There are only so many ways the fast tempos, atonal tremolo picking, blast beats and guttural shrieks of black metal can be employed in any sort of a unique fashion. This may explain why some of the most highly lauded black metal acts of recent years have found some way of progressing the genre as a means of establishing their own definitive sound, from the Americana-infused stylings of Panopticon to the accessible, vibrant blackgaze of Deafheaven. That’s not to say there is any shortage of good old, by the book black metal being released today, but for a band to apply the style’s fundamental tropes in a particularly transformative fashion is certainly a rarity. This brings me to American black metal outfit Nightbringer and their latest album, Terra Damnata, which, on the surface, is as kvlt as kvlt can be. Satanic imagery: check. References to black magic: check. Latin album title: check. Hell, I’m just surprised that the album artwork isn’t a black and white polaroid of a forest at nighttime with the band’s name scrawled over it in an indecipherable font. Yet, somehow, in spite of how orthodox of a black metal band Nightbringer are on the surface, they have always retained some quality that set them apart from others of their ilk that I could never quite put my finger on, and their latest record, Terra Damnata, demonstrates this more than ever before. This unidentifiable quality that I once struggled to discern has revealed itself to rather be many tiny details that Nightbringer pull from their diverse influences from across the black metal spectrum. The group’s great admiration for French outfit Deathspell Omega has always been evident in their off-kilter, slightly avant-garde riffs, performed with a razor-sharp intensity, and it should come as no surprise that Emperor have been cited by the band as an inspiration. Other metal acts now strike me as likely influences for Nightbringer on Terra Damnata, however, with the trebly weight of many of their songs evoking the likes of Inquisition, whilst the group also seems to be channeling certain black metal bands to have incorporated a hint of death metal into their sound, such as Dissection, Watain and Ofermod. Technicalities aside, Nightbringer seem to have hit the sweet spot of ticking all of black metal’s traditional boxes, whilst nevertheless retaining an ever so slight edge to their sound that grabs the listener’s attention, and Terra Damnata may just be the perfect remedy for those who may have recently found themselves stuck in somewhat of a black metal rut.
The slight definitive angle of Nightbringer’s brand of black metal is abundantly clear right from the onset, with the opening track, As Wolves Amongst Ruins. What is easily the most prominent aspect of the discordant fury unleashed by the band on this first song is the piercing guitar leads that cut through the mix like a knife. This guitar lead is the auditory equivalent to a razor blade; it really is that earsplitting. Amidst the brute force of frenzied blast beats and intertwining shrieked, growled and yelled vocals from Naas Alcameth, Ophis and ar-Ra’d al-Iblis, the freakish, erratic guitar lead, as well as the song’s obscure time signature, introduce a sense of uneasiness to the disarray that is so common in black metal. Indeed, there is most definitely a feeling of tension as As Wolves Amongst Ruins weaves through its many passages, and Nightbringer manage to cram into a single song an amount of variety that many a black metal band would struggle to cover across an entire album. The free-flowing and ever-evolving lead guitar melodies just keep on giving, whilst the constant interplay between the three vocalists demands the listener’s full attention, just so they can keep up with the mayhem that is unfolding in front of them. If anything, As Wolves Amongst Ruins seems almost too jam-packed with blisteringly good ideas, as if the group could run the risk of exhausting all their tricks by the end of the record’s very first song.
The second track, Misrule, however, lays these doubts to rest for the time being. Although more evidently conventional than its precursor, the compositional prowess of the band is no less on display for all to see. The arpeggiating, tremolo-picked guitar lead that provides the bedrock upon which the song is constructed is elementary as far as black metal goes, but the inclusion of a lead countermelody later on in the cut throws the listener for a loop, as the two lead guitars tangle together in an eerie but fascinating fashion. Having three vocalists and three guitarists may seem excessive to some, but Nightbringer are only two tracks into their album and they have already put them all to work. What’s more, the rhythmic combo of Norgaath on bass and Menthor behind the kit is particularly destructive, with Menthor’s frenetic drumming also demonstrating restraint when necessary, such as with the tempo changes on Misrule that land like a blow to the gut when they hit. As for Norgaath, it’s rare for a bass to even be audible on a black metal record, especially one as treble-heavy as Terra Damnata, and this is if a band should even choose to enlist a bassist in the first place, with the aforementioned Inquisition, who are a likely inspiration for Nightbringer, abandoning the inclusion of a bass guitar following their debut. However, there are spots on Terra Damnata wherein Norgaath’s playing isn’t merely audible, rather it genuinely impacts the forcefulness of the song, with certain sections of Misrule being a good example. Of the Key and Crossed Bones, however, is where Norgaath’s bass work truly shines. This song marks a notable reduction in speed from the preceding cuts, and the pummelling bursts of bass, as well as its well-integrated whispers of melody, accentuate this perfectly. It’s at points such as these that the mixing on Terra Damnata stands out as being particularly remarkable, but, truth be told, the album’s production is solid from front to back. To capture and convey the utter chaos of Nightbringer, whilst preserving the band’s many intricacies and allowing room for the beautiful piano of Let Silence Be His Sacred Name or the mysterious keyboard embellishments on Of the Key and Crossed Bones, is no easy feat. The interlacing vocals and guitars alone would prove difficult to balance appropriately, but this is all done with astounding precision, with the cherry on top being the hint of dark ambience that looms in the background throughout much of the tracklisting, giving the album a slight atmospheric hue. Indeed, on Terra Damnata, each individual member of Nightbringer earns their wings, whilst the band as a whole demonstrates a degree of rigid cohesion that only the best black metal outfits could rival.
For an orthodox black metal album to have so much to offer is incredibly refreshing, and Nightbringer do an exceptional job of carving out a definitive place for themselves amongst contemporary black metal acts. Terra Damnata is by no means a reinvention of the wheel, rather it exhibits a band who have found entertaining new ways to make the wheel a damn sight more fun. Although things start to assume a more familiar form in the album’s second half, with tracks like Inheritor of a Dying World and Serpent Sun, the group’s cohesion and compositional expertise remain on display, as does the crushing production value of the record. Terra Damnata is a release that unveils new details upon each listen and has continued to impress me with every subsequent spin. Ultimately, Nightbringer pack so much into their sound that the listener is bound to uncover previously undiscovered titbits the more time they spend with this album. All in all, Terra Damnata, whilst not revolutionary or cutting edge, is the breath of fresh air that is sure to reinvigorate the fervour of many a stagnating black metal fan.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10