Ahamkara- “The Embers of the Stars”

Ahamkara

What makes a piece of art considered a classic? Are classics the pieces that are the first to tread upon certain ground? Are they the most popular works of their era? Do we each get to have our own personal classics that hold personal relevance to us? In black metal, or even heavy metal music as a whole, we’ve got less than fifty years of history to really examine when defining such a term. With this in mind, it only takes a few years for a flavor of the moment to either become driftwood along the way or to be held aloft as the stuff of legend. I can’t accurately state what my personal criteria for a status of timelessness would be, but it’s a topic to which I keep returning while reflecting upon Ahamkara‘s brilliant debut, The Embers of the Stars.

Let’s be honest here. I’ve listened to The Embers of the Stars somewhere in the ballpark of ten times, but I can see its trajectory already following one I’ve displayed with albums that became my favorites. For the sake of comparison, I’m going to use my introduction to In the Nightside Eclipse. Being slightly late to the game on many things in metal (and having dial-up or no internet for most of my adolescence), I received a burnt copy of Emperor’s masterpiece from a friend in the autumn after I turned eighteen. I listened to it on long bus rides and on my misty morning walks to jobs I hated. I didn’t really enjoy what I was listening to, and often found myself tuning the music out entirely for minutes at a time, but I couldn’t stop myself from developing a fascination with the apparent lack of production values and the shrill ferocity that rang through whenever I was bothered to actually tune in for a minute. Over time, certain synth hits became familiar touchstones and a couple riffs made themselves known. I used these as landmarks to guide me deeper into the album, as I was committed to understanding black metal more fully. It’s been about a decade and now the album seems to me to have few production issues at all and I can pick out just about everything. I love it.

Back to the actual album review here, I found my first few runs with The Embers of the Stars to be dense and challenging. While not a tedious or even unpleasant listen, I’ll admit I treated Ahamkara’s work as if each of the four tracks could be easily digested while I went about my daily business. It’s casual listening that makes an album as ambitious and deep as The Embers of the Stars seem impenetrable. True, the entire thing seems as dense and  glistening as the face of a glacier, shimmering with cold beauty and colossal might, but it isn’t just some impossible wall. Instead, this album uses size and intensity to showcase a glory and ferocity that are strengthened by small details and multiple changes of pace and tone in each song. Like any voyage into something seemingly insurmountable, there needs to be a starting point. For me, it was the vocals, which is not something I find myself saying often these days. While pretty much every aspect of the album appeals to my tastes, it was the odd contrast of throwback black metal and the Leviathan-esque shrill, reverb-heavy vocals that really made it stick out beyond the basic characteristics of the early Norwegian acts.

Following my fascination with contrast deeper led me to a great appreciation of the washes of synthesizers that seemed to lean against the wall-like guitar textures. The near ceaseless cymbal-work could have easily worked against Ahamkara, as these songs don’t seem that they would lend themselves to human, thoughtful drumming, but there’s something so expressive about the way each hit adds a jagged little edge to its accompanying riff. Some bands play to each member’s unique strengths, showing talents and allowing each instrument to really shine. What makes Ahamkara so interesting is that noodling and showboating are reduced here, sacrificing momentary flair for something utterly cohesive from start to finish. It comes as little surprise that this is a duo, with Steven Black as the vocalist and his bandmate Michael Blenkarn performing all other instruments. In The Embers of the Stars, this pair has created the kind of album many bands never have the opportunity to make. There is an initial distance between the artist and the listener, but something will pull you in. Whether it’s the mournful harmonies or the furious barrage of drums and vocals, Ahamkara will win over fans of greats like Ulver or Emperor with this offering. While only time and popular opinion may give adequate context to describe this as such, I feel this is as close to a modern classic as anything I’ve heard in quite some time.

Pre-orders for this beast of an album are available from Nordvis for European readers and Bindrune for those of us in the United States, with a slated release date of February 23rd. Don’t miss out, this album is undeniably relevant if you’re a fan of black metal. It’s got something to offer both purists who yearn for the early 90s Scandinavian sound and those of us who love the experimental and adventurous nature of the genre we all love so well.