Listening to Nechochwen‘s Heart of Akamon, I am distinctly reminded of a time three years ago when I first heard Panopticon‘s Kentucky album. For me, Kentucky was more than a great folk-black metal album; it was the first time I’d heard a predominantly American folk influence on a black metal album. To be honest, I’m surprised more black metal bands haven’t looked into America’s rich history and musical canon for their inspiration. With Nechochwen, I’m hearing the same promise Kentucky offered, demonstrated again in full. There is a certain logic that this band would hail from Virginia; the music uses an exploration of Native American culture as its springboard, and the album’s most aggressive passages deal with the conflict between the natives and European colonists from first contact onward. From what I can gather, the gentlemen in Nechochwen carry mixed blood, with ancestors on both sides of the bloody dialogue. Heart of Akamon succeeds as both a metal and a folk album, but it’s this rare glimpse into a widely overlooked culture that makes the band’s fourth record feel so special.
Again, I am surprised so few artists in black metal—or, indeed, music in general—have not drawn from a Native American culture for inspiration. Panopticon’s folk hinged upon post-colonial folk threads (e.g. bluegrass). Canada’s Gyibaaw comes to mind when thinking of native-influenced bands as well, and quite a few from the Crepusculo Negro (Black Twilight Circle) used indigenous folk instruments, but they were drawing upon Meso-American cultures. There’s a certain atavistic primitivism to the indigenous North American cultures that coincides with a lot of existing atmospheric black metal lore, namely a rejection of high technology and spiritual closeness to nature. The fact that Nechochwen are among the few who are doing this right now might have risked the musical experience hinged upon that novelty, but most every aspect of Heart of Akamon, new and familiar alike, feel well-rounded and powerful.
As a metal band, Nechochwen strike me as a cross between Panopticon’s Americana atmosphere and the riff-centric storytelling of Ireland’s Cruachan. There is biting energy to their riffs, which sound fuelled with melancholy well-befitting of the stories they’re telling. The production has an organic urgency throughout that matches their goals perfectly, and while black metal still plays a significant part in their formula, it’s at most a co-star alongside their folk foundations. A full collection of dark folk songs in the style of ‘October 6, 1813’ and ‘Škimota’ would have been just as welcome as a full album, if the quality here is any indicator. Ultimately, Nechochwen’s balance between these two halves is its own reward; I’ve heard plenty of otherwise great metal albums that pummel the listener with unrelenting heaviness, and the effect is gone before the album meets its end. Heart of Akamon shifts steadily, and never makes one style seem like a side-show of another.
Between those two halves, there’s quite a bit of variety going on here. While the vocal harmonies on ‘October 6, 1813’ have a bit of a Vintersorg sterility to them, I enjoy the song’s emphasis on clean singing and warm instrumentation, which I’d liken to a Native American take on Opeth‘s Damnation. ‘Skyhook’ took me by surprise as a song with some of the cheeriest black metal riffing outside of Sunbather, while ‘Kiselamakong’ paired sludgy doom with polished guitar leads and indigenous flute layers. The effect of clean-cut spoken word over doom and clean harmonies at the album’s end took a few listens to grow on me, and while there’s still something about it that sounds a little off (the mixing of the spoken word is a little high, perhaps), I’ve come to see it as a mournful, angry eulogy for a bygone way of life. Even then, Heart of Akamon seems to end on a fairly abrupt note, but these small errors detract little from the album’s overall impression.
I have a lot of love for this album, and despite its minor flaws and occasional lack of coherence, it’s been a good long time since I’ve heard a new atmospheric black metal album that struck me so hard and urged me to keep listening again and again. I’m shocked that Nechochwen continue to remain as little-known as they are; perhaps their biggest claim to fame to date was taking part in the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog folk compilation among the likes of Agalloch. If Heart of Akamon does not get them more exposure, a great injustice will have been wrought. This is truly an exceptional album, and I really hope to hear more uniquely American-sounding folk metal albums in the future.
01) The Serpent Tradition
02) The Impending Winter
03) Lost on the Trail of the Setting Sun
04) October 6, 1813
05) Traversing the Shades of Death
Written by: Conor Fynes
Bindrune Recordings (United States) / BR032 / 12″ LP, CD
Nordvis Produktion (Sweden) / N/A / 12″ LP, CD, Digital
Native American Folk / Atmospheric Black Metal / Neofolk