Black Metal is a fickle beast for this consumer, on the one hand, it is an extreme fringe of metal, yet along with it’s bloodier brother, Death Metal is often aggrandized to be at the forefront of the genre, ironically since they are at the very edge of the spectrum. Furthermore, the imagery of black metal and the themes they stereotypically portray, albeit societally important, are also fringe and circumstantial to their geographic origins. In 2020, most of those tropes are tired, trite, and hamfisted. However, there has been a growing movement within the genre to expand the horizons while not straying too far from the roots, and many bands have toyed to varying degrees of success with lyrical themes and imagery borrowed and adapted from other genres. I find myself relating more strongly to this “new wave of black metal” which is why Portugal’s Gaerea’s newest record Limbo finds its way to my table.
Stumbling on their previous record “Unsettling Whispers” completely by providence, turned out to be serendipitous as Gaerea expresses the best parts of the black metal genre while divesting itself of its subjectively weaker elements. Moving to 2020 Gaerea continues to play with themes of violent grief and its effect on the human mind, this time in their latest offering. The aptly named Limbo paints a picture of the first circle of hell, or pre-Hell, where souls are doomed to linger, perfectly captured by the now ubiquitous master artist Eliran Kantor. After consuming every single one of Gaerea’s released tracks over the years, it is easy to admit, that Limbo is their most focused, cohesive, and thematically strong work yet.
To start off a record with an ELEVEN-minute track is brave, to say the least, to an almost Periphery level of chutzpah, but like the djentyboys, Gaerea pulls it off with absolute grace. “To Ain” is a classic unto itself, a lumbering beast which opens with ringing notes pulled straight from the Behemoth playbook (to a point of mistaking it for “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”), yet moves firmly into Gaerea territory, fusing Mgla’s level of melodic melancholy with Kriegsmachine’s trademark rage, bouncing back and forth between sadness and anger, with each of those decidedly negative emotions taking center stage with each movement and arrangement, yet not quite settling in one mood or the other, wherein lies Limbo’s greatest strength. Limbo sounds fresh even as it derives itself from many bands and themes marrying them harmoniously. “To Ain” is such a complete snapshot of what Gaerea is, and wants to be, and is a story unto itself. As an interlude, Gaerea strips away all the layers as the track stops dead in its tracks with a minimalist ambient section, almost alluding to quiet introspection after a fit of emotion. Just as unexpected as the ambient interlude is the bombastic change in mood which follows immediately after, swerving away from melancholy into darker desperation with an evil tinge with triadic chord choices, delving further into Gaerea’s blackened death metal.
Tracks like these make one rue for the Behemoth we could have had and not the one we have now; the hollow shell buckling under the weight of its own self-professed importance and theatrics. Gaerea does not fully escape the black metal imagery, though it eschews Behemoth’s extravagance and skews much heavier towards Mgla’s anonymity, with their unnamed and veiled lineup, choosing to have their music speak for them, rather than become primary icons within their own art. Lead single “Null” continues to strengthen the themes laid out in To Ain, with musical sections that would not be amiss in a Harakiri For The Sky or Karg record. As much as there are bleak and dismal arrangements, Limbo is not without teeth. “Glare”, “Conspiranioa”, and “Urge” are all wrought with fanged tremolo-picked riffs, fast-paced drums, shrieks, and growls, yet again, never overstays its welcome before changing it up and then back again, never sitting idle enough to be an “angry song” or a “sad song” being both and never, which makes this record such a deep listen. “Urge”, the shortest track clocking in a wee bit under five minutes, has chuggy sections which veer closer to death metal, almost unheard of in black metal, further blurring the lines between the extreme metal genres, yet expertly knows when to dive right back in; a welcome surprise. Album closer is another juggernaut, the THIRTEEN minute “Mare”. The fear of long tracks is that they tend to be diluted for the sake of protraction, and bloat creeps in. While “Mare” isn’t completely free of bloat and does feel drawn out in certain sections, it is by no means the worst offender in the genre, yet pales in comparison to opener “To Ain”. Limbo, being bookended by titanic tracks adds to the cavernous expanse of its subject matter and further cement Gaerea as master creators, developing a complete work of art that doesn’t overstay its welcome, dives deep, and doesn’t crumble under its own pretense.
The musicianship on Limbo is dense, layered, and nuanced, and unveils new subtleties with each consecutive listen, an album that keeps on giving is rewarding replays. Each musician is pushing his art to the maximum, the guitar layers skillfully make us feel various emotions yet never give us time to settle in any one mood before changing chord progressions enough to evoke another feeling. The drums are cohesive, appropriate, yet unrelenting: everything we want from black metal drums. The production on Limbo is modern-black metal, which this consumer is heavily biased in favor of, disliking the “kvlt” lo-fi production values. The vocals need particular mention, as the unnamed vocalist weaves between Nergal (Behemoth)’s low barks, Mgla’s darkened and despondent brays, and Harakiri For The Sky or Advent Sorrow’s DSBM agony-filled shrieks, expressing not as much a sense of malice, but of tortured longing, that of violent desperation.
Limbo is Gaerea at its finest: raw in its emotion and polished in its execution. Effortlessly weaving through melodramatic grief and pent-up anger, Gaerea paints a picture of the human condition at its most vulnerable at both ends of the spectrum. Limbo is a victory for the band and the genre and it would be criminal for it to go unnoticed, for which Gaerea deserves every bit of praise!