I should probably preface this with your typical metal cliche that I don’t pay close attention to the recent developments within the genre you and I are either talking about, or in this case, find ourselves mutually interested in by way of this review. It’s a weird way metalheads like to front, as if you almost gained credibility by not caring about the subject matter at hand. Credibility notwithstanding (I’m a guest writer here, so technically, that ship sailed before it even arrived), I seriously don’t have a fucking clue about recent black metal. Over-reliance on atmospherics and internal scene politics are a drag, but in truth, it’s when black metal strays from its intended subject matter – satanism, to make things abundantly clear – that seals the deal for me and I lose all interest. If this sounds like an old man yelling at a cloud, then good, it’s supposed to. You know what doesn’t sound like an older gentleman having a heated exchange with a weather phenomenon? The new Balmog EP, Covenants of Salt.
My first encounter with the Spanish foursome was in July 2022, when the QoS crew convinced me seeing Balmog live would be something I would appreciate, patiently explaining to me that they checked all my pedantic, traditionalist black metal boxes, but also managed to sound different at the same time. Now that’s a good sell, and if you want to quit reading here, I’ll just preface the rest of the review by saying it was true; Balmog from Soutomaior use traditional sounding black metal as their core, which on its own is competent and passable, but not something that would necessarily raise my eyebrow. Indeed, the numbers from their set I was later told were their older ones did a decent job of engaging me, but it was their newer fare that truly piqued my interest. It’s here that Balmog’s wraith-like frontman, Balc, chose to employ a different style of singing, cleaner but definitely not cleaned up, like a clarion call that still managed to fit on top of the pounding blast beats and buzzsaw guitars without cutting through like a shrill airhorn. And wouldn’t you know it, this is the type of material offered up on Covenants of Salt.
The music is hardly too experimental, but provides the orthodox baseline that black metal needs and, in this case, gives the vocals room to do their own thing. The devilish rallying cries, reverb-drenched production and occasional instrumental twists, turns and stops all lend a unique atmosphere to the music both sinister and saturnine, yet unlike anything that typically passes for atmosphere in metal these days. Indeed, washy guitar riffs, shit-tastic indie influences and trees on album covers can gladly get fucked, and I’m relieved to say Covenants of Salt is delightfully antithetical to all that. This is all due to the potent interaction between the driving, dare I say catchy black metal emanating from the trenches, and the enigmatic howls and choirs that permeate the music, but sometimes still dip into raspier territories.
This holds true for all 18 minutes of the single song EP, as does the production quality. It’s here that the band also seem to have hit their stride; after checking out Balmog’s previous albums post-gig, I found them either too cleaned up sounding or leaning to the other end of the spectrum, too artificially blurred out, to let the music shine. Covenants of Salt manages to find that perfect sweet spot in the middle, living between a ragged, lean, forceful percussiveness that’s always a welcome trait when it migrates over from death and thrash metal, to the heady atmospherics of the effect-drenched clean guitars.
All this serves to echo the sentiment that Covenants of Salt is very much a song – yes, it’s all one song clocking in at 18 minutes – that lives in the bowels of the earth, but isn’t wholly afraid to rear its head out and emit a sulphurous howl that almost teases a melody before it corrupts and deteriorates its surroundings, as black metal should. For those those who stand by such sentiments, Balmog’s Covenants of Salt will surely find purchase where other recent releases fall short.
War Anthem Records (2023)