As much as metal has become a global phenomenon since the advent of the internet, it still retains certain localised geographical trends and idiosyncrasies. This is doubly true when it comes to black metal, a genre with deep roots in the concept of national and cultural heritage – specifically, Scandinavian national and cultural heritage. Lest we forget, the borderline-cult activity that swept Norway (and to a lesser extent, Sweden) in the early 90’s is barely 20 years old and far from forgotten, having become deeply ingrained on the Scandinavian consciousness, even to the point of mainstream acknowledgement. Attempts – successful or otherwise – to bring black metal to different national backdrops, from the US (Agalloch) to Romania (Negura Bunget) to Taiwan (Chthonic) have usually borne with them an attempt to adapt the basic sound of lo-fi tremolo riffs and abrasive shrieks to new cultural milieus, not only through lyrics pertaining to local history and folklore but also by the incorporation of local instruments and melodic conventions.
Bearing this in mind, black metal from Spain is about as counterintuitive as you can get. Sitting in its peninsula away down south alongside Portugal, having been governed by an isolationist dictatorship until the 1970s, Spain has long been the black sheep of Western Europe. Quite apart from their relative paucity of contributions to the portfolio of metal, Spanish black metal just sounds oxymoronic. I’ve never been there, sadly, but the image I have of Spain is of a tourist destination, a hot, sunny country whose primary contribution to world history has been the conquest and annexation of even hotter and sunnier countries. It doesn’t exactly fit with the frostbitten tones of music originally designed to evoke trolls squatting in their remote forest caves, in the path of glaciers and storm clouds advancing from northern mountain ranges, is what I’m saying.
Xerion (ES), however, seem to be out to prove me wrong. Originally a one-man project helmed by multi-instrumentalist Nocturno but having since filled out to a four-person line-up, they hail from Galicia, a country which, while not sovereign, has a status of political semi-autonomy within Spain (similar to Scotland and Wales within the UK). The band writes and performs their lyrics in their regional language of Galician, and I have it on the authority of Encyclopaedia Metallum that they draw inspiration from Galician folklore (being an ignorant Anglophone, I of course can’t testify to this first hand). Fair enough, then. If there is a universal element to black metal, it’s probably its potential as a megaphone for cultures which have been subsumed by larger, hegemonic structures and which lack representation on the international stage. In this case, all Xerion are missing is any kind of distinctive musical identity to match their status as black metal representatives for Galicia.
Because goddamn, Xerion’s second studio album from 2010, Cantares Das Loitas Esquecidas, is so overwhelmingly boring. Given that the band’s cultural heritage is, to the best of my knowledge, unique within the genre, it’s actually kind of startling the extent to which they don’t innovate here. In fact, most of the album’s running time is dominated by hand-me-down ideas from Emperor’sAnthems to the Welkin at Dusk – there’s a particularly disarming resemblance between the main riff on A Alquímica Dexeneración da Ialma and that of With Strength I Burn – but stripped of most everything that made that album cool. The speedy blasting of the programmed drums and the distinctive chord progressions of Nocturno’s riffs certainly feel like they’re driving at the same arcane, malevolent, darkly epic tone, but it’s all just a little bit too slow, a little bit too soft and a little bit too clean to be convincing, like a golden retriever puppy trying to pass itself off as a wolf.
The album slows down from time to time, but these more deliberately paced sections do nothing to improve my regard for it. They just mean that instead of aping Emperor, Xerion instead settle into warmed-over Moonsorrow mimicry. Easily the low point of the whole album is the fourth track Onde a Victoria Agarda, which leads off with a bafflingly dull and simplistic riff that sounds like something a beginner’s guitar clinic might offer as an introduction to eighth notes. One suspects that Xerion missed the memo that there’s more to Moonsorrow’s conjuration of panoramic pagan soundscapes than “play black metal only slower.”
Every instrument just sounds so unremarkable throughout. There actually are a few memorable moments and glimpses of inspiration from time to time; the album is bookended by clips of Gregorian chant which do well to create a sombre and melancholy air, and the fifth track, Nas Verdes Fragas de Amh-Ghad-Ari, features a remarkably subtle and well-considered segue from militant chords into folk-flavoured finger-picking. If anything though, these moments only serve to highlight how grey and tepid is the mass surrounding them.
In the last decade, black metal has seen perhaps the most vibrant experimentation and cross-pollination of any of the metal subgenres. With forward-looking acts like Anaal Nathrakh and Deathspell Omega having such productive relationships with their respective muses, I can’t in good conscience recommend a band as regressive and stagnant as Xerion. It’s not that I need every black metal record I hear to be some iconoclastic reinvention of genre conventions, but there’s writing within the confines of genre conventions and then there’s the thoughtless recitation of clichés, without any consideration given to using genre as a jumping-off point to create engaging and memorable music. The hell of it is, Cantares Das Loitas Esquecidas isn’t terrible – the musicianship is basically compentent and its melodic sensibilities entirely palatable, and with an injection of ambition and self-reflection, Nocturno might well be able to turn his crew into a force to be reckoned with – but it is bland and uninspired, not to mention tame, an adjective which ought never to be associated with black metal. There may well be a niche for black metal from Galicia, but with Cantares Das Loitas Esquecidas, Xerion have yet to adequately fill it.
Written by: Andrew
Label: Schwarzdorn (DE)
Cat. # SD37CD
01 Badaladas Funerais No Esmorecer da Lúa
02 O Espertar do Xerión
03 A Alquímica Dexeneración da Ialma
04 Onde a Victoria Agarda
05 Nas Verdes Fragas de Amh-Ghad-Ari
06 Cantares das Loitas Esquecidas
07 Morte na Iauga
08 Loitas na Néboa (Taunusheim cover)
09 Pvtrefacta Anima Nostra