It is amusing how extreme music eventually becomes a commodity over time. How what sounds like the heaviest, scariest or most unwelcoming thing on Earth at a given point in time quickly turns “outdated”, “outperformed”, or for the luckier ones, “a classic”. Maybe it’s a side-effect of capitalism naturally absorbing any new trend initially defined as rebel or defiant ; maybe it’s just our ability to grow accustomed to any increment of the bizarre. We either pass it on to the mainstream, or form a new subculture around it.
In that regard, Black Metal is somewhere in between. While it may not be easily accessible to any ears and still holds some uncharted spots, it has long taken its place as a cultural object in the collective unconscious of metalheads and the general public alike. Anyone could come to appreciate Venom, Darkthrone or Dødheimsgard, but how many would actually be put off or shocked by the intensity and the quirks of their sound by 2022 ? Come on lad, we’ve heard worse by now.
Recently though, I heard a fresh new example of how this genre can still be interpreted in creative ways. How it can truly sound strange, challenging even, while still delivering the Black Metal feels.
Seven Candles for an Empty Altar is the tenth album by the mysterious creative genius Book of Sand. And it’s weird.
Weird in its choice of instrumentations and arrangements, for starters. Not that the instruments themselves are that far-fetched – guitars, drums, synths, piano, sax, some violin strings and some gamelan percussions – but more because the artist uses them with no consideration for their established role or hierarchy within the genre whatsoever. While guitars sound thunderous when they play their part (Soft Sun on Silent Water and its warm continuous riffs), they are by no means the sole protagonist of this story. Synths come up either as chaotic noise generators, or as forefront saturated riff-bearers in lieu of guitars themselves, for results both nerve-wrecking and outright fantastic. The drumming has more jazzy parts than blast beats, with entire rhythm sections dominated by swarming snares and even one song with hand-clapped beats.
Weird because the vocals do not sound the way they should. And yet, they work. DCRF’s body-twisting, starved-out banshee shrieks convey an impression of claustrophobia, one of an entity trying to break away from a suffering of its own making. It should sound weak compared to the usual intensity of a good’ol Black Metal scream, and yet it feels way scarier, and absurdly fitting to the music’s dynamics and themes.
Weird in its musical narrative, as song structures are often built around vertiginous contrasts. Low amplitude moments alternate with monumental riffs in epics such as Kyrie, Without the Limits of Power or The Realization of Unclear Dreams. But “low amplitude” does not mean “calm” as either piano or saxophone build up and maintain a strange tension with their unmonitored musings reminding of the Court of the Crimson King. In that regard, be warned : the album opener, Speak in the Tongues of the Dead, is probably the most unwelcoming of all as the literally vertical step between the purposefully childish piano introduction and the monstrous, hellish microtonal synth oozes will likely catch you off-guard and lose most of the Black Metallers’ audience never to return. Which is fine. The song tells the ripples and consequences of colonial atrocities, one cannot expect it to go down smooth after all.
Weird because despite all of the above, this album is a glorious, epic, almost mythological Black Metal journey, surprisingly easy to listen through and through. All you have to do is leave aside your usual expectations on how Black Metal should sound, and accept the emotional experience.
[This album] is in part my challenge about what black metal could be; I wanted to explore different possible ways to go musically without falling back on the standard cliches.DCRF (Book of Sand’s mastermind and sole permanent member)
The album may sound strange, but it feels oddly familiar, even comforting in its direst quirks and its highest moments alike. The unyielding power from the cathedral-wide riffs is always balanced with the harmonies, bearing a strange sense of hope. A light shines through Seven Candles for an Empty Altar, that expresses its creator’s conscious will to propose something bigger than what Black Metal usually has to offer thematically : purpose, perspective, and hope.
Our societies are collapsing in the face of the ecological destruction we’ve caused through extractive economic structures, and as artists we should be trying to offer visions of what went wrong and what better things could come next. […] Obviously I don’t believe in « blood and soil », and I think that maximum human diversity (race, language and culture, gender and sexuality, to an extent religion and ideology, etc.) is desirable in itself and as a requirement for strong societies, in the same way that diverse ecosystems are often more robust and sustainable. We need to consider our relationship with our ecological setting, and we need to build societies that are embedded in ecology instead of in economics. I don’t believe that nationalist myths are helpful in getting there.
The vocals need not be intelligible to convey what DRCF stands for ; the song titles and his notorious antifascist stance speak clearly enough, but more importantly the music itself gives an emotional canvas for the ideas. The album has expressions of colonial crimes, spirituality in its own terms (Kyrie), love (yes, there is an actual love song in the album), survival and resilience. Resilience of nature in the face of destruction, and resilience of humanity after self-destruction.
For the last track I was thinking about the prairie – periodic fire was required to clear space for seeds to germinate and grow, and the diversity and robustness of the ecosystem relied on these disturbances. So, even though we’re in a very dire moment in history, we should think about how the ongoing catastrophes can make room for a better world to grow.
If I were to call Book of Sand “avant-garde”, or “experimental” in the Black Metal genre, it would not be for the sake of breakthrough technicalities or twisted compositions, not even for a will to get farther than anyone before in the shock value or extremities of the sound. It would be called experimental in the sense of thinking outside the usual canvas to propose an emotional journey and his world view as an artist. For that, Book of Sand is one of the very few acts that will never grow out of the bizarre. Its oddities are among the ones that by definition, do not fade with time alone.
Book of Sand offers intense and contradictory feels, bears substance and significance through the individual vision of its creator, challenging the current state of the world. It brings formal innovations by ignoring any pre-established patterns, putting feeling and atmosphere as the primary goal. It produces musical shock even to the most seasoned audience while offering home to anyone willing to tune in to the emotion.
In other words : Book of Sand is Black Metal.
If you like what you read, check out my interview of DCRF : An interview with Book of Sand
To discover the varied discography of Book of Sand, check out this full retrospective co-written with DCRF himself, published on Invisible Oranges :
Part 1 : Dialogue with Ghosts
Part 2 : That Old Black Magick