Loyal To the Nightsky by HighlandRelease date: May 15, 2017
There are many kinds of black metal bands and artists, but, ignoring the myriad of micro sub-sub-genre names, most of them can be loosely classified as one of two types. A) artists whose music doesn’t necessarily fulfil any particular stylistic genre conventions, but which fits under the black metal umbrella due to its lyrical/philosophical or atmospheric features, or B) artists who play black metal because they were drawn to the genre precisely because its styles and preoccupations fit with their vision, and whose reference points are mostly within the genre itself. Neither of these types is inherently better/worse than the other and there are many classics albums at either end of the spectrum. With their debut album’s title Loyal to the Nightsky, with its echoes of Emperor, the Armenian-American band Highland seem to be firmly nailing their colours to the second of those masts; and the album is all the better for it.
While Emperor is the obvious reference point for the album title, the band’s music is indebted to bands with a more organic and less grandiose approach. The album kicks off with the title track and from the moment the mournfully savage drizzle of guitars cuts through the wind sounds that open the song it’s nothing short of perfection. It’s one of the mysteries of black metal that, like the blues, the basic sound and structure can be repeated endlessly but still sound fresh (admittedly not quite the appropriate word) and vital. So why is the song so good? Highland are essentially doing nothing new; the guitars are fast, furious and slightly dirty, with tremolo-picked passages and urgent, ominous, atmospheric riffs, the vocals are a hoarse (but not high-pitched) shriek, the bass anchors the tune admirably and blastbeats abound; this is BLACK METAL. In terms of sound, the thing it reminds me of the most is not the oft-evoked second wave of Mayhem, Darkthrone et al, but the superlative 2006 debut album Winds of War by the Italian band Kult; another occasion where an orthodox black metal band did all the expected – and, one might think, tired and clichéd – things, but came up with something powerful and affecting.
And Highland start as they mean to go on; again, the next title ‘Towards the Absolute’ feels Emperor-esque (I guess I’m thinking of ‘Towards the Pantheon’), but again, the feel is rougher, more earthy; again not unlike Kult, but with a strong flavour of Immortal (somewhere between Pure Holocaust and Battles In The North) in its opening passages, modulating towards an Inquisition-like feel in the immensely powerful slower parts. These comparisons aren’t made to suggest that Highland are entirely derivative of these particular bands – their sound is fully-formed and, through the course of the album they certainly stamp their own identity on it – it’s just that their black metal finds its source in the same, metal end of the black metal genre as these kind of bands (as well as artists like Satyricon and even Watain and occasionally, Grand Declaration of War / Chimera-era Mayhem), rather than the more refined/atmospheric/spectral/shoegaze/post-BM styles evoked by others.
The album is consistently strong, but highlights include the heavy, mid-tempo riffing of ‘Burning In Forgotten Silence’ and ‘Wallachian Night Terror’, which has perhaps a hint of the trio’s Armenian heritage in its atmospheric melody. If there’s a problem with Loyal To The Nightsky it’s perhaps that they are too loyal to their vision of black metal – or rather, that they are too good at it and give the listener a little too much of it. A claim that many bands would envy perhaps, but while each of the eleven songs is absolutely worthy of inclusion, narrowing it down to perhaps the eight strongest would have given the album an indelible impact, whereas by the time Loyal To The Nightsky gets to the stately, sinister closing track, ‘Rituals In The Twilight’s Darkness’ it feels like it has begun to outstay its welcome a little. But that’s a pretty minor caveat really, since it’s unlikely that anyone will be forced against their will to listen to the whole opus in one sitting.
So, a classic album? Only time will tell; the band’s (successful) determination to perfect a black metal sound, rather than invent a new one could work for or against them in the long run. Either way, it’s certainly a more-than-impressive debut and one of that small group of albums to play on the (admittedly rare) occasions when someone asks the question ‘what does black metal sound like?’