A Facebook band page description of “meditative ritual dark ambient” is bound to produce skepticism in even the most hardened esoteric music fan, more so when said page has a staggering total of 3,575 “likes” for following down the path of such a purposely obscure genre. Who could have imagined that Shibalba’s particular blend of cultic music could produce so many followers in a career dominated by split appearances? Their latest full-length, Samsara (2015)—which is only their second in an, at the time of release, six-year career—is a nebulous ceremony that, at least for a couple of tracks, holds enough spiritual sincerity to inspire attention.
Shibalba is the remainder of Acherontas—the hypnotic Hellenic black metal of Acherontas V. Priest, his robed, dour glitz. A stalwart member of the Greek black metal horde, Acherontas built a career on his previous Stutthof project. Both Acherontas’s Ma-IoN (Formulas of Reptilian Unification) and Shibalba’s Samsara clearly mirror the influence of one another; unfortunately, it’s nothing new for tired black metal to pedal heady meditations.
Phurpa, the Russian collective who are widely considered one of the saviors of contemporary ritual music, recently cut a split with Shibalba, further securing the project’s reputation as an intelligent and sincere effort. The seminal British industrial label Cold Spring released the split, Teachings of Eastern Traditions, and while Samsara’s release on Malignant Records was a step up from earlier efforts, this split with Phurpa reveals Shibalba as a prominent voice in the dark ambient genre—a new voice from old talent.
In 2006, Acherontas had a small and brief stake in another thoughtful pursuit, Der Stürmer’s A Banner Greater Than Death, as a session bassist. Those NSBM propagandists have more to do with a Zionist Occupation Government, but they also delved into the murk of Indo-Aryan philosophy. Shibalba too, though Samsara (meaning the cycle of death and rebirth to which the physical world is bound) appears more concerned with alchemy. The CD contains a long quote from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, namely his three-part wisdom: alchemy, astrology, and theurgy (or god summoning). Samsara, then, is at least partially concerned with Euro-Egyptian philosophy and religion.
The esoteric ambition of Samsara takes a moment to get rolling as it opens with extended kitsch: Obtuse key strokes and a chime’s twisted notes surround a choir for eight minutes, leaving the track, “The Magick of Mirrors,” with an air of The Da Vinci Code that falls away in a martial drumbeat. Shibalba loves haze, which they accredit to their style of “atmospheric drift ensconced in sepulchral reverb.” Samsara is shrouded in these cosmic tones which directly hit their mark with “Dharma and Alchemy.” When Acherontas chants, Samsara comes to fruition and realizes its full potential.
Shibalba has one foot in Zero Kama’s audio ritualism and the other in, arguably, NASA Space Sound Recordings. Take “Stellar Oracle”—a piece composed of droning bells that a steady tom-tom pulls to Earth. The intonations, farther back, lend the impression of a vast space that is negated in the following title track wherein voices reveal themselves dolorously, reminding of Shibalba’s black metal affinities. But the range of these incantations never hinders Samsara’s somber mood, usually baiting the ceremonial effect.
Where will Acherontas V. Priest go from here? From stage to tomb, it’s right to question the authenticity of Shibalba’s “meditative ritual dark ambient,” as it is with frankly any project riding the current occult music bandwagon straight into the inferno. Samsara will undo these doubts, however—especially with the path Shibalba is taking on Cold Spring. Their presence in this niche is justified, Samsara casts a spell conjuring that lengthy esoteric history, and Malignant Records continues their legacy of excellence.
01) The Magick of Mirrors
02) Dharma and Alchemy
03) Stellar Oracle