As one of the standard-bearers of American black metal, Krieg occupies a special place in this dark musical landscape. The band’s early output was very much in line with the nascent scene of the mid-1990s, fast and vicious — heavily inspired by bands like Beherit and — but with subtle hints of what would come later. For most listeners, albums like The Black House and Blue Miasma come to mind first, as they exhibit the band’s two major moods: melancholy and melodic; harsh and nihilistic. Well, for many listeners, the name Krieg probably conjures up the face of frontman Neill Jameson, master of vocal ceremonies — and master of expletive-laden run-on sentences in his Decibel column (where I am also a contributor). Regardless, a new Krieg release demands our attention.
More to the point, a Krieg release this good demands our devotion. In fact, Ruiner might be my new go-to record for the band. Neill has noted a couple times that early Gorgoroth had gone back into heavy rotation for him recently, and I’m not sure if that coincided with the production of this record, but the spirit of Under the Sign of Hell certainly haunts this record (his ill-advised defense of the 2011 re-recording notwithstanding). This is evident across the entire album, as even the mix/mastering gives off the same feeling, though it’s especially apparent on “No Gardens Grow Here” to hear what I mean.
Guitarists Alex Poole and Shawn Riley weave cold and mournful melodies into every song, making for a darkly sublime listening experience. Like I said, this has always been a feature of Krieg’s sound, but this album leans so heavily in this direction that it sets it apart from the rest of their catalog (with the exception of Blue Miasma, though the riffing style wasn’t exactly the same there). If you’re looking for a good example of this, listen to “Solitary, A Future Renounced,” arguably the crown jewel of the record. The interplay of the guitars is fantastic, and you can almost hear hints of the style Alex uses in his other bands, especially Ringarë.
But there’s other elements at play here as well, including the band’s death rock and post-punk influences. Within the band’s main catalog, 2014’s Transient probably had the most prominent examples of this, including the excellent “Walk With Them Unnoticed.” On Ruiner, you can catch this around the 1:47 mark on the opening track, “Bulwark,” and on the album’s closer, “The Lantern and the Key.” Additionally, the band hasn’t lost its ability to summon cruel terror, as shown on songs like “An Execution in the Kingdom of Ideas” and “Fragments of Nothing.”
As for Neill, his vocals remain recognizably hoarse and ferocious, but the precision and focus on the higher-pitched side of the register is very impressive and pulls the album together nicely. This approach gives the music a shrill character that keeps the listener engaged without going so overboard that it takes them out of the music. That is except for the tortured screams on “Red Rooms,” which are clearly meant to blend with the song’s despondent notes and rhythms. I should also note the fantastic writing at play with the drums and bass here, guiding the music along and taking enough twists and turns to make it interesting.
Transient was an interesting and experimental album that expanded on what Krieg could be as a black metal band. But Ruiner is nothing short of a black metal band at its best. I get the feeling that Neill and his co-conspirators felt energized and inspired by the massive wave of raw black metal that’s hit the underground in the ensuing nine years, and took that as a motivating force to get back to basics and produce this absolute triumph. Now if only someone could finally get them to play Burning Man…