In a recent piece for the Wire, Joseph Stannard has summed up one key characteristic of black metal (at least of its Scandinavian, ‘Burzumic’ variant) nicely: While it relies on heavy guitars, it is destroying the riff and replacing it by a buzzing wash that pushes the sound closer to more abstract, ambient terrain. In Stannard’s words, it’s “the musical equivalent of colouring outside the lines”.
Scandinavia has been the centre of such musical production, in terms of both quantity and quality. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that one of the most extreme examples of ambient black metal comes from Sweden??: Underjordiska’s “Dystert Vilse”. In true outsider metal fashion, the album has been conceived by one man only, in this case by Dahl, who, according to the liner notes, recorded the album “through the autumns and winters” 2005 and 06. And o boy, does Dahl colour outside the lines: He did not record, or programme, any drums – if there should any on this album then they’re so far back in the mix that I can’t hear them. But there’s buzz, plenty of it in fact, as well as distorted vocals and dreamy synths. With the exception of the synaesthetic opener “Rainshine” and “Isolation” with its veritable Michael-Cretu-style synth hookline, these seven tracks might have been sculpted almost arbitrarily out of the 60 minutes of recorded music on this album: Abstraction is such that requires attentive listening to become aware of the development within the tracks. There seem to be no choruses, and when a track is fading out it seems it could have gone on forever. Which would be quite a challenge as even this album is, I find, difficult to digest in one listening session.
“Dystert Vilse” is not a masterpiece – far from it, in fact – but it’s nevertheless remarkable as another tiny step towards abstraction. Another intervention that pushes the boundaries further. And raises questions: How much can you buzz before what usually creates atmosphere merely becomes a disengaging technical ploy (as it happens here, I would argue)? Can black metal without drums work at all? Where does (fascinating) artistic idiosyncracy end – and where does (potentially boring) academic sound research begin? Where exactly does the fine line between authenticity and artificiality run in the field of solo-artist black metal (of course the genre has always been blatantly artificial but within its very artificiality is the genre’s authentic core and its ‘unique selling proposition’: the isolation of its outsider protagonits)? Most of these questions pertain to limits and questions of balance. That “Underjordiska” raises them may be its biggest achievement as it reminds us that the lines in the painting book keep being blurry. 7/10 -- Jan-Arne Sohns (14 January, 2009)