There are few things as invigorating as cuddling up next to a bonfire out in the brisk, fall weather. The downside is that it takes a decent amount of time and work to kindle and set up the fire, bring out snacks, chairs, and good company; weather permitting of course. Don’t forget the teardown as well, as you need to make sure that fire is put out completely at the very least. When you don’t have the time nor energy to go through all that, what is the next best thing? I’d say listen to a folk/Americana-influenced black metal record. It is much simpler to prepare yourself some tea, wrap yourself in a blanket, and put on some headphones and let the music wash away all your qualms. Ashbringer is one of my go-to comfort bands and that is why they are Everything Is Noise’s Weekly Featured Artist!
Ashbringer are from the Twin Cities here in Minnesota, local to me, and this time of year is when they get a lot of spin time more than usual. One thing that I love about music in general is its magical ability to recreate certain atmospheres, moods, and feelings; squiggly air is great. There are plenty of albums and styles that are aptly suited at representing a certain season of the year. Circling back to bonfires, which are best enjoyed during autumn, folk/atmospheric black metal hits differently during this time of year. Following the likes of Agalloch and Fen, Ashbringer have a special way at crafting these larger-than-life soundscapes that never fails to warm my heart up, especially during times when I need it most.
I am aware that Agalloch alone have set the bar incredibly high when it comes to folk-tinged atmospheric black metal with The Mantle (a record highly influential to the band in question), but that doesn’t mean that other groups can’t do their own thing in that same musical niche and do it well themselves too. ‘New’ blood like Ashbringer, Panopticon, and Constellatia are highly effective at creating these heart-wrenching tunes that are just as gorgeous and sulky as the legendary groups who came before them.
The thing that is most enchanting to me about Ashbringer is how predominant the acoustic guitar and piano is in their music. At a first glance, it can be deceiving that this band is even a black metal band to begin with given how much emphasis is put on the softer tones and melodies. You could say that Ashbringer are a folk band with black metal influence, and I wouldn’t argue that with you. Fire itself is chaos in a tangible form, although in the context of a bonfire, it is controlled chaos that we appreciate for its warmth and beauty; Ashbringer is the sonic manifestation of that controlled chaos for our satisfaction.
On their debut album, Vacant, Ashbringer flirted with the ebb and flow between black metal and soft acoustic driven passages. Tracks like the “Ethereal Aura” suite showcase this dynamic shift between one musical world and the other, yet there was still room to expand and perfect this musical duality even more; something they proceed to do on later records. Although Vacant does sound quite flat sonically, the inherent musical quality was still there. Keep in mind that at the time, Ashbringer was a solo project to begin with as Vacant was written while vocalist/guitarist Nick Stanger was still in high school. Considering that, I cannot help but be massively impressed with this mature release for someone so young. It wasn’t until after Vacant’s release which built a lot of moment that led to this project to turn into a full band.
Nick had this to say regarding the ‘unofficial’ and natural transition from solo project to full-fledged band:
‘The first album, Vacant, was a passion project of mine that I worked on through the later half of my time in high school. I played in other bands at the time but I wanted to have a project that I could just do whatever I wanted, without the constraints of collaborating with other people with conflicting opinions on what a project should or shouldn’t be. The decision to turn the project into a full band was both impulsive and natural – we got offered a tour with Amiensus so I had to throw a live band together in a few days if I wanted to make it happen. Fortunately, I went to a performance arts high school and the first few folks I asked said yes, and the rest is history. To my knowledge, there was no ‘hey, so this is official, we’re a band now‘ conversation, it kind of just happened. And we made the next album Yūgen together.’
Since Vacant, Ashbringer only proved to get better on all fronts. With Yūgen and Absolution, Ashbringer bring these two polar opposite musical worlds that Vacant introduced into a much more congruous, seamless musical dance. It became one living, breathing entity rather than two strikingly different facets. Not only that, but the production value is an aspect that was also highly improved upon with each successive release. Throughout all their records, the production does have this ‘aged’, vintage feel to it and it’s clear that it is an artistic decision, especially on later releases such as Absolution. Given the type of music this group makes, this vintage sound actually suits the music very well, making it feel warm and human rather than cold and sterile. It only makes the music sound all the more real and that fact alone trumps most records out there with insane production value, taking away that human touch on the music.
As charming as Vacant is, Yūgen is where the band really starts to come into their own. The title track notably is what sucked me right into the mystical forest depicted on the album cover. With how the song slow progresses, there is this huge build of tension all while there is a repeating vocal melodic motif contributed by a guest female vocalist. This continues to move forward until the climax, a euphoric release that feels like a refreshing gust of wind blowing leaves and light debris past you. “Yūgen” leads into the brief interlude, “Omen”, which opens with a brief sample of a crackling fire; how fitting with the bonfire analogy. The sorrowful string arrangements and the bellowing trumpet in the background really set the stage for the a source of melody in the form of a mandolin to come in and direct the song.
Absolution is how I found myself to cross paths with the wonders of Ashbringer, specifically the track “Spiritual Architecture”. This little number is an instrumental track that guides you with the coziest of piano melodies. The piano work in this song is very somber, yet playful at the same time, reminding me heavily of Deafheaven’s “You Without End”. Come to think of it, the bouncy nature of both of these tracks never fails to make me think of Elton John and I cannot shake that thought. With that being said, the heavy focus on the piano on this album is the reason why I fell so head over heels for this group. In these hopelessly bleak and morose ambience and soundscapes, the masterful piano is our saving grace with how infectious those melodies are. It ties everything together in such a graceful, gorgeous manner.
The opening trio of songs (“Absolution”, “Wilderness Walk”, and “Dreamscape”) starts the album off an on incredibly high note that is maintained throughout the rest of the record. There are so many special moments sprinkled throughout each track, like the slide guitar solo in “Absolution” for example, that I’d get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome just from typing out every minute detail that took my breath away. Take my word for it, Absolution is such a vibrant and comforting musical journey that you won’t be able to pry yourself from once you let it work its ways into your ears. The fact that there is a song titled “Dreamscape” is all you need to know about how heavenly the music is as a whole.
One thing I find extra special about Absolution is the clever inclusion of various callbacks (or foreshadowing) among the songs. The tremolo guitar melody that you hear during the chorus of the title track is brought back at a slightly slower, moodier tempo in “Shrine of Loss” in the final, epic rendition of the chorus. “Eternal Separation, Pt. 1” has a brief, subtle foreshadow to the piano melody that is heard on “Spiritual Architecture” in the form of subtle electronics that segues into a charming, energetic verse where the band gets really ‘jiggy widdit’. It is always the littlest details that leave the largest impression on me and Ashbringer left a long-lasting one on me, that is for sure.
I couldn’t help but feel that all these albums so far are part of something bigger, perhaps an overarching concept or story. Here is what Nick had to say regarding this saga:
‘The first three albums are a conceptual trilogy, with Absolution concluding the first story I wanted to tell. The trilogy largely deals with introspection, a reflection of what was going on internally in my own head during the period of time that they were written. The plan is for what comes next to be another story in the saga, taking place before the events of the trilogy. For our next project I want to write about the complexities of interpersonal relationships that I’ve gone through. Ashbringer has always been an outlet to write about my experiences as an autistic individual trying to navigate a world that isn’t built for people like me. If you were to ask me if there’s one central theme that my lyrics come back to, it would be that.’
It is no wonder why these songs hit has hard as they do, musically and emotionally. The fact that the lyrics are so vulnerable and heartfelt truly adds to the genuine nature of the music itself that one cannot help but relate and become infatuated. The music that Ashbringer composes is perhaps some of the realest stuff you’ll hear within the genre so you’d be doing yourself a disservice not checking this group out.
Ashbringer is (from left to right):
Jackson Catton – Guitar/Vocals/Production
Nathan Wallestad – Bass/Production
Nick Stanger – Guitar/Vocals/Production
Groups like Ashbringer and Panopticon are the modern face of atmospheric black metal with a folk twist, expanding upon Agalloch‘s essential foundation and taking it to new heights. Give the group a follow on their Bandcamp and Facebook pages and also on Prosthetic Records. If you’re interested to hear more music from the individuals behind this group, Nathan has his solo ambient project under un(sorted) which is slowly taking shape, while Nick is involved in many other projects of his own (Xythlia, Primordial Ooze, No Heroes, Departure Experiments, and Wishfield). In case you couldn’t tell by now, this is a musically prolific bunch so I am beyond excited to hear what comes next from Ashbringer and also from these individuals in general!