky clear room for more details than the average black metal band fits into one song. The David Lynch inspired opener, “Fire, Walk With Me”, is the sound of a band looking to kick down the door and force a statement that refuses to go unnoticed. A statement that cumulates in an impressive scope and creativity running throughout the entirety of an eight song run. Arson finds the Austrian duo on their fourth installment. In no way are they new blood, but that doesn’t stop them from reveling in hunger and urgency. Compositional and instrumental risks are taken while managing to bring it all together in service of actual songs. Bridges, choruses, and vocal melodies all coexist along structures looking inward for a distinct voice with an eye on the horizon searching for an inventive black metal future.
Like the essential opener, “You Are the Scars” features a prominent and intricate use of piano. Delicate and solemn keys serve as an introduction before a juxtaposition that resembles a blend of Darkthrone and Agalloch filtered through an appetite to play the big rooms. And don’t worry, the bold instrumentation doesn’t stop at pianos. “Heroin Waltz” features ascending symphonic strings serving as a backdrop for classically picked acoustic guitar. Heavy instrumentals eventually drop out of the sky without overpowering the classical motif. Instead of making a quick exit or dissolving, the acoustics bounce around the interior until the line is turned electric about halfway through. It all amounts to high black metal drama lending itself to a cinematic update on My Dying Bride’s romanticism. When A.S. – the man who is given the sole writing credit for these instrumentals – isn’t toying with uncommon elements, he’s giving us a near constant barrage of hammer drops and break downs. The most intriguing example being the thick palm muted riffs that chop up “Voidgazer” and sound like a body rhythmically tumbling down the stairs.
Mixing in with the the heart stopping intensity are constantly sprouting nimble guitar lines. Leads rise with the complex beauty of climbing vines and tangle together in rich tapestries. All of which are pushed along by session drummer and former Behemoth touring member Kermin Lechner. The addition of Lechner brings a newfound forcefulness to Harakiri For the Sky’s rhythm section. A.S. held his own on the band’s past material, but Lechner brings these Arson tracks into a whole new league. Loose grooves seamlessly segue to building tension and snap into place at a moment’s notice. It’s these very post metal tendencies that make it all the more invigorating when the two of them swan dive back into controlled black metal chaos.
An easy criticism to stick to Arson is the production. Many of these songs may veer a little too close to flawless for some heads. Admittedly, it’s something that took some adjusting on my part. Nothing about this record could be considered dissonant. Harsh may even be pushing it. Going from Watain’s latest to this is like driving up to the Ford dealership in a 2004 Jeep Liberty and stepping into the blinding sheen of the 2018 Mustangs – I say this as someone who loves Trident Wolf Eclipse, mind you. I’m sure you’re attached to the Jeep Liberty, but it’s hard to turn away from something this pristine. Time, energy, and love went into these compositions. Why wouldn’t they want you to clearly make out every bit of it? This is sleek, state-of-the-art black metal impeccably crafted and displayed with confidence. Any lesser recording quality would have been an unfortunate disservice.
If the production feels too polished and chrome, vocalist J.J. balances it out with a distinctly human presence. Limited yet affecting screams grab you by the collar and sharply yank you in for a particularly intense heart-to-heart. The extra care J.J. puts into annunciation sets him apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries. His words are measured, careful, and descriptive. A perpetual state of emotional free-fall manifests in lines like “I wonder if depression ever really ends” and the grim yet reasonable “We never even asked for happiness/ Just a little less pain”. Even when it’s difficult to make out exactly what he’s going on about, it’s still felt. In what feels like a natural extension of suicidal-depressive black metal, Harakiri For the Sky manage to make white-knuckling the ever fraying end of the rope into a life-affirming endeavor.
In what may be a blatant move to throw the entire black metal playbook out the window, the band closes on a cover of Graveyard Lovers’ grunge-y anti-capitalist screed “Manifesto”. Then again, absolutely nothing here suggests that Harakiri are at all concerned with restricting themselves to the genre’s more conservative parameters. Writing lyrics resembling diary entries and playing with under-utilized instruments is all well and good, but it’s the inclusion of Silvi Bogojevic that cements Arson as a progressive entry. Female vocals have been used by pretty much every all-male atmospheric black metal band. They’re typically ethereal and meant to be “pretty” and “soft” in order to make the heavy parts that much heavier. But on “Manifesto” they’re soulful, powerful, and dominant. I’d be tempted to call it a duet if Bogojevic didn’t absolutely steal the show. Roles are reversed and J.J. is merely there to supply the hook and added texture.
The word “arson” has a loaded history in black metal. The niche genre broke out of Scandinavia not solely from musical merit, but because of a few bad apples and their sociopathic interest in church burnings. These hateful stunts laid the groundwork for even more violent criminal activity that would come later. Before the toxic and total bastardization of the scene, black metal began as a way of tearing down accepted musical institutions. Of course Mayhem and the like were heavily inspired by Slayer, but they took it much further than thrash ever did. What is metal? What is music? The Bay Area wasn’t as fixated on these questions as their Norwegian torch bearers were. That’s exactly where Harakiri For the Sky find themselves. On Arson, we’re confronted with an upheaval of the status quo. An individualistic approach and a fresh direction turn black metal out and imagine something more. And for that, I commend them. Go ahead, gentleman. Pour the kerosene. Light the match. Burn it all down.
Arson is out 2/16 on AOP Records.