It’s hard to know where to start with an album like Zwart Vierkant (“Black Square”); it’s one of those rare records which transcends the simple descriptor of “album”. Based upon the novel De protodood in zwarte haren by Ruben Wijlacker, which deals with art and abstraction, Zwart Vierkant takes those themes and runs with it. Members of Grey Aura travelling to Spain to record samples for the album, doing so in the hometown of El Greco, a painter who the band list as a key influence. Combine that with the use of flamenco guitar, Spanish trumpet, professional voice actors, and a forthcoming book that further explores the themes of Zwart Vierkant, and you can see that this is something intended by the band not just to be an album, but a total piece of art across multiple media.
All of which is worthwhile and laudable, especially in a genre that can be as wedded to convention as black metal, but what does it mean for Zwart Vierkant – how does this record sound? It’s all well and good knowing the themes of an album, but if it produces no emotional or intellectual reaction, it’s all for nothing. To which the answer is: the album sounds every bit as daring and unconventional as you might expect from this background knowledge. This isn’t black metal that looks to the typical influences of Darkthrone or Immortal; it’s black metal in the spirit (and sometimes, the sound) of Solefald, Dodheimsgard, and Ephel Duath. It harkens to that time just before the turn of the millennium when so many black metal bands discovered how rewarding experimentation could be, and produced some superb art as a result.
Throughout Zwart Vierkant, there are few moments that could be described as typical black metal. The opening moments of first track ‘Maria Segovia’ might suggest a soul-consuming opus similar to other Dutch black metal bands of recent years, but the introduction of traditional Spanish instruments within 25 seconds is an early demonstration that Grey Aura are not making black metal according to conventional rules. There might be elements of discord, atonality, and shifting rhythms throughout, but even so it never feels like “discordant black metal” – it’s too creative and restless to be properly tagged as any one sub-genre, save for that most broad descriptor of “experimental black metal”. Likewise, there are far too many elements at play to give a proper account of what the album sounds like without reducing it to a thousand words of nothingness. Stating that there are emotionally laden vocals atop a dizzying riff, which then shifts into a spiralling lead, which morphs once more into something heavy with doom may be an accurate description of moments within the record, but it sells them far short.
Better instead to talk about what Grey Aura have done in emotional terms. It’s in this way that Zwart Vierkant can be properly described and assessed. It’s the kind of album that feels life-affirming with a character that is both dreamlike and furiously intense. It stares into the depths of the soul and finds something there that makes everything worthwhile; the search for the unknown, and all the possibilities that dwell within the void. It has that same spirit as albums like The Linear Scaffold, 666 International, or The Painter’s Palette, where black metal is just a starting point for further explorations. Yet at the same time, Zwart Vierkant doesn’t really sound like any of them. It’s that rare kind of album which has clear points of reference, yet is also removed from them and sounds like nothing so much as itself.
Combined with Grey Aura’s grander artistic ambitions, it’s hard not to be impressed by Zwart Vierkant and what the band are attempting to do. Boundaries aren’t so much pushed as they are completely disregarded. That the band are so open in their artistic and literary influences upon the album is no surprise. It’s cliché to talk about experimental music as being art, but Zwart Vierkant is an album (or should that be project?) that deserves the description. For everyone who has ever complained that black metal has become tired and derivative, you owe it to yourselves to listen to this album. And for anyone else who simply wants some superlative music, you should too.
Zwart Vierkant is out now via Onism Productions and can be ordered here.
Words: Stuart Wain