As black metal continues to expand and mutate into ever more innovative and abhorrent new forms, one must never forget the importance of staunch traditionalism. The moment we lose sight of our roots is often the moment we initiate a slow march down the road to total ruin. To forget the grit and grime from which black metal was birthed in favor of so-called progression comes at a steep cost; the loss of what made the genre so compelling in the first place.
Ryan Lipynsky and Tim Call of The Howling Wind are nothing if not upholders of black metal tradition. The duo’s music is a whirlwind journey through the genre’s past, from the proto-BM sludge-bludgeon of the godfathers Hellhammer to the six-string tremolo-blizzard of the Norwegian second wave, The Howling Wind leave no stone unturned in their quest; not to be some sort of cheap nostalgia act, but rather to distill black metal down to its primal essence. Their third album, the Aleister Crowly-conjuring Of Babalon, is their most focused and skillfully crafted work to date.
I’m loathe to call Of Babalon a concept album without access to printed lyrics, but judging from the song titles and artwork it is quite evident that the entire album centers around Crowley’s Thelemic concept of the goddess Babalon, sometimes referred to as The Scarlett Woman and symbolized by a blood-filled chalice (hence the cover art) . Crowley’s Thelemic religion is indeed the stuff of traditional metal subject matter (see Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Behemoth, etc), but I have seen few if any bands allow it to truly permeate and possess their work to the extent that Lipynsky and Call have here. With all the ludicrous talk of live gigs and recording sessions being referred to as “rituals” and “observations,” it is a pleasant surprise to see a band that appears to have actually studied ritual magic and put it into practice both aesthetically and conceptually, rather than lighting a few clearance-bin Hallmark Halloween candles, slathering themselves in fake blood and doing a lot of talking out of their asses. So much black metal comes off as ridiculously OTT in its pursuit of the occult, but when listening to The Howling Wind, one gets the distinct impression that they are as serious as the proverbial heart attack.
Musically speaking, Of Babalon wields an impressive heft; this is one of the heaviest black metal albums I’ve heard in quite sometime. I for one couldn’t be more pleased to see black metal re-embracing the heaviness of the first wave (Celtic Frost, pre-Viking Bathory) and evolving away from the second wave style ear bleeding treble that only a scant few bands ever capably pulled off to begin with; Of Babalon is a shining example of black metal’s ability to crush. Riffs roll over the audial landscape like a fleet of smoked-out bulldozers, pulverizing everything in their path. In spite of the Frost-y guitar work, Of Babalon possesses a deep warmth that perfectly suits the bright red cover art, heating up black metal’s typically icy demeanor with a production scheme befitting The Howling Wind’s sonic explorations of Thelemic blood sacrifice and bizarre sexuality. Somewhere in Hell, Crowley is looking up at Lipynsky and Call and smiling.
Of Babalon is without question The Howling Wind’s finest moment up to this point; a devastating exercise in black metal traditionalism that never sounds tired or dated thanks to the band’s obvious musical and conceptual dedication to the dark arts. Plenty of black metal bands talk the talk, but very few walk the walk; The Howling Wind prove themselves to be the real fucking deal here and they don’t need cheap theatrics or calculated self-mythologizing in order to do so. The (black) magic is in the music.