Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cryptic Winds - Storms of the Black Millenium

Cryptic Winds - Storms of the Black Millenium
2002 (?), Breath of Night/Merciless Records

It has always been sort of amusing for me to watch the "official opinions" regarding this band circulating through the underground. First there was the general approbation because of the link with the Breath of Night and the (then) bizarre (self-created, I am convinced, as a sociological experiment) cult of personality around Judas Iscariot founder Akhenaten, the uncritical nod to what must surely be an album worth "supporting" because of its scene allegiances, signifiers of conviction, signs/badges of authenticity, etc. Then there was the inevitable backlash, prompted by envy, jealousy, and what some people were claiming were "untrue" motivations or behavior on the part of the musicians showcased here. Apparently some vocal minority in the underground was a little too close to this band and could peer behind the curtain of lustrous black metal magic woven here to see the flesh within the machine. Disappointed - perhaps - by seeing the frailty at the heart of this beast, they reacted in scorn? One can only speculate at this point. I'm sure the usual ritual transpired: they felt their music was cast in shadow by what Cryptic Winds could offer and immediately sought to point out the (false) idol had feet of clay. I'm sure not sure Cryptic Winds were ever reverenced eidolons in the first place, but if they were placed in such a position only to be immediately pulled down by their jealous once-admirers, it wouldn't be the first time something like that had happened. It won't be the last.

What makes all of this even more amusing to me is the fact that I regard this album to be, without contention or dispute among my internal faculties, one of the best American black metal releases ever produced. I've been listening to this for years wondering if other people would catch on and recognize its inherent quality and melodic talent, its songwriting purity, simplicity, and marriage of utility and a tight reign on experimental "ambitions". So far it seems to be still slipping under the radar...I'll call it, laughing up my sleeve, a "cult classic" and be done with it. Back to the shelf with these vain, self-deprecating comments that no one will understand anyway...

So why do Cryptic Winds succeed where so many other bands fail? It's a combination of a few different factors, and I'll struggle quickly to get them down here...first, they have an easy, facile, expert control over the elements of the "modern" black metal style. That basic core mastery is then appended to an ambition in creating song structures that never seems to outstrip or overleap its own inherent limitations, based on what we have set in stone concerning black metal aesthetics. Cryptic Winds draw from all of the different periods of black metal style - even going back to Bathory (listen to the first track here, "Prelude of Portenousness" - as it's spelled on the tray card, and think about the fact that the first overt reference this band makes is to that primary originator), passing through the Norwegians, taking cues from the Swedish, adding in a vitriolic energy and caustic, acidic, raw aesthetics from the American scene or Beherit, etc. They touch on everything in a survey pattern that draws from the strengths of these various outcroppings/growths of metastasizing impurity, black metal's pathogen injected into former death metal bands, without giving in to the self-indulgent withdrawal from immediacy that later motivated many of these bands to appeal to "obscurity" in order to hide their inability to write appealing melodies.

Cryptic Winds do not take this route...when they feel a song has been pressed for all of the meaning it can possibly transmit and/or bear, they simply leave it. This is a short album. In keeping with the tradition of black metal aesthetics, then, they of course employ the usual simplistic chord progressions and quickly-strummed barre chord melodies to create narrative sections in their songs that are somewhat devoid of idiosyncratic expressions or statements of identity, but they temper these more mundane signifiers of "scene allegiance" with constant breaks, illustrative micromelodies, additions, asides, cast-off and half-propagated ideas, etc. See the fourth song, "The Ashes of Nightfall", for a good example of this technique. While other bands use this methodology and seek to only create riff-montages, a sort of loose amalgam of unfinished, unpolished ambitions and designs (through - what? laziness? lack of talent? an unclear vision?), Cryptic Winds somehow manage to make these basic motifs cohere and work together in a profitable interrelation for the distance of the song's running length, while sounding all the while like they are about to fall apart beneath their own momentum. This creates the "energy" or tension that draws the listener to the music, and it doesn't hurt that the band does not seek to hold these disparate elements together longer than they seem to require based on their own internal essence or native qualities. As each song finishes, the ideas promulgated within in contrasting rhythmic fragments (sometimes riding over the most charmingly bizarre drum machine patterns) or melodic segments drawn from twenty years of post-Bathory evolution are freed to drift back into the ether, each song here ends by exploding outwards to give the mass and motive weight the band draws on back to the temporary orbiting sphere of meaning revolving between each track...with the entrance of the next song into one's consciousness these fundamentals are reassembled at light speed in a different configuration and then immediately asked to transmit all of their messages to the listener without hiding behind motivic incomprehensibility, confusion, or a dainty "hesitation" or "pause" above the essential work of relating an emotive discourse. The music of Cryptic Winds is dirty, direct, basic, well-constructed, always changing, and (seemingly) effortlessly atmospheric in its dark, primal immediacy...something, once again, few bands can manage to achieve.

I should add that this band do not hesitate, as I hinted at before, to launch themselves into a commitment to narrative melodies or heartfelt, emotional, evocative themes that make each song stand out as separate entities...a rarity in this age of drone aesthetics and the constant use of a self-enclosed, withdrawing, aloof melodic sensibility, melodies that do not consider it worth their time to lend meaning to their elaboration, etc. This again links Cryptic Winds with the past, the era of strong song writing, not the future of this genre...which seems mired in self-doubt, a basic inability to compose strong or idiosyncratic themes, and a reliance on "influences" to determine, solely, one's ambitions within the compositional process. I can not think of another American black metal band that sounds anything like Cryptic Winds. They have simply drawn on tradition to create vital, strong, attractive recombinations of the genre's most appealing characteristics, and then use these lean vehicles as self-destructive carriers of their own poignant communications. I do not know what happened to this band, or where these musicians are now...I can only hope they will release something else in the future. As it stands this is one of my favorite black metal albums, and in my opinion this group stands head and shoulders above most of their American "peers"...those who are still trying to cast aspersions upon this group in an attempt to "raise themselves" by pulling down what should be a natural role model. So it goes in the petty, dog-eat-dog world of the black metal scene...

The bottom line, I think, is that this album just creates evocative atmospheres that are profound and attractive enough to merit your attention.