John Keats, that master of English odes, once called autumn a “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;.” His use of language in “To Autumn” conveys the season as rich with comforting sights and sounds. But what does it take for a piece of music to possess this quality? Although I can only imagine how Keats would react to the music below, he was clearly onto something when he said “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –”
For music to have an autumnal quality, it must embody the season’s essential contradiction: beauty caused by decay. Yes, those shades of red, yellow and orange sure are nice, but those leaves are dying, friend. But it’s not a dramatic, crushing death. It’s something much more serene and inspires more contemplation than horror. So when we consider what metal to enjoy on our constitutional October walks, I’d say most death metal and thrash is off the list. The speedier and blast-heavy forms of black metal don’t quite fit either. The music should still be heavy of course, but the power comes more from the atmosphere than the technique. The mood should be bittersweet and melancholic, rather than enraged. It should leave you in a thoughtful place, contemplating your place in the world, your fist supporting your chin — rather than pounding the air.
Starting to get the idea? Good. Now get your pumpkin- and/or apple-spiced drink or dish ready (because these things are unironically good and hating them doesn’t make you an interesting person) and let’s open up our treasury of great autumn music!
(Oh, and just a quick note: this is meant to be a general autumn list, not a Halloween list — which is why I didn’t include horror-themed death metal bands or the Misfits this time around. So no, I didn’t forget about Walk Among Us or The Crow soundtrack, they’re just not on today’s syllabus.)
Type O Negative- October Rust
Break out the black lipstick and nail polish (or Sharpie, whatever works for you). There’s something addictive and intoxicating about Type O’s guitar tone and the way it dances so perfectly with Peter Steele’s booming vocals. And those synths! October Rust is the sound wind howling through the trees and leaves falling all around you. If you ever meet a fan of The Cure who wishes there was just a little more edge there, steer them this way. “Love You to Death” and “My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend” are obvious favorites, but don’t forget about the other gems on this one like “Be My Druidess,” “Green Man” and “In Praise of Bacchus.” (SHE SAID BURN!!!)
Opeth- Blackwater Park
With Opeth’s uncanny ability to blend heavy and soft moments into the same song, their entire classic catalog could probably find a place here. But there’s something special about Blackwater Park. “Bleak,” “The Drapery Falls” and “The Funeral Portrait” all show the band at its creative apex in terms of riff-making and song dynamics in general. But for our purposes, pay special attention to the “Harvest,” the album’s stunning acoustic number. The strumming patterns alone are enough to flash auburn and orange into your mind as Mikael gently implores you to “stay with me awhile / rise above the vile.”
The original folky-asmospheric-trees-on-the-cover black metal album — and the best one. There’s basically an entire subgenre of black metal dedicated to trying, and mostly failing, to recapture the magic conjured up on this record. Bergtatt is a walk through a magical forest rendered in sonic glory. I know a lot of people swear by the band’s post-1997 output (or go around telling people they do) because of how mature it is, or something. But for me, they’ll never top this masterwork (Nattens Madrigal comes close, if not for the treble being high enough to drill through bricks).
Blut Aus Nord- Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry
Blut Aus Nord has become well-known for their mastery of black metal’s dissonant and experimental side. But you can’t deny it: when they go the traditional route on Ultima Thulee and the Memoria Vetusta albums, the music absolutely soars. The most recent iteration in particular has a dreamy and all-encompassing aspect to that captures the imagination. And your imagination is cool with it. It’s happy to stay in that land of pines, rivers and mountains with those…what look like treefolk/ents on the cover?
Panopticon- Autumn Eternal
Perhaps Austin Lunn’s greatest triumph, Autumn Eternal lives up to its name through it’s mix of black metal fury and post-rock flourishes. Austin’s Americana influences are pulled back on this record, allowing metal to become the dominant force, one which stomps its way through “Into the North Woods,” burns its way through “Oaks Ablaze” and tears its path through “Pale Ghosts” (how Austin’s arms still worked after tracking those drums remains one of life’s great mysteries).
Satyricon- Dark Medieval Times
Although the Norwegian second-wave sound is more closely associated with winter, the folk elements on Satyricon’s debut album give it a slightly less frosty edge. Sure, this record isn’t quite as masterful as The Shadowthrone or Nemesis Divina, but there’s no resisting that perfect black metal guitar tone. If someone ever asks you “What does true black metal sound like, anyway?” — just play the first 55 seconds of “The Dark Castle in the Deep Forest.” If those hi-hat smashing drums aren’t enough to make them a believer, you’d better give up right there. The acoustic guitars and flutes present on this album may come off a bit cheesy in parts, but they still give the album a memorable and imaginative charm that goes beyond the standard themes of evil, hate and blasphemy.
Empyrium- Songs of Moors and Misty Fields
Beauty, grandeur and glory. As my fellow Decibel contributor, Jon Rosenthal, says in the liner notes of the recent re-issue: “Empyrium took the lacy, Victorian sounds of the classic Peaceville 3 era and transported them to the countryside.” The album’s gorgeous and triumphant second track “The Blue Mists of Night” perfectly reflects autumn’s dual nature (at least within the framework we’re using here). This is shown by the sorrowful lyrics at the beginning (Here we drown in our grief, / drown in an absence of light.) mixed with the almost ecstatic lines at the end (Silent winds, whisper to me / thy songs of solitude and joy…). If Ulver’s Bergtatt is the opening question in a stylistic conversation, Songs of Moors and Misty Fields is surely one of its endpoints.
Evoken- Shades of Night Descending
This one is for when the sun goes down. Pretty as all the colors are, their beauty signifies death and the approach of winter. The days are getting shorter and darker. And there are few bands who capture a sense of foreboding dread like Evoken. Yes, I know this is their demo. Yes, they’ve gone on to produce full-length masterworks like Quietus and Atra Mors. But Shades of Night Descending, especially when paired with the 1996 and 1997 demos on the re-release, squashes most other doom metal (or just metal in general) with relative ease. There’s a richness in the rawness on display here, from the riffs to the vocals and of course, those lyrics dripping with sorrow and despair.
October Tide- Rain Without End
It was tempting to put one of the early Katatonia albums on here, but the essence captured on early October Tide makes this record irresistible. I’d place this album’s sound somewhere between Dance of December Souls and Paradise Lost’s Gothic. It has December‘s sense of dread, but it’s more tempered and measured like that of Nick Holmes and Co. Rain Without End and October Tide have their share of dedicated followers, as I witnessed when they played Maryland Deathfest in 2017. Still, this records deserves a lot more attention than it gets.
Singles Soundtrack[Insert cheap reference to fall being great flannel shirts weather here]. The Singles soundtrack is undoubtedly one of the best ever released, one that perfectly captures the spirit of an era while also containing some of the most timeless songs from that era: “Would?,” “Drown,” “Nearly Lost You” and “State of Love and Trust” all on the same record! But don’t forget about Soundgarden’s crushing “Birth Ritual” or the late frontman’s acoustic solo track, “Seasons.” You know, the film itself really isn’t too bad, if a little kitschy and dated. But it’s hard to get out from a shadow this big.