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Black metal is not an easy genre to perform well, especially if one chooses to adhere closely to the conventions of the genre. Whilst it may be easy enough to don a black robe, cover your face in corpse-paint, and play some suitably grim riffs over blasting drums, it is another to do so without sounding soulless and empty. What defines the success of such bands performing such a “trve”, backwards-looking style are things that are, at best, difficult to define and highly subjective. What may sound generic to one listener may come across to another as tapping in to the core qualities of a style. It is in this context that Ushering A New Era Of Agony, the debut from Sheffield duo Nokturnal Ritual, must be considered. This record could very well have been recorded and released during the mid-90s, such is the way it presents itself both sonically and aesthetically. Some might consider this a negative, but to these ears, the duo have recorded something that sets out to worship the glories of such a time, and succeeds in capturing a sense of that Scandinavian power.
There is little here that even a casual black metal fan won’t have heard before. The riffs are grim and frost-bitten, with plenty of tremolo leads and even moments of prominent bass over blasting drums. There are plenty of up-tempo, blasting moments, whilst at other points the speed is dialled back, creating a heavier, darker atmosphere. “My Succubus” even strays in to sensual territories, which is probably more off-putting on paper than it is in practice; whilst it does nothing to push the boundaries of black metal, it does help to demonstrate that even within such self-imposed boundaries there are still avenues and niches to explore, and adds variety to the album. Likewise, album closer “Nokturnal Ritual” begins with an atmospheric introduction – acoustic guitar, rain falling, even some flute – that moves in to something that owes as much to doom as it does to black metal, with the flute and acoustic guitars making their presence felt throughout the song. It’s nothing truly new, but it is very effective, especially in contrast to the brutality that has preceded it, and makes for a suitable closer.
But as for the majority of the album, it skirts that thin line between being generic and tapping in to the core elements of the genre, coming down on the right side of that divide. It’s almost certain that this is the band’s intention – song titles such as “The Goatlord Is approaching” and “With Hate I Despise” are as clear an indication as any that they are aware of the tropes of the genre and are unafraid to embrace them – and I can only salute them for it. Too many fans and critics seem to act as if an appreciation for the likes of early Marduk and Immortal is something to be ashamed of, and that the only good black metal is that which is seeking to expand on the genre. There is a place for innovation and experimentation, but there is just as much room for bands that stay true to the heart of their chosen genre. Nokturnal Ritual are one such band, and to dismiss them based on this is to miss the point entirely. As such, Ushering A New Era Of Agony is an excellent listen for when you want black metal that does not mess about or pretend to be something it is not. The band know what they want to do, and they do it well.
Ushering A New Era Of Agony is available for streaming and download via Bandcamp.