Few subgenres in metal are more closely entwined with their place of origin than black metal. Those early second-wave Scandinavian acts often defined themselves largely by home nation, and they are far from the only movements to take such strong inspiration from their ancestry. Cascadian black metal and Métal Noir Québécois are more recent examples of how geography and sound can be so inseperable, and Shadows of Ancestors, the tenth release by one-man band Twilight Fauna, fits in with this paradigm. Intimately linked with Appalachian folk music, drenched in atmosphere and panoramic in scope, Shadows of Ancestors is true to the forest-dwelling spirit of black metal, whilst paying homage to those who came before.
One of the real strengths of Shadows of Ancestors is the way in which, whilst veering from the standard atmospheric black metal template, it still has clear roots in the genre. The guitars are grim and frost-bitten, with a production that is both raw and majestic, giving them both bite and nobility; the central riffs often have plenty of distortion on them, creating a wall of sound that is almost impenetrable, yet never feels overwhelming or intimidating. What vocals are present are often hidden away in the production, coming through in half-heard fragments like the ghost of a memory. Yet there are also plenty of points of difference from what might be expected in black metal, and it is this that helps give Twilight Fauna such a strong sense of character. Drums are notable by their almost complete absence, and there are plenty of moments that are sparse and open, with wood flute and other Appalachian folk instruments giving the tracks moments of lightness, as well as a real, authentic folk feel.
It’s this last point that deserves to be expanded on, as I don’t mean folk as in “folk music” as it is commonly understood. Rather, it is folk music in a pre-modern sense, when songs and music were intrinsically linked to their place of origin, and were rooted in tradition and interpretation rather than ownership. Twilight Fauna’s Facebook page talks about “[blurring] the boundaries between traditional Appalachian folk and extreme metal.” In this aspect, Shadows of Ancestors is a complete triumph and success, with folk music and black metal blending seamlessly in to one another. Other bands have taken similar approaches before – comparisons to the likes of Drudkh and Agalloch are entirely appropriate and well deserved, and like those bands the meeting of folk and metal is handled with tact and skill – but Twilight Fauna posses an identity that is entirely their own.
Elsewhere, post-rock and ambient feels are more prominent; the way “Boring the Auger” progresses is absolutely heavenly, full of sorrow and grace, with an atmosphere both warm and melancholy. The first half of “Cave of Kelpius (Women of the Wild)” features a long passage built around a central riff filled with captivating, subtle changes, before the second half makes more use of space and post-rock dynamics, providing a prime demonstration of just how powerful restraint can be. Closer “Coffin Nails And Apple Trees” really hammers this home, opening with whispered, poetic vocals (“She waits in the stars/In a field of seeds) and acoustic guitars that are striking in their openness and honesty, before the song adds distorted guitars, focusing on a single riff as the song moves onward. When it comes to its conclusion, it’s an undeniably emotional, cathartic experience, that is sure to stay with the listener afterwards for quite some time.
As should be clear by now, Shadows of Ancestors is far removed from your typical black metal release. There are none of the cliches here that bog the genre down, and especially those that haunt one-man black metal. Instead, this is an album of rare vision and ambition, that seeks to tell a story without laying everything out in an obvious, clumsy manner. This truly is black metal as both folk music and as art, and it is laudable just how successful it is on both those counts, whilst remaining hugely listenable in its own right. In an already strong year for black metal, Shadows of Ancestors is a definite highlight.