Black metal is a unique force in music. It’s like a vast ocean, where the waves on top are only half the story. Much of its power is in the undertow, the unseen forces that push and pull upon the body. It’s this physical element, in tune with nature and the uncontrollable, that the best black metal channels. Phil Elverum has known this for quite some time now. He’s been tapping these elemental forces since the 90s and, in the last five years or so, the aesthetic trappings of black metal – rather than just the ideas of it – have become more and more prevalent in his work. The immense guitarscapes of Winds Poem in 2009 was the first proper sign of the metal influences coming through, contrasting Elverum’s vulnerable voice with the raging power of wind and storm.
That template is repeated here on Elverum’s second album as Mount Eerie this year. While Clear Moon, released in May, was a still – though not quite tranquil – walk along a lake shore, Ocean Roar is an altogether more fragmented and dangerous environment. ‘Pale Lights’ opens the album, a sprawling epic of two sections. First, the roar of guitar and drums, harsh and loud. Then an interlude where Elverum speaks his piece, defining the space and setting the perspective. The organ holds a chord and the guitars rise up again to smother everything before cutting out around the ten minute mark.
After such an intense opening, the next few tracks provide a welcome lull. The first ‘Instrumental’ starts to ramp up again, its crushed guitar echoing around the piano chords and high woodwind melody. When the drums eventually kick in, it’s as dramatic a moment as you’ll find on the album. Feedback begins to thread itself through the cymbal crashes and it’s all over before you know it, gone as quickly as it came. ‘Waves’ is the most directly metal thing Elverum has done to date, all tremolo-picked guitars and rushes of drums. It’s sheer scale is awesome and terrifying, resolving in one quick major chord, giving a second of space to Elverum’s simply spoken sentences, before the waves of beautiful noise crash in again. It is something to behold, a stunning expanse of wild rage, a hurricane viewed from afar.
The cover of Popul Vuh’s ‘Engel Der Luft’ serves as a bridge into ‘I Walked Home Beholding’, a song which exhibits everything that is great about Elverum’s particular style and execution. It’s traditional Elverum, refined to perfection. He sings gently melodic lines atop a bed of organ and brushed ride cymbal. The guitar and finger-clicks evoke that particularly Lynchian mood he channels so often. Then, in the middle of this lullaby, a devastating blow. ‘Totally at piece with the meaninglessness of living’. The lyrics bring to bear Elverum’s thoughts on the precarious position of humanity amid nature; he is alone in the town, lights are weak, trees move in the wind. Consciousness is an island within the flesh, and flesh is at the mercy of a natural logic and power that we can’t understand. The song casually spends four minutes examining and elucidating thoughts that have occupied the finest minds for centuries. That’s Phil Elverum for you.