As American black metal continues to assert its dominance, so to does California continue to be a breeding ground for some of the best bands the genre has to offer. Having visited the state on several occasions and even lived there for half a year (I was a PR intern for Metal Blade Records during college), it’s hard to imagine such bleak, harrowing music emanating from such a sunny, pleasant environment. But even the most pleasant places have filthy, pitch-black underbellies that the casual observer (such as myself) may never ever see. If the Golden State possesses such an underbelly, then the mysterious quintet known as Ash Borer was undoubtedly born in the deepest, darkest recesses of that forsaken place, as their latest album, the devastating Cold of Ages attests.
The band has unfortunately been saddled with the rather ridiculous “Cascadian black metal,” genre tag, but it only takes a few listens to discern that Ash Borer’s roots lie with a number of pioneering black metal artists, namely early Burzum, Weakling and yes, even Wolves in the Throne Room (eek!). Ash Borer may indeed share many similarities with these bands, such as epic-length songs and a penchant for the most frigid of guitar tones, but Cold of Ages makes it perfectly clear that the band is looking to carve out their own niche.
Although the overall musical aesthetic of Cold of Ages is often as uh, cold as it’s cover art, the compositions themselves are extremely vibrant, effortlessly metamorphosing through a number of moods, tones and textures. There are many shades of grey here, many layers of despondence to be absorbed and sifted through. Ash Borer have a tendency to write extremely sprawling songs, but they pack those songs with enough dynamic shifts to keep the listener interested, rather than plowing through the same tired tremolo riff/blast beat patterns that so much black metal tends to get lost in. Don’t get me wrong, Ash Borer can be as scathing and corrosive as the best of them, but they balance this with some slower tempos, haunting ambience and synthesizer noise, hell, they even throw in some guest female vocals on the final two tracks. These moments of relative calm serve to make the blasting moments that much more impactful, and the music is still utterly hypnotic in a way that only the best black metal can be, in spite of the variety of ideas present within each of the tracks.
What really strikes me about Cold of Ages though, is the youthful energy that lurks just beneath the sorrow and anger. This is the sound of a young band giving it their all, channeling all of their negativity into what is ultimately a joyous exorcism through passionate self expression. Even during the album’s most subdued moments, Ash Borer’s music crackles with that energy; it’s refreshing to hear a band putting so much real emotion into their art, rather than mindlessly going through the motions or trotting out cliche after cliche in order to meet other people’s expectations of what black metal is supposed to sound like.
Along with the likes of Bosse-de-Nage and Deafheaven, Ash Borer are part of a West Coast black metal resurgence that is producing some positively stunning music, and is also indicative of the great strides that USBM has taken over the past several years towards becoming as sophisticated and compelling as its European counterpart. As great as Cold of Ages is though, I have a funny feeling that Ash Borer’s finest moments are still ahead of them, and that’s certainly an exciting prospect.