STARER – 18° Below the Horizon (2021)REVIEW

Frustrating or, satisfying, as gatekeeping and elitism in black metal might appear from either side of the cosmic gates, it is neither notably prevalent nor successful as mechanism for segregating the crowd into ostensibly passionate artists and exploitative false opportunists. Our common era of Xanax-nursed and coyly ironic performative dispassion wouldn’t allow it to thrive, anyhow. Grifting internet opportunism is yet “good enough” entertainment for countless folks and though desperate low-concept fodder may be obviate kitsch to me, it is often revelation to others. This is not necessarily specific to our times as obviate chaff was as proportionally prevalent in the mid-to-late 90’s but, it rarely bled far beyond whatever small town spawned it. From a squarely anthropological standpoint any perceived devolution in quality of art in the face of accessibility is little more than a convenient thought for those most heavily reliant upon industry-centric curation, unable to scale. Why the meandering quasi-rant? Highfalutin idealism often means missing out on humble or formative events that may prove redeeming in hindsight. As such, I suppose I’d typically pass on a record like this debut from Bowling Green, Kentucky-based solo atmospheric black metal artist Starer, and truth be told I’d posited no certain standard for ‘18° Below the Horizon‘ after identifying it by sight as a very thin “Maybe.” A few minutes of research revealed a load of less serious-faced projects, a non-specific record label, and a pretty decent black metal band with the guys from Fornicus in musician Josh Hines‘ oeuvre. As much as my radar for the untrue had been pinging prior, the album makes a strong enough case for itself by way of a determined, droning excess.

It isn’t all that deep, it isn’t especially impressive from a performance standpoint, and it doesn’t help that the core stylistic conception of this first album centers around nowadays arbitrary sub-genre distinctions of “atmospheric”, “symphonic” and “post-black” metal norms that are mashed up yet despite all of these contributing factors being a bit mundane ’18° Below the Horizon’ is nonetheless an appreciable and largely effective experience. Atmospheric black metal is the right blanket term for the glom of these techniques and the only real modulation outside of this sub-genre norm finds the keyboards uncharacteristically loud and the rest of the instrumentation levelled low and mulling together within the same dry, fuzzy corridor of galloping sound — This provides just the right post-apocalyptic tunnel beneath the nuclear winter of our futurist contamination and more-or-less excuses the occasionally lacking direction of the six extended (~6-10 minute) buzzing and contemplative pieces. The secret ingredient is supposedly post-rock but perhaps only if we were to (by some stretch of the mind) attribute that movement to Limbonic Art or Ihsahn‘s late 90’s ambitions. Aesthetically symphonic pathing, cyclonic Norwegian riffs, and much of it buried in about three feet of static-infused snow speaks to the demo days of early symphonic black metal to some degree but with a more sophisticated drum machine in hand. So, any notion of crossing atmospheric black metal with symphonic metal is perhaps a misunderstanding of the broader origins of the sub-genre but the mistranslation of historic sub-genre movements still manages to communicate the greater vibe of Starer‘s debut.

The psychotic dusk of the cumulative Starer experience is entirely fixated on its present stride, a numbing and mildly self-assured feat without any directly conveyed hooks or meaningfully scored advance. I suppose it rings of skeletal progressive rock in this sense, jogging somewhere with an army of orchestral hits guiding their collective motions yet never crafting a full-bodied tune of the work. The closest we come to a comfortable bout of fanfare is opener “First Morning Light” wherein the heavily distorted post-rock guitar progressions are most clearly alight and the diabolic Japanese RPG battle-worthy keyboards guide us into the fog ahead. This first song paired with the most succinct piece on the album, “Dayspring”, constitutes a well designed immersion that allows us to sink in slowly via droning repetition and the uniquely harrowing keyboard + rhythm guitar pairing, easing its hyper-crescendo just slow enough that it begins to feel static. Points of nuance are few but by virtue of sheer repetition each of these pieces finds some small distinction via droning, fairly pleasant movement typical of atmospheric black metal. “Vessel” rings with some dissonant downturn, “Umbra” has more than a small hint of bopping post-millennium Enslaved gear under its hood and “Uncovering” finds its symphonic simpatico a bit late for a somewhat too extended send off. I might have resolved to reduce these long pieces into small quips but don’t let that suggest they don’t feel like a sea of debilitating molasses when engaged with some serious interest. The choice to keep the keyboard hits consistent in terms of tone makes it that much harder to escape from the suffocating and cold moment ’18° Below the Horizon’ portrays.

For my own taste the clincher here that justifies all of this rambling is the longest piece, “Son of the Fire” and not only for the focus its length demands but for the sake of it being the most resonant composition of the lot. This presages the more active movements of “Umbra”, eventually bleeding into that song and creating a strong peak for the full listen. Though I’d found the greater hills and valleys of this album enjoyable I cannot say that it’d transcended the great body of atmospheric black metal before it with any particularly special songwriting, the real draw that Starer presents in this nascent stage of development is an interesting set of parameters and a fairly strong droning atmoblack sound. I’ve chosen to let in dance upon my brains for the sake of hearing some “it” off in the distance, some potential energy waiting in the rafters that may or may not require this obfuscated black metal apparatus in the long run. I’d found the full listen warms on repeat, lands inoffensively and eventually becomes a pretty solid grab for its uniquely ominous dystopian mood. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (70/100)

Rating: 7 out of 10.
TITLE:18° Below the Horizon
LABEL(S):Self-Released [CD]
Folkvangr Records [Cassette]
RELEASE DATE:January 29th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Atmospheric Black Metal,
Symphonic/Post-Black Metal

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