The first thing I noticed were the drums: this rolling, almost jazz-like feel to the way Jacques Johnson would use the snare, accenting offbeats and sliding rolls like he was soloing against the tremolo fury of “Chasm,” the opening track on Apophenia, the debut full length from USBM by way of NYC band Belus. By respecting the more traditional aspects of black metal without being beholden to its staid tenets the trio create an immediate, accessible album that’s never content to sit back and ride a blast beat; not when it can roil and churn its way through various riffs and changes.
There were personal connections that drew me to the band as well. I was wrapping up my second year writing for Nine Circles, and had connected with a number of folks in the metal community, including the wonderful drummer Caryn Havlik from the equally wonderful band Mortals, whom I met up with in Brooklyn along with some other friends to see Belus play live. Belus’s bassist Lesley Wolf was also in Mortals, so it was equal parts see some awesome bands (the show also featured Insect Ark and Anicon) and support your friends. Having “Chasm” played live and seeing Johnson really tear into the drums was a revelation: you’re always going to perk up in black metal when something other than a blast beat plays, but here was a level of rhythm and percussion on aa different plane. The fury and torment of black metal was still there, but the riffs and musical ideas would never content themselves with simply blazing away in a rapid fire asssault – the band had more they wanted to do.
It’s hard to get past just how good of a song “Chasm” is – there are moments where major chords come in the break apart the aggression, but that’s soon swept away by a propulsive half time break before diving once again into blast beat frenzy. Matt Mewton’s vocals are anguished rasps typical of black metal, but set against the drums and his choice of chords on guitar they act as a diametrical force that oddly brings the songs together. “Monolith” kicks off with a rock and roll stately stomp before careening into chaos, and like many of the songs on Belus mixes its traditional second wave elements with some truly inspired chord changes and rhythm that would curl the corpsepaint off the old guard but really brings a welcome freshness to the genre.
“Avarice” is an apt name for the third track. Sitting here now, listening to the record there’s a temptation to remark on the production as being a little murky, but really I don’t know that I want music like this to be clean, if that makes sense. The guitars jab and rip into you before devolving into an almost funhouse lilt in the song’s b-section. There’s also a really nice doom element at work that keeps you on your toes. Is it dissonant? Maybe as much as any other black metal song that relies on diminished chords and tritones (all hail the flat five!); it certainly brings a nice tension to the tracks on Apophenia. Side A closes out with “Illusions” and it’s a rolling doom storm, its tension and darkness a roiling cloud of murk until it gets to a fever pitch of screaming tremolo lines and furious head banging swing sections.
Side B opens with the frenzied “Psychosis” and again, the naming conventions are pretty apt. I love when the song slows the tempo down and wallows in a more doom atmosphere before coming back up for air. At this point of writing I’ll admit I’m a few drinks in, and my head is starting to wander. What is it about the muddy production that works so well with this genre? And as I sadly acknowledge to myself that despite not being convinced that vinyl rules over all I am indeed a “vinyl head” is there merit to collecting music that by design isn’t recorded in the highest of fidelity on vinyl? Playing Apophenia digitally with my lossless files through the same amplifier and speaker set my turntable is set up to I don’t really hear a difference in dynamics (not the case lithesome recent releases, like Mastodon’s Hushed and Grim which is a wonder on vinyl), but now as the maudlin opening to “Omens” makes way for its inevitable fast attack I can’t help but sit and feel the physicality of the needle pulling the sound out of the grooves, enveloping me with its righteous attack.
By the time of “Equilibrium” I’ve completely re-engaged my love for what modern bands are doing with black metal. I still love the “pure” extremes of bands like Darkthrone, Mayhem, and the like, but Belus and Apophenia remind me of when I was just getting knee-deep into the world of extreme music, meeting bands and seeing them as people, before pandemics and viruses kept us away from everything. I have no idea if Belus will put anything else out, but as a signpost for all that was cool about NYC black metal in the late 2010s, this is a key release for me.