There are a number of reasons why I wanted to love Grey Aura’s second full-length, Zwarte Vierkant before I even listened to it. First and foremost, like me, they hail from Utrecht, the Netherlands, so I’m automatically inclined to root for the home team, as it were. Then, the text description of their mélange of sonic styles via Imperative PR’s press release (“a liquid form of atmospheric black metal which shifts between forms like quicksilver, flowing over the boundaries of genres, slipping between cracks in their restrictive walls”) is an exciting one. It puts me in mind of other extreme acts that are not afraid to beg, borrow or steal from other genres: Belgium’s Alkerdeel (see my review of their last record, Slonk, right here) an equally erratic mixture of death-black-sludge-industrial-drone madness, or Haze of Summer’s hipster-pop-black oddness. And lastly, that cover art: the incongruity of the colours, the arrangement of figures, the connection to Russian suprematism… what a visual spectacle.
“Maria Segova” introduces the avant-garde sound of Grey Aura, as well as the aforementioned cover art.
Once the music hits, however, I’m not sure if ‘love’ is what I actually feel. Perhaps awe might be more accurate. Or even insignificance at times. Like other great experimentalists in extreme metal (Thy Catafalque or Blut Aus Nord, for example), Grey Aura is a pretty binary love/hate affair: even though when the metal hits (and it hits hard) the arrangements carry all the virulence of Polish artists like Furia or Medico Peste, but tempered with such intellectualism that you honestly don’t know what is happening. In more mainstream terms, Zwarte Vierkant is to the black metal scene what System of a Down’s unique, quasi-operatic style was to the nu-metal crowd. Something new, something slightly frightening and something not to be taken lightly.
But just as you’re settling down and appreciating the jazz-inspired interludes and use of brass sections in metal (“Parijs is een portal” is a shining example), you start to realize there’s still something missing. And, as you read further into the background and justifications surrounding the album, you realize the significance of the cover art, the narratives being explored and the deeply artistic overtones. It turns out that Zwarte Vierkant is named for a novel written by guitarist/vocalist Ruben Wijlacker about an early 20th-century painter obsessed with Kazemir Malevich’s suprematism movement. “De Protodood” is unfortunately sold out, but keep an eye on https://rubenwijlacker.com/INFO for further details if, like me, you are deeply intrigued.
There is even a more accessible option for the curious available from Grey Aura’s Bandcamp: “Proto-death: essays and lyrics” is available as a companion volume describing characters, themes, lyrics and locations behind the record.
The shimmering wall of sound “El Greco in Toledo” greets you with is intimidating, aggressive and deeply alluring, all at once.
Overall, however, Zwarte Vierkant is not easy listening. It’s frenetic, abstract in its pacing and almost unhinged in its variety of styles and influences. It’s also a concept record, where each track builds on and plays into its predecessors, making it practically impossible to isolate ‘singles’ for the streaming generation. This does not diminish its unique beauty, though, and the end result is one that does Onism Productions proud. Grey Aura joins the powerful roster of Dutch artists changing the black metal landscape forever, along with the likes of Laster, Urfaust or Asagraum.
Zwarte Vierkant Track Listing:
1. Maria Segovia
2. Rookslierten, flessen
3. Het schuimspoor van de ramp
4. El Greco in Toledo
5. Parijs is een portaal
6. De onnoemlijke verleidelijkheid van de bezwijkende deugd
7. Sierlijke schaduwmond
Run Time: 41:58
Release Date: May 7, 2021
Record Label: Onism Productions