As much as they’d been lambasted by critics for their resemblance of their British and Scandinavian influences afar in the beginning, the nearly two decade legacy of Battle Ground, Washington black metal act Ceremonial Castings is still felt as an old pillar in the more die-hard pacific northwest extreme metal populace. At some point growing up within reach of Portland’s admittedly lanky extreme metal scene in the late 90’s and early 2000’s meant witnessing their brand of ‘bewitching black metal’ or as I’d called it at the time, ‘Century Media metal’. At the time a bombastic crossing of symphonic black metal and melodic black/death metal was commonplace and saturated in terms of magazines, catalogs, and such but those largely European groups didn’t cycle through on big tours as frequently as today. An independent and driven band like Ceremonial Castings playing that sort of music and succeeding was (from my perspective) something unique before the whole “Cascadian” black metal ethos became nigh mainstream and brought serious artistic tension to the pacific northwest. ‘Barbaric is the Beast’ (2006) was the point of rupture for the band where they’d hit their stride and appeared to be pouring with inspiration thanks to the introduction of drummer Blood Hammer. There lies the entry point for the Mysticism Black, a melodic/atmospheric black metal side project from Ceremonial Castings‘ keyboardist/pianist OldNick (Nick Superchi). Of course the project had been in motion years previous but, it was the Naglfar and Carpathian Forest-esque ‘The Dark Erudition’ (2006) that cemented the feet of that legacy in place. Thirteen years and three albums later Ceremonial Castings is split-up and into two pieces: One third is heading Uada and the other two thirds make up Mysticism Black reborn in 2019 as we receive ‘Return of the Bestial Flame’.
Though I will forever associate ‘symphonic’ and keyboard-driven extreme metal with sword and sorcery themes the implementation by way of Superchi within ‘Return of the Bestial Flame’ doesn’t overtly resemble any one particular era of black metal. Most of the pieces within find Mysticism Black are almost progressive in structure with patient ever-looming hooks in hand that are surely informed by classic Scandinavian black metal but in a less direct way compared to ‘The Dark Erudition’. A greater wisdom strays from orthodoxy in some sense while Superchi appears to remain cognizant of the legacy that might draw fans in towards this release. Shades of Abigor, Profanum, ‘Stormblåst’ and perhaps a bit of early …And Oceans does emanate from the full listen sporadically though I’d almost suggest looking towards a more modern group such as Lychgate for certain moments. The keyboard/piano work isn’t as pronounced as I’d expected but those layers are perhaps more subtle than the examples my mind conjures up from the early 2000’s, nonetheless the keyboard presence is an entirely vital portion of the atmospheric values created by Mysticism Black. I suppose the question in the linear minds of fandom remains as to whether or not this record sounds like Ceremonial Castings and I guess I’d have to resign to saying it does in ‘cousinhood’, in the sense that it was clearly written from a place of similar experience. As a caveat, I’d say in no way does it pick up from either ‘Cthulhu’ or ‘March of the Deathcult’ but the attention to detail and esoteric attitudes within are recognizable.
The grand centerpiece of the album is immediately clear even with a quick glance at the tracklist where a four minute atmospheric build (“Black Fire Seance”) introduces the nearly fifteen minute title track. It is a bout of heraldry, an exuberant epic that’d coil itself around the mind with lead guitar hooks and mystifying guitar progressions. It is such a grand entrance and then such an effective anthem after the fact that it becomes difficult to live up to. I couldn’t help but think of Midvinter‘s ‘At the Sight of the Apocalypse Dragon’ just in terms making a gorgeous introduction, rising to an ruinous plateau and then spending the middle portion of the album building back to an equal level of gripping fanfare. The combination of “My Lord” with “The Blade Unsheathed” finds a different route towards that apex; In fact I found little stylistic redundancy throughout the full listen and I believe this will read as either progressive intent or scattered focus to the average black metal listener. Circling back around to “The Blade Unsheathed”, I found this the most redeeming track to return to because its ‘dark metal’ style allows for such a broad mental interpretation recalling both classic epic heavy metal, Scandinavian goth metal, and later Bathory almost simultaneously. There I was most deeply in the unholy graces of Mysticism Black, immersed and curious. Only then did the relatively weightless sail of “Glory Beyond Life (Power Beyond Death)” make sense; Taken on its own the song reads a bit throwaway in terms of a closer but in context of the prior two songs it works quite well in its shimmering, long-winded exodus.
With two grand apices that are alight for roughly nine or ten minutes each the bulk of the album serves to arrive at those points with meaning and grand context. I found this to be in the tradition of the free space beyond the second wave black metal where the pressure to create grand thematic arcs and progressive structures collided into a sort of peak point of excess circa 2000-2002. Though it was a point of collapse for bands like Thyrane and Emperor it is a less ruinous vision in 2019 that is fitting for this re-ignition of Mysticism Black and feels related to the first album due to its general melodic drivers and keyboard reliant atmospherics. I enjoyed familiarizing myself with ‘Return of the Bestial Flame’ and spent a fair amount of time considering the point of view, the long period of rest between albums, and such but none of it excited me a great deal in the moment. It wasn’t until that next night when I’d not been able to sleep and the lead guitar progression from the title track was yet swirling in my thoughts, there I was compelled to listen again and my appreciation for the record grew accordingly. That its 14+ minute centerpiece offers a memorable and repeatable insistence that has stuck with me is endorsement enough for the established fan of related projects though it’ll likely take a symphonic black metal apologist, an esoteric atmospheric black metal enthusiast, or a progressive dark/black metal fan to truly soak within ‘Return of the Bestial Flame’. For my own taste, and perhaps for the love of keyboard drenched black metal, I’d give moderately high recommendation in celebration of the polished esotericism within. For preview purposes I’d suggest the only proper entry point for the nearly hour long album is the epic title track.
The reaper and the harvest. 3.75/5.0
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