Mountain Shadow blends influences and genres to bring forth a haunting musical representation of the natural world through the unique lens of Appalachian black metal.

Release date: March 29, 2024 | Independent/Fiadh Productions (physical) | Bandcamp | Instagram

Extreme metal doesn’t necessarily succumb to trends per se, but it does occasionally rotate through cycles. This year we seem to be awash in, amongst other things, a wave of black metal. From Necrowretch back in February, to Dödsrit and Vorga both out in March, to much anticipated new albums from Austere and Darkthrone: black metal is being swept up in a rising tide. Whereas Vorga’s excellent cosmic-themed Beyond the Palest Star is out of this world, Mountain Shadow is much more down to earth.

Mountain Shadow is a collaboration between Damian Winter of Robes of Snow and a childhood friend. I can’t give this project a better or more succinct description than their own so I’ll just quote it in full: ‘Mountain Shadow liminally exists between Archaic Death Metal, Atmospheric Black Metal, Funeral Doom and Bluegrass, exalting Appalachian Horror and the melancholic ruins of nostalgic America.Robes of Snow influence is definitely felt especially on the quieter moments. However, whereas Robes of Snow have a more whimsical, ethereal, and overall warm feel, Mountain Shadow maintains an element of darkness even in otherwise calm sections. Robes of Snow is the dreamlike trance to Mountain Shadow’s earthbound horror.

After an intro track that begins with insects trilling and a wobbly, disconnected, out-of-sorts feeling the album commences in earnest with “What Lurks in the Flatwoods”. The song has a sort of false start that quickly shifts from unsettling to engaging with a guitar riff that takes over around two minutes in. “Flatwoods” then picks up to a gallop with a chunky guitar toward the end of the song in the tumultuous swirling torrent of an elemental storm.

When it comes to US black metal, there are many key artists; Wolves in the Throne Room and Falls of Rauros immediately come to mind. But looking at folk bluegrass inspired black metal specifically, it becomes impossible to discuss this album further without acknowledging the Kentucky-sized elephant in the room. Panopticon may not be standing alone in the field, but they are perhaps standing taller, making an easy target for comparison. While Panopticon lean more toward the traditional black metal of blast beats and tremolo picking, Mountain Shadow takes a more modern diverse approach with a focus on contrast and sound collage.

Whereas at least on Kentucky, which is my main point of reference for comparison, the bluegrass elements are overt and explicit, the folk themes of Mountain Shadow are more subversive and discordant. They are an underlying augmentation of the work, not the defining feature. Kentucky is a lot of things, for my money it’s one of the best albums of all time, but subtle it ain’t. Despite their stylistic differences, Mountain Shadow and Panopticon are playing with a very similar alchemical fire. And luckily Appalachia is vast and diverse enough to afford more than one interpretation, even through a lens as niche as black metal.

Elsewhere on the album, Mountain Shadow wields a scalpel with the finesse of a combat medic, delicately cutting between quiet and loud dynamics. On “Knockers Fortell Doom”, they bring the fucking sledgehammer. This song is a pickaxe of fury that blazes through its relatively brief run in an unrelenting assault. Growls, percussion, noise elements, all build and build never letting up. The use of bluegrass elements especially toward the end of the song are the most sinister yet. There’s a ‘racing towards certain doom’ feel to the track, like a runaway coal mining cart.

After the hellscape of “Doom”, the mellow beginning of “The 13th Son” comes as a welcome reprieve. It also serves as the backdrop for the History Channel documentary-style first half of the music video. Rooting us in this captivating scenery deeply grounded in a rich history with the folklore of the Jersey Devil or 13th son before ominously declaring, ‘And there are still sightings of the Jersey Devil.‘ The song really takes off from here.

The second half of the video is a more typical heavy metal music video cut with Blair Witch Project-esque found footage-type montage. It’s a very powerful and unsettling effect befitting the sinister nature of the album. There’s a feeling that behind every tree and inside every barn or shack a monster lurks just out of frame, ready to strike. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever been terrified by a water pump.

“Raftsman” features several guest instrumentalists on accordion, saxophone, and… wine glasses? That should speak to the experimental nature of this track specifically and the album overall. “Raftsman” opens with the accordion almost like a tuning fork or meditation chime. Another swirling sort of racing feeling, as on “Doom” if considerably less frantic, the pace more of a steady grinding. At around three minutes, five minutes, and again from about six minutes through the conclusion there are these stark quiet moments, something the band truly excels at.

“Raftsman” is probably my favorite track on the album. However, my favorite moment hands down is the tasty guitar riff on “Ghosts of Farmlands” that quirky little do-da-doo when you hear it you’ll know the one. “Where Do They Lead to Now?” is another album highlight. Iconic black metal wails and deeper death metal growls play off each other, just as the jangly undertone of the banjo plays off the pummeling assault of the drums and guitar. Then a howling vortex death scream leads into this guitar riff pulling us out of the scramble of lows with a nice finish.

As on “Raftsman”, “The Boy Who Stared When He Seen the Train A-Comin’” plays with these quiet elements in a noisy blend. It’s kinda like musique concrète. About halfway through this sonic exploration the drums start building with catchy guitar like a campfire song. Complete with chanting, machinery or industrial noise, and a guitar riff similar to the one on “Ghosts of Farmlands” but stretched out. This closing track is a cacophony of noise. Garbled voices, screaming, and howling whirlwind together until all we are left with is a warm throbbing hum.

Mountain Shadow have offered up quite the feast on their debut outing, there’s a lot to chew on here. Thanks to the wide range of influences and motifs they’ve indulged in there’s sure to be something in this musical smorgasbord for almost anybody to sink their teeth into. Even given the intro and what is essentially an extended outro, nothing feels unnecessary or bloated the way lengthy albums of this genre can sometimes be. If Robes of Snow is akin to wandering the woods and streams in awe of the breathtaking beauty of nature, then Mountain Shadow is those same woods at night when danger seems to lurk around every corner.

Stream Mountain Shadow now on Bandcamp and pickup the vinyl release by Fiadh Productions.

Album art and band photo by Damian Winter.

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