In the footsteps of Volume II, a series for uncovering the hidden gems of an over-populated scene, comes an introduction to one of the most prolific European black metal labels that has consistently avoided the limelight.
It is hard to stress the significance Total Holocaust records has had on my appreciation of black metal. The label’s founder, Håkan, single-handedly defined my experience of depressive black metal, introduced the world to Wrest’s side project, propelled Xasthur into the underground consciousness, shaped and supported a growing throng of unique, sonically diverse projects and continued to churn out an unforgiving amount of orthodox black metal on the side. Håkan is also responsible for Visions of Suburbia, a showcase for his photography that has been used by Hateful Abandon, Emit and Nortt, among others. Any LURKER-worthy extreme music aficionado should either be well acquainted with Total Holocaust or be willing to keep an eye fixed on the activities of this hermetic, almost clandestine label. In this article, LURKER delves deep into the imprint’s history and ideology before shedding some light on current operations.
My first exposure to the label occurred during a hunt for a small, limited release by the French band Ornaments of Sin. Total Holocaust released this short-lived, anti-life EP in a limited run of 888. Shortly thereafter, Nortt’s now-seminal foray into blackened funeral doom, Graven, was unleashed in 2004. This sealed the deal. I was a convert to the path Total Holocaust was forging. Fast-forward nearly ten years and the label has helped push Xasthur, Emit, Asoth, Lifelover, Lurker of Chalice, Nortt, Hypothermia, Make a Change… Kill Yourself, Hell Militia, Thrall, Beatrik, Heresi, Woods of Infinity and a whole host of others into the underground limelight.
THR was the gatekeeper of depressive black metal, releasing an abundance of hymns that would help to define the genre, along with a handful of releases that sadly slipped into the abyss. The depressive flame still burns to this day for Håkan with the release of Regnum’s latest opus. Aside from Xasthur, Hypothermia, Woods of Infinity and Lifelover, Total Holocaust is responsible for some of the most sorely missed charms in the genre. Beatrik is one of the latter, a little-known Italian outfit that released two full-length albums during their eight years of existence. Their style was steeped in the arpeggios of Filosofem-era Burzum and tempos varied from black to doom and back again. I’d go so far as to say Beatrik were one of the first to lay down this kind of funereal black metal (and do it far better than fellow countrymen Forgotten Tomb ever could).
Perhaps better known is Ynleborgaz’s Make a Change… Kill Yourself project, which had two releases on Total Holocaust. The trademark hypnotic riffing swings from slow-paced anguish to blast-beat elation and an enveloping sense of atmosphere are what makes Make a Change… Kill Yourself my choice for best depressive black metal ever committed to tape. It is a style much imitated and hated – but Make a Change… Kill Yourself were at the top of the game. Rarely (if ever) did a depressive black metal act balance the suffering of existence and the regal euphoria of suicide so successfully. I have it on good authority Ynleborgaz entered the studio to record a third studio effort last December. Hopefully, he can inject some immediacy and relevance to the much-maligned genre.
Xasthur was another pinnacle of the depressive black metal movement… or at least until Malefic ran out of ideas. Total Holocaust released numerous splits (including the highly sought after split with Acid Enema), reworkings (A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors) and full-length releases – including my personal favourite To Violate the Oblivious, before jumping ship to Hydra Head Records for a gloomy decline into mediocrity.
In an age where social media and online streams make lazy promotions an ingrained tendency for most labels, Total Holocaust Records stands as a fist in the face of progression. It’s one of the last labels left that shuns social media, PR companies and MP3 previews, allowing us to garner a piece of the mystique that initially drew us in to the world of black metal. A small update on the sparse website announces the latest release. There are no samples – only some visuals and words to whet your appetite. So you order, waiting patiently for a fortnight or so before a beautifully packaged CD or cassette arrives at your door. There is no instant gratification or ADHD-riddled flicking back between iTunes and your tabbed browser. You sit down with the physical release. You dedicate time to unraveling intricacies in the sound. A habit, and essential function to properly understanding and enjoying extreme music, that is quickly disappearing.
Nothing under the THR imprint can be labeled as “flavour of the moment”. Håkan has steadfastly chosen orthodox and underground bands over larger, more established fads. He has steered clear of the whole USBM undertaking. Instead, THR has focused solely on orthodox black metal in the European vein or gems that transcend genre pigeonholing completely. Slowly but surely, he has crafted a treasure trove of hidden releases that remain uncovered by the metal media circuit because they do not comply with the current underground trend.
Håkan outright refuses to give an interview about the label, suggesting he might inadvertently paint a certain release or artist in the wrong light. There should be no personalities or opinions behind a record label – their sole purpose should be to provide a canvas for the artist. One should value the integrity of the art, those you work with, and the self. For Håkan, the silence is comforting. The success of his philosophy speaks for itself; some 140 releases, mostly out of print, and a roster that nigh-on bridges the entire black metal macrocosm.
No compromise. No attention seeking. No MP3. No bullshit.
Oremus – Popioły
This Polish outfit draws heavily from Ingmar Bergman’s masterwork on death and existence The Seventh Seal, along with other less acclaimed moments in Scandinavian cinema. It is the most canonical of Total Holocaust’s recent releases and serves as an excellent antidote to the underground’s recent obsession with progression and innovation. Sometimes all I want to hear is blasting orthodoxy fuelled by something true and righteous, and Popioły provides this in spades.
Oremus’s sound is characterized by the melodic guitar riffs that first propelled non-Norwegian black metal to fame. This, their debut full-length, clocks in at just over 35 minutes and, although short for an album, packs more memorable riffs and segments of atmosphere than any of their contemporaries. The sound shuffles between moments of Scandinavian classicism and righteous bombast and all the while vocalist ‘S’ delivers his prophesies from a pulpit of ashen rage.
The digipack layout marries a cryptic, grey scale art direction with beautifully ornate visions from yesteryear. A cardboard housing holds a fixed pamphlet of lyrics and musings, coupled with a classic black-and-white aesthetic that sits perfectly with the chess game musings of Antonius Block.
Grim Funeral – A Grim Funeral to the Soul of this World
Barcelona-based solo act Grim Funeral’s debut full-length is a twisting tumult that unites the chainsaw guitars of Darkspace’s spells with the unease and disgust that made Galgeras such a brilliant discovery. While the French may have made a name for themselves peddling the most unforgiving raw black metal, over the border in Spain things are looking a lot bleaker.
Grim Funeral take obvious inspiration from the Burzum-influenced depressive standard of drawn-out arpeggio arrangements and melancholic ambience. Tempos vary from mid-paced to fast and the whole recording is soaked in fuzzed-out treble grandeur. It transcends the mediocrity that plagued the depressive scene – this has an obvious character of going far beyond depressive black metal, pushing over into the raw, chaotic territory masterminded by Haemoth. This is unrefined, trance-inducing black metal quite unlike any of the influences listed.
Ill Omen – Compendium Melificarum
Divinity through Un-Creation blew me away in the winter of 2011. That winter was cold, raw and full of second wave black metal. This compilation, released towards the end of 2010, collects numerous unavailable demos from 2009. The sound is unashamedly amateur with little to no production value. If you can get past the demo-like sound to the actual music on display, you are greeted with a malicious, melodic and highly competent strain of traditional black metal. This is a total gem regardless of assembly methods, though. The frozen, ice-like casing of the base production only accentuates the cold, distant genius that lies at the heart of Ill Omen. The long, drawn-out tremolo riffs that cave and break into sections of brutally simplistic power chords sound so much like Horna at their finest.
Ill Omen is a great example of chaste, orthodox black metal done correctly. Production, recording and presentation are not key concepts here. What matters is the atmosphere, heart and composition. All three demos collected here in Compendium Melificarum are a tour de force of will to power and summon great memories of what initially piqued my interest in the genre. Great to know there are still projects out there that can summon the righteous indignation of black metal’s ancestry.
Haud Mundus/Wormlust – Oblivio Oppositus
Pure, debilitating bleak reveries from the Icelandic genius behind Wormlust. The two tracks on display here are monuments of aggression and frightful visions. Stylistically akin to the more possessed moments of Leviathan, Wormlust weaves horrifying atmospheres with drawn out ambient sections and angular guitar melodies. The vocals, an acerbic mixture of full-bodied howls and throat-centered murmurs, cap the lyrical content perfectly. Wormlust has more in common with the modern school of black metal, with tremolo’d, drawn-out riffs and predilection for grandeur atmospheres: a haunting, visceral journey through the catacombs of delirious nightmares. Varied and engaging, a voyage quite unlike the stagnant beast that was Wrest’s latest effort.
Haud Mundus meet Wormlust with a more restrained take on proceedings. Sections of haunting ambience are interspersed with powerful forays into minimal but engaging black metal, akin to the industrial tinge present on Lunar Aurora’s latest opus. Haud Mundus’s strength differs from the abrasive, engaging and manifold textures of Wormlust by burrowing into your consciousness with hypnotic, subliminal tones. You become entranced. Both projects represent varied, upper-tier black metal complete with deep, empowered production values and should not be missed. One of the most under-acknowledged splits in recent years.
Holmgang – Gengangerens Kvad
Featuring Ynleborgaz of Make a Change… Kill Yourself, Holmgang’s take on black metal is blasting, unrelenting and highly melodic. Vicious marches of bombast melt instinctively into full chorded meanderings through forest and battle before building up speed and melody and exploding in fully orchestrated sections of pure majesty. Reminiscent of the guitar driven creativity championed by Taake and the double kick drum volition of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism era Immortal.
The focal point herein is the incredible guitar and drum work, which drifts between catchy power chord euphoria and driving, tremolo riffs not unlike medieval-era Satyricon. There are even moments when guitar patterns and vocals align to give off an aura of Celestia in their prime. In truth, though, what keeps me coming back to this release is the excellent coupling of aggression and majesty. There is enough variation and creativity in all of the instruments to elevate this beyond the stratum of impressionist black metal. Lurkers of the Scandinavian sound are sure to fall in love with the battle calls of Holmgang.
Thronum Vrondor – II: Conducting the Orchestra of Evil
Thronum Vrondor’s approach to black metal is a subtle one. At first glance you are greeted with competent, orthodox black metal that does little to ascend beyond the tried templates. Digging a little deeper reveals an intensely complex structure to the cacophony. Guitars are constantly altering foundational riffs and drums always echoing some unusual rhythm or beat from the previous bar. While not as engaging as their labelmates, this Belgium hordes strength lies in the details. It is hard not to fall under the spell of this guitar-centered outfit.
Tracks like ‘None Shall Remain’ see a lead guitar take center stage for the entirety of the piece, elevating the two dimensional base of repeated riffs into a reverie of misery and suffering. The glory is truly in the particulars, and with II: Conducting the Orchestra of Evil, Thronum Vrondor succeed in providing a refreshingly detailed, bizarre twist to proceedings.
Aska – Där Vanvett Gror
Ululating, crazed, monotonous black metal in the vein of Blodulv. Drum patterns and riffs rarely deviate, which allows the recording to develop this amazing hypnotic power. The delivery evolves by showing slight variations in a theme every so often and thus gives off the kind of empowering simplicity that makes Akitsa so successful. The lyrics hint towards a hateful, misery-drenched ride through the psyche of a drug-addled, self-afflicting hermit and the music isn’t too far off this description.
Simply executed, no-frills black metal that will send you reeling. Riffs that will haunt your conscious mind. Songs are sometimes limited to one repeated riff, tempo and drum beat. The atmosphere is unforgiving with subtle hints of a black and roll, depressive black metal type. Highly recommend for anyone who has found solace and truth in the recordings of Akitsa. Aska treads the same path to great effect.
Necrofrost – In a Misty Soar and on its Swampy Floor / Bloodstorms Voktes over Hytrungha’s Dunkle Necrotroner / Blackeon Lightharvest
There is charm in the simplicity of a thing. Through a concept like Necrofrost’s minimalist black metal shines the enchanting ideals that made early Darkthrone so essential. Despite the generic name, copycat logo and abundance of corpse paint, Necrofrost‘s sound is a melodic romp through the misanthropy and hate that made the genre infamous. Heavily reminiscent of the daydreams that would come from intense rotations of orthodoxy, Necrofrost represent the absolute spirit of black metal. Murky feedback produces buried, hidden melodies that permeate the production mire on each release. Drums are kept simplistic and metronomic in style. Vocally, insanity rules supreme as high-pitched squeals meet grumbled murmurs to create a story like quality, dragging the tracks onward.
Equally at home in this niche of metal is a tongue-in-cheek approach to their music. Littered throughout the recording is a welcome sense of humour, from the devoutly stereotypical song titles (Carcass Carried By The Crawls Of Titanbats, Steel Forests Of My Deserted Dreams) to the intentionally amateurish layout. Everything about this feels right. Total Holocaust reissued both the band’s 2000 debut, In a Misty Soar and on its Swampy Floor, along with the second full-length from 2001, Bloodstorms Voktes over Hytrungha’s Dunkle Necrotroner, before showcasing a new recording, Blackeon Lightharvest, back in 2008. All are worthy of your time.
Bergraven - Dödsvisioner
It would be unfair of me to lump Bergraven’s sound in with the depressive canon of black metal. This Swedish one-man outfit is more progressive and avant-garde than people give him credit for. It summons memories of Fleurety’s Mid Til Skall Komme and Ved Buens Ende’s distinctive guitar sound. Chances are this slipped under the scene’s radar because of its inability to be easily labeled, although immediate thoughts about the slow, doomy, death-obsessed nature of the recording inevitably bring to mind the more bearable moments of Shining’s music. This is not your immediately accessible, punch-in-the-face rendition of black metal.
Dödsvisioner is an unusual release because it fails to fall in to one of the smatterings of sub-sub-genres. The power lies in its ability to transcend these rather brash genre appellations and further itself as a progressive, highly introspective monument that focuses on adventurous tones and creative, avant-garde elements. The recording provides an otherworldly look into the psyche of a self-deprecating individual and succeeds on manifold levels to hit home. This does well to raise the bar in terms of one-man black metal bands and rivals acts like Heresi and Leviathan in terms of sheer scope. Recommended for anyone willing to spend some time immersing themselves in the psyche of another.
For everything you hate.
Against everything you love.
Some unmentioned gems include anXpm, the resuscitated Ante Cryst, including Unknown Ikon of Emit. A brilliant collection of ambient obliteration that made the original Ante Cryst rehearsal so mesmerising. Slightly more outsider still is the free-rock fashionings of Svarti Loghin. Melody enriched arpeggios and sections of lead are met with keyboards and sun-kissed reveries. Completely unlike anything else in the Total Holocaust catalogue. Following the weird and bizarre comes Woods of Infinity. While some may be deterred by this band’s penchant for extreme outsider lyricism (paedophilia and rape are recurring themes), it is hard to deny the bizarre craft Woods of Infinity have been weaving during their 13 year existence. This, the band’s final EP, features two of their finest tracks. Recommended for lunatics and hermits alike.
Those seeking darker paths would be wise to invest some time in the Japanese band Arkha Sva. Raw and satanic black metal with more possession and anguish than most. If raw black metal sits well with you, then Vargr is likely to be right up your street as well. Conjures fond memories of Blazebirth Hall and the primitivism of the bestial canon. Falling deeper into the abyss of antediluvian fear is the band Kill. Despite the highly unimaginative name and cover art straight out of the 80s, the band manage to deliver a fairly engaging rendition of mid-paced blackened thrash metal.
Regardless of the path you seek, Total Holocaust records has already walked the line. The latter half of this label’s catalogue remains relatively unknown in underground circles, despite some unmissable gems. Rectify your mistakes. Support the warriors of the underground. Not the warriors of the internet!