Brace yourselves, readers and friends, the great cold is upon us! For tomorrow is the first day of winter. And for those of us in the right areas of the northern hemisphere, it means snow, ice and bitter temperatures. Depending on your disposition (and whether or not your town has a reliable plowing service), it can a miserable affair. But there’s a certain majesty to the silence and stillness just after a great snowstorm. How do you capture this in an artistic way?
There’s a lot that words and pictures can do to capture the spirit of the season. But nothing beats a cascade of distorted guitars washing over a glorious round of synths, or acoustic chords mingling with melancholy riffs and growls. Black metal and certain types of doom metal were practically made for winter. After all, much of the memes made to poke fun at black metal have something to do with winter anyway. If some soulless tech decided one day to make an algorithm-based music robot that spat out black metal: “cold,” “winter,” “snow” and “frozen” would all be worthy parameters.
To truly get an idea of the winter aesthetic, again, words fail us, you’ll have to hit play on the songs below.
Vemod- Venter På Stormene
Of the well-known bands from the Nidrosian black metal scene, Vemod is the most atmospheric and nature-focused. Their 2012 full-length album is an under-recognized classic of modern black metal. The band creates a rich atmosphere by honing the raw production to perfection, and forges their own identity from the flames of the second-wave classics of yore. They’re apparently working on a follow-up as we speak. We await with baited, frozen breath.
Lunar Aurora- Hoagascht
Another modern classic from 2012, Hoagascht was the final album from Germany’s Lunar Aurora. The perfect soundtrack for solitary nights in secluded cabins (minus the axe murderers), the album’s snowy landscape makes a grand impression on the imagination on songs like “Sterna,” and “Im Gartn.” For something a little different and energetic, be sure to also check out 2005’s Mond.
Empyrium- A Wintersunset
Yes, yes, Songs of Moors and Misty Fields and Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays are the big ones from Germany’s Empyrium. But this album, their most “metal” release, totally rules as well. It captures perhaps the most effective use of synths ever set against mounrful doom metal (though Dance of December Souls comes very close, doesn’t it?). I mean, for God’s sake, just skip to 4:56 below and you’ll see what I mean.
Ancient Wisdom- For Snow Covered the Northland
A somewhat lesser-known band from Sweden, Ancient Wisdom is the work of one Vargher, veteran of other great bands like Naglfar and Throne of Ahaz. The guitar work is less cutting here than with those acts, however, as his tortured vocals shriek over the endless hills and trees.
Forest Silence- Philosophy of Winter
Speaking of lesser-known bands, Hungary’s Forest Silence is basically a more straightforward offshoot of Sear Bliss. I’d say Philosophy of Winter is probably the most “evil” sounding record on this list, if that’s what you’re looking for. So far, it’s the band’s only full-length album, so we’ll see if anything else materializes one day.
Agalloch- The Mantle
You could really go with any Agalloch album for this list, so we might as well just pick something. The Mantle shows the band at the pinnacle of their aesthetic prowess, taking obvious cues from Ulver and other folk-laden black metal and crafting a sound all their own. It’s a sound that’s been endlessly imitated since then, but never equaled.
A list like this wouldn’t be complete without at least one second-wave Norwegian black metal classic. If anyone ever asks what “cold guitars” sound like, show them this giant, featuring bangers like “Loke,” “Svart Vidder” and “Jotunblod.” The band played the album in its entirety at this year’s Decibel Metal and Beer Fest in Philadelphia this year. What a glorious treat of viking glory that was!
Cradle of Filth- Midian
C’mon, you gotta have a little fun too. Midian is the most emblematic example of Cradle of Filth’s style of “extreme gothic metal,” having left the early blackened days behind in favor of a much bigger and grander sound. The album is a decadent feast of great riffs though, so don’t sleep on “Saffron’s Curse,” “Cthulhu Dawn,” “Lord Abortion” and of course, “Her Ghost in the Fog.”
Nhor- Within the Darkness Between the Starlight
Nhor specializes in a few different styles of music: black metal, ambient, folk, solo piano. But a consistent thread of wonder, searching and contemplation pervades everything the project puts out. Within shows Nhor at its most metal, but with plenty of his other styles blended in.
Immortal- At the Heart of Winter
Had to do it. Immortal has many great albums, but this is the one where everything really comes together, from the vocals, to the songwriting, to the perfect guitar tone. With it’s mythos of Blashyrkh, the band takes you away from our cold, harsh world and transports you…to theirs. But it’s a lot more interesting! Especially with a soundtrack that includes “Tragedies Blown at Horizon” and “Withstand the Fall of Time.”
**BONUS CHRISTMAS MUSIC ROUND**
Vince Guaraldi Trio- A Charlie Brown Christmas
Alright, so I mostly despise Christmas music. Its incessant creeping further and further into the year (leave Halloween alone, dammit!) has taken up so much cultural oxygen we’re practically choking on cheer at this point. Most of the modern tunes are about buying crap, trying to sleep with Santa, or some other hollow riff on being nice to each other…and buying more crap. However! Along with the grandeur of the religious classics (look no further), we do still have some genuinely fun and tastefully festive music to curl up with, and one of the best examples is the playful jazz assembled by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I don’t want to ever hear about Santa Claus coming to town ever again, unless it’s to bring me a vinyl copy of this.