In a niche genre known for being insular and impenetrable, Portugal’s Black Cilice is quite a big deal. Somehow, this ultra lo-fi, raw black metal project has found a degree of cross-over success, featuring in popular non-metal sites (not that you should be reading anything other than AMG) and appearing on the playlists of ironic hipsters. For music this primal and uncompromising, that’s no mean feat. It shows that despite doing everything possible to alienate listeners, there is something compelling and interesting here that forces people to pay attention. Now Black Cilice is back with another platter of murky goodness. Raw black fans will certainly be interested; but is there anything here for anyone else?
Esoteric Atavism is the enigmatic outfit’s sixth studio album, following 2019’s Transfixion of Spirits. Although that effort was the best produced of Black Cilice’s discography, it was also the most atmospheric and meandering. Like a boat ride through dense fog, with the destination nowhere in sight, it was more an experience than a discrete collection of tracks. It also felt like Black Cilice had perhaps mellowed; that its brand of tortured black metal, drone and lo-fi fuzz had reached its apotheosis, and now the band was wandering the peaks, exploring other nooks and crannies. “Where could they possibly go next?” I wondered. The answer, as it turns out, is back to the beginning. Esoteric Atavism is much more immediate than its predecessor and hearkens back to the earlier Black Cilice albums, with the riffs and the malevolence turned up. Combining the old-school intensity with the slightly improved aesthetic yields one of the strongest albums in an exemplary discography.
The greatest strength of Esoteric Atavism is that it is chock-full of bangers. Bangers with actual riffs. But you wouldn’t think so from opening track, “Beyond the Veil.” Black Cilice lays down the gauntlet with the most dissonant, listener-unfriendly cut of the whole album. Had it continued like this, Esoteric Atavism could have become a joyless punish-fest.1 But thereafter, things ease up and the songs become more melodic. In typical Black Cilice style, these “melodies” sound as if they were recorded in a can of coke, sitting in a dumpster, located within a wind tunnel. This lo-fi production relegates the drums and tortured vocals right to the back of the mix, which makes it, by raw black standards, accessible. The songs are grounded and intense, maintaining a weightiness and malevolence which permeate the whole album like black vapor. This density means that Esoteric Atavism requires time and concentration to reveal its charms. The melodies and riffs are there (check the galloping melody which kicks off “Channeling Old Power,” or the—dare I say it?—catchy and compelling crunch of “Esoteric Atavism”) but they don’t reveal themselves immediately. The good news is that, like an Easter Egg hunt, the search is part of the fun.
The biggest sticking point remains that production. Beyond the lo-fi-ness of it, there’s also the compression. At a DR of 2, diamonds have been formed under less pressure. While fans of raw black won’t mind, it will simply be too impenetrable for many, turning them off before they even begin to explore. It seems trite to complain about something that’s clearly a feature, not a bug, but it’s noticeable even for the hardened. Also, for the first time in a while, Black Cilice seems content to consolidate its gains rather than pushing forward. There is no new ground being broken which may frustrate those who have come to expect innovation.
I’ve always found raw black to be a lot like stoner doom when it comes to rating. Almost all of it hovers in the 2.0 – 3.5 range, with true standouts being few and far between. Something about the genre feels inherently limiting, even to the fans. Black Cilice have come whisper-close to breaking the mold. Esoteric Atavism successfully marries the riffs of the early material with the atmosphere of the later stuff. That it does so without compromising the integrity of either—or the band itself—is miraculous. It’s still raw black, it’s still lo-fi, it’s still resolutely uncompromising, so many will pass this up or complain. They’re missing out. Those willing to embrace the sound will find Esoteric Atavism to be the forerunner for best raw black album of the year.
DR: 2 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Iron Bonehead
Website: Too kvlt for the internet
Releases Worldwide: July 1st, 2022