Jon Britton turns his musical gaze onto blackgaze metal to review Noir Kid, the latest album from Violet Cold...
One might argue that blackgaze is something of a “black sheep” for extreme metal, pun intended. Pioneered by French multi-instrumentalist Stéphane Paut (better known as Neige), first wave bands like Alcest and Amesoeurs found a comfortable, positive reception with most music lovers, but the genre went on to cause a shockwave of controversy amongst the metal community with later acts like Deafheaven, Bosse-de-Nage and Ghost Bath; some of those names still being metal-cred killers to this day, despite outside acclaim. Some theorise it was due to the mainstream success of the sound and a consensus to it being overrated. Others say it’s due to hysteria over some kind of “hipster invasion” within extreme metal (which still sounds fatuous). Either way, most metal-listeners are more-than-familiar with this divisive scene and story, so there’s no need to regurgitate it. What I can give you is a personal take. I was in my mid-teens during the storm, and I cared about my metal-cred. It was very easy to jump on the high-speed train of hate towards the genre, and stick to the “pure” black metal bands of old.
Of course, we all grow past the age of fifteen, and frankly I want to care about the music I enjoy without the involved cliques. I also couldn’t care less if a black metal band’s members look like normal, geeky dudes instead of corpse-paint-clad devils. Regardless, my interest in black metal subsided over the past few years due to what I see as a very fatigued formula, with the exceptions of classic artists like Bathory, Darkthrone, Kvist and early Ulver, as well as a few modern bands like Dodecahedron, An Isolated Mind and Mgła. For better or worse, most listeners would agree that “trve” Norwegian black metal has grown fairly stagnant since the mid-nineties, at least for those without an unwavering dedication to its specific sound of dark, tremolo-picked riffs, incessant blast-beats and rough production.
Despite this, I’ve always had a soft-spot for Alcest and various DSBM bands (a subgenre which, at times, has a lot in common with blackgaze), and I went on to rediscover the blackgaze bands I once condemned. Bosse-de-Nage, Archivist, Lantlôs, and finally giving Deafheaven’s Sunbather the time it deserved (almost four years after its release). Lo-and-behold, I got a taste for the shrill, major-chord riffs of Sunbather. It was right up my street, presenting a contrast-of-sound between the cold darkness of black metal and the hazy, warm dreaminess of shoegaze (the latter genre I still very much love), while keeping up with the lo-fi production both genres have in common, mixed in with plenty of post-rock passages. It sounded like existential dread mixed in with summer weather. I’m a sucker for the bittersweet, and Sunbather hit that nerve in the same way as Alcest and even Japanese screamo-gods Envy. I found out I’m one of those metal-listeners who happens to like the new wave of blackgaze. Judge me how you will.
You read the title of this review, and you’re probably asking why I’m bringing all this up. Well, I shiver at the thought of what would happen to Azerbaijani one-man experimental-blackgaze artist (quite the mouthful) Violet Cold if the purists were to get a hold of his latest record, Noir Kid. The shitstorm would be catastrophic.
While I’m not too well-rehearsed on his first few releases, I’ve been keeping a keen eye on Violet Cold (or Emin Guliyev, by real name) since his 2017 effort, Anomie, which I believe to be one of the more interesting blackgaze albums of recent years. Before, I described some blackgaze as sounding like sunlight-coated misery. Well, Anomie blended said sound with traditional, Middle-East influences, complete with rhaitas, Armenian duluks, riq tambourines, ouds and female-led traditional vocals (although largely in Turkish as opposed to Arabic); influences that make perfect sense considering the location of Azerbaijan, caught between Georgia and Iran. Georgia, mind you, happens to house one of the best DSBM bands of recent years, Psychonaut 4, so black metal sounds aren’t too far away from Azerbaijan’s borders.
Anomie also saw Violet Cold experiment with gorgeous synth melodies, which were both seamlessly implemented and highly complementary to the overall sound. Cuts like Lovegaze and My Journey To Your Space are still very much in my rotation, and If you want an example of how to blend synthesisers with black metal with astounding results, I point you there. But even as a whole, Anomie is an essential listen for anyone intrigued by blackgaze or any of the sounds I’ve mentioned above, and remains one of my favourite blackgaze releases. Seriously, stop reading this review, go listen to it, then come back.
Violet Cold’s last album, 2019’s kOsmik, was considerably colder, spacier and a bit more traditional in its blackgaze sound. While much of the Middle-Eastern folk was dropped, the female-led vocals were very much in full swing, maybe even stronger than before, giving a bit of pop influence into the mix. Just so we’re clear, I don’t have a problem with this as long as it’s done tastefully (which it was). While kOsmik didn’t leave as much as an impact on me as Anomie, it was still a solid release.
Now, at last, we get on to Noir Kid. I have no reservations in saying this may well be Guliyev’s most bizarre and daring album to date, incorporating certain sounds which I don’t think any of us were expecting. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s take it track-by-track.
The record opens with the title track, and let’s get one thing clear first: the first two and a half minutes of Noir Kid are flawless, showcasing the very-same poignant soundscapes that made me love Violet Cold in the first place. We escalate from reverb-coated post-rock riffing (complete with a subtle synth-line) into explosive, bittersweet blackgaze before the Middle-Eastern influence comes in once again, rising above the tremolo riffs with wailing female-vocals and oud plucking before settling back into an atmospheric, acoustic comfort zone.
Then something happens. The reverb-drenched guitars are replaced with a pounding, rave-esque synth riff. There’s no way of sugar-coating it: Violet Cold has decided to incorporate EDM influence into blackgaze. Now you can see why I fear for the repercussions if, god-forbid, a purist was to hear this. Either way, it’s a strange (albeit brief) section of a fantastic title-track, and the pop-flavoured female vocals towards the end work wonders with the music, with the oud coming back to provide a layering riff to finish the song. It’s an interesting culmination of sounds, and proves Violet Cold is still very much dedicated to experimentation while still being soaring and melodic.
Next up is All Heroes Are Dead, which is something of a homage to Guliyev’s sounds of old, adopting a moodier tone, with the Middle-Eastern vocals taking point halfway through after a quiet post-rock passage, again rising into synth-tinged blackgaze towards the end. While it feels a bit like Violet Cold 101 (probably the last thing Guliyev wants, considering his love for experimentation), I would say it’s the most inoffensive out of the tracklist, feeling a bit like a bonus track from kOsmik more than anything.
Unfortunately, with the track Synergy, we hit a musical brick-wall. The track opens with chipmunk-autotuned vocals, reminding me of obnoxious drum-and-bass vocal verses more than anything else. This isn’t just a one-off passage, either; they crop up frequently throughout the entire track, making it something of a seven-minute endurance test for those of us who loathe vocals of this kind. With the utmost credit and respect to Violet Cold for making the attempt at fusing two highly opposing sounds, it pains me to say I can’t think of a single person enjoying this track. It’s too black metal (complete with shrill screams, blast-beats and all that jazz) to appeal to the rave crowd, and I can picture even the most open-minded metalhead finding the fusion of chipmunk vocals and extreme metal to be abominable. Sorry, Guliyev, but this was a stretch. There really are some sounds which just aren’t meant to go together. Being As An Ocean attempted something similar in 2017, fusing their melodic-hardcore sound with these same kinds of obnoxious vocals. It didn’t work then, and it certainly isn’t working now.
We follow-up with Battle Unicorn, which regrettably isn’t much better. The winding, trance-flavoured synths and similarly garbled, autotuned vocals that litter the first minute don’t provide much solace for our ears. We erupt again into Guliyev’s wailing blackgaze, but the transition just doesn’t work; moving from processed autotune into shrill, lo-fi screams can only remind me of the most abhorrent crunkcore of the 2000s. These elements are grating to the overall sound, so much so that I can barely mention anything else, perhaps showing this is a bit of a failed experiment. I feel Guliyev has backed himself into a corner, taken one challenge too many, deciding to mesh things together which no artist has been daring enough to do previously. While this is deserving of some praise in its own way, I feel (in this case) music artists didn’t attempt this because it probably shouldn’t be attempted, these two tracks now being the perfect case-study. I feel Guliyev has done his very best considering the size of the challenge, and it could’ve been a lot worse, but that isn’t saying much.
I hate to say it, but things don’t improve in the following track, Euphoria (which, I’m afraid, consists of anything but). Again, we start with a grating introduction: sterile, echoing female vocal melodies reminiscent of the same kind of obnoxious Western pop you’d hear in some teenage-infested nightclub. It’s awful. The same criticisms of the last two tracks can be applied here. For the sake of time, let’s just say that halfway through Euphoria, more Middle-Eastern vocals come in, accompanied by the aforementioned irritating pop ones, combined with moody blackgaze chords before transitioning into even more trance-influenced synth lines. Some may say that’s an ambitious melding of conflicting sounds. I call it an irreparable mess; none of those sounds complement each other.
After this three-track gauntlet, the album finally picks itself up. Goodnight Sun is a major improvement, with the female-led vocals at their most tasteful and well-implemented, accompanying Guliyev’s blackened wails with suitable maturity. The electronic influence throughout meshes in a much more coherent way than before, building the atmosphere along with all the other instruments at play. The synths eventually arm-wrestle their way to prominence in the last-third, with a gleeful melody to segue into the last verse, but I feel like it works much better this time around. The melody interlocks with the drums nicely, creating a much more enjoyable sound than it did previously. It’s proof Guliyev knows what he’s doing, and leads me to question why the last three tracks weren’t constructed like this (but perhaps that’s the whole purpose of experimentation).
The record reaches its last leg with Synced To Darkness, which is a definite highlight. Starting off at sprinting pace, with major-chord tremolo riffing in traditional blackgaze-fashion, it creates a sound just as spacey and distant as kOsmik and Anomie. The last half of the song is accompanied by some of the best synth melodies we’ve heard yet, with the last minute being just breath-taking, and another perfect example of how to do synth-oriented blackgaze.
The album ends with the slightly offputting Gezellig, which seems to try and cram everything the album has done so far into a mere one-minute and forty-five-seconds; synths, screams, folk-vocals, all in the kitchen sink. I feel the record deserves a better finisher, maybe adding an extra couple of minutes to Synced To Darkness, making an already great track into a great finale. It’s a shame, as Anomie ended very strongly, and kOsmik’s quiet finisher certainly wasn’t bad either, yet it feels like Guliyev didn’t know how to end Noir Kid and tacked this track on.
Despite the numerous failed experiments, I don’t think Noir Kid is a bad album. I think it begins very strongly and regains that strength in its second half, but remains littered with sonic explorations that, while being the first I’ve heard of its kind, I honestly hope are also the last. There are tracks on this thing which I can’t see myself (or really anyone else) revisiting at any point for enjoyment or emotional stimulation, only for novelty. Maybe his grating combination of EDM with blackgaze was meant to produce some kind of contemporary angst, with urban night-life only leading to more emptiness and internal torment among the drugs, hedonism and glowsticks. Even if this was the goal, he’s created an album with tracks I’m definitely not compelled to hear again.
Nevertheless, there are other tracks that showcase Guliyev at his strongest yet. The title track is the show-stealer; suffocatingly powerful in its melodies, with the brief EDM influence being at its most tasteful and well-implemented. It stands as the most impressive and fluid melding of the record’s ambitious sounds. Goodnight Sun and Synced To Darkness will also be in my rotation for a while to come, and if Guliyev plans on continuing this style then I pray they’re the tracks he takes the most pointers from.
Noir Kid is a fascinating and baffling album. If Guliyev aimed to present something we’ve never heard before, then he’s succeeded with flying colours, finding new, unmarked territory for blackgaze. He’s continued to challenge himself as much as the listener, even more-so than previous albums. However, some of his explorations are undeniably ill-founded and cause a meshing of styles that simply don’t fit together, which I can see as damaging the enjoyability of the record for many. This being considered, the album certainly doesn’t lack ambition, and I can recommend it as a venture of experimental curiosity alone, although whether it’s a successful one has never been more subjective.
Best tracks: Noir Kid, All Heroes Are Dead, Goodnight Sun, Synced To Darkness
Review Copyright Jon Britton – ©JonBritton 2020 All rights reserved.
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