Music Life

“Walk Beyond the Dark”—an atmospheric black metal album review

If you’ve read my bio, then you know that I love metal. Metal is a genre of music that has a plethora of subgenres and a number of derivative genres. It encompasses a range of sounds like Twisted Sister and Blind Guardian to Immortal. As an older Millennial, I still remember hearing new music on the radio, but I hadn’t acquired the taste for metal yet. This meant that I had to learn how to find new music on the ever-expanding and developing Internet. Fortunately for Zoomers, it’s never been easier to find new music thanks to platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.

It so happened that one day I was looking for something new on Spotify and up popped this unassuming album called Walk Beyond the Dark by Abigail Williams (named after one of the girls who accused people of witchcraft and kicked off the Salem Witch Trials). I looked them up and learned this particular album was atmospheric black metal. That’s exactly the kind of genre that’s perfect for listening while writing.

What’s atmospheric black metal (aka ambient black metal)? It’s a variation on black metal that utilizes long musical interludes and repetitive thematic elements to create an atmospheric feeling from which it gets its name. It takes pre-existing components of black metal and exaggerates them to create a specific feeling that demands the listener stay with whatever sensations are brought to the fore. It’s the kind of music that one listens to the whole album from start to finish rather than to a couple of tracks on repeat or on a playlist.

Black metal is a genre that developed as a reaction to the polished sound of glam and heavy metal. Like death metal and punk, vocalists employ screams and growls as a technique that has become a hallmark of the genre. Early pioneers of the genre often recorded in lo-fi or otherwise tried to make their sound raw, like in Bathory’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark. Lyrically the music had references to Satan, violence, depression, and suicide. While all of these can still be found in black metal today, there has been a dramatic broadening of scope in terms of what black metal sounds like musically and lyrically.

Walk Beyond the Dark crosses off a lot of checkmarks that make it an album worth listening to again and again. Although it has moments of aggression and frenetic instrumentation, Abigail Williams seems more concerned with creating a world of ominous shadow. It feels much like getting on a rowboat and traveling down a calm stream… and then the music starts. The journey is creepy, like looking at a shadow and being too scared to find out what’s hidden within it. It’s also meditative, somber, and brutally morose.

On a handful of tracks, there’s a haunting strings part that comes and goes. The eerie tonal shrieks and melodic shifting between notes punctuate the unquiet stillness underpinning the album’s whole soundscape. The use of any instrument beyond drums, bass, and guitar deviates from traditional black metal, but atmospheric black metal has a lot more freedom in terms of its creative constraints. It mirrors violin usage in the progressive metal band Ne Obliviscaris’ The Citadel but unlike fellow atmospheric black metal outfit Panopticon. I found that the band had shown remarkable restraint by not putting string instrumentals on every track and that restraint paid off in a big way.

What characterizes Walk Beyond the Dark isn’t any particular performance of one instrumentalist nor the lyricist, but in Abigail Williams as a band to create a cohesive sound that carries throughout the album. This is the hallmark, for me at least, of a great atmospheric black metal album. If even just one part were out of balance, the focus of the entire album would be on that one band member’s musicianship or lack thereof.

Instead, the album is a sonic tapestry where no single thread is out of place.

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