One of my favorite movies of all time is Matewan, the 1987 historical drama directed by John Sayles. The film depicts the struggle of the coal miners of Matewan, West Virginia as they form a union, go on strike, and ultimately take up arms against the brutal tactics and hired goons of the Stone Mountain Coal Company. The cast list is a who’s who of great character actors: Chris Cooper in his first screen role, David Strathairn, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Kevin Tighe, a teenaged Will Oldham. The legendary Haskell Wexler’s cinematography was never better, and Sayles’ sharp-edged, leftist politics are front and center in every scene. Matewan is also a great music film, with a dobro-heavy score by Mason Daring and four songs by Hazel Dickens, the West Virginia bluegrass singer whose protest songs made her a folk-world star in the ’60s and ’70s.
Dickens’ presence in Matewan isn’t a hollow gesture. Sayles is explicitly invoking and adding to the age-old history of music in social movements, especially labor movements. A decade before Matewan, Dickens contributed music to Barbara Kopple’s searing coal-country documentary, Harlan County USA. One of her songs for that film is called “Black Lung,” after the disease that killed her brother. The personal, the political, and the purely practical all mingle in coal miners’ music, and the Matewan soundtrack understands that. Dickens understood that better than anybody. Her songs for Matewan, from the defiant “Fire In The Hole” to the devastating “Hills Of Galilee,” may technically be film music, but they’re also etched into labor history.
On August 25, 1921, barely a year after the events of Matewan, the Battle of Blair Mountain broke out in neighboring Logan County, West Virginia. Ten thousand union miners marched against a coalition of coal mine operators, strikebreakers, and private militiamen. It’s still the largest and bloodiest labor uprising in American history, and President Warren G. Harding eventually deployed the US Army to West Virginia to quell the last flames of insurrection. A little over a century later, Columbus, Ohio’s Yfel have immortalized the miners’ struggle in “Battle Of Blair Mountain,” a towering, 10-minute firestorm of epic, atmospheric black metal. Hazel Dickens probably wouldn’t know what to make of all the blastbeats and screaming, but she’d sure as hell be proud of Yfel’s intent.
“Battle Of Blair Mountain” is the highlight of Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil, Yfel’s first full-length, and it functions like an old union song. Its lyrics, written by guitarist Ryan Atkins, are bracingly direct and unburdened by metaphorical language. (There’s even a direct reference to Matewan.) In true labor-anthem fashion, it calls back to an old event to help illuminate a way into an uncertain future. The fist of corporate greed that came down on the Blair Mountain miners is still coming down on Amazon warehouse workers and Starbucks baristas. You can almost hear the song’s final verse being chanted on a picket line: “Together we stand united and strong/ Against those who would do us wrong.”
Atkins lives in Columbus now, but he grew up in rural Ohio just across the West Virginia border, and coal mining runs in his family. Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil is consequently fixated on coal as a lyrical subject. Beyond “Blair Mountain,” there’s “Protectors Of The Tomb,” a song about the companies who have tried to blow up old mountaintop cemeteries to get at the coal underneath them. Coal put a lot of the men in those cemeteries in their graves in the first place; for the captains of industry, that apparently wasn’t enough. “The Father’s Path” is a devastating song about the younger generation of miners making what feels like the only choice available to them: “Sent into the caverns/ One thousand feet below/ It’s what we know.”
Yfel started in 2021 as an offshoot of the melodic death metal band Gates To The Abyss, but they don’t sound anything like them. Early in the pandemic, Atkins, co-guitarist Drew Staggs, and drummer Chaz Frazer started coming up with ideas that seemed to stretch beyond the scope of Gates. They found themselves writing parts that were less about individual riffs and more about creating an outsize atmosphere. Songs started getting longer. The new music seemed to demand a new, more serious lyrical focus – Gates had been a Lord Of The Rings-themed band – and the idea of exploited labor and land in Appalachia soon emerged. Yfel’s self-produced debut EP, 2021’s Personification Of Chaos, was a promising opening salvo that hinted at the ideas that now appear fully formed on Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil.
Atmospheric black metal is all about the sense of scale. If you want to get deep into the subgenre weeds, that sense of scale is what separates it from what’s become known as blackgaze. There’s a certain emotional intimacy to Alcest, Deafheaven, and bands that have followed in their wake. That’s not what Yfel are about. Their songs are mountains scraping the heavens. The five tracks on Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil average eight minutes apiece, and Yfel use that time to build out musical suites that feel truly enormous. The emotions of the album aren’t dialed into one-on-one connection; they’re about their own sheer immensity. There’s a risk of chilly remoteness to that approach, and lesser atmospheric bands end up making black metal wallpaper. Yfel have already figured out how to avoid that trap. As huge as Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil feels, its focus on coal country lends it a specificity that helps drive the songs home.
Yfel don’t venture too far outside of the tried-and-true formula for this style of music. They don’t really need to. The tremolo-picked riffs, mournful melodies, acoustic breaks, wind-tunnel drumming, and throaty howls of classic black metal suit their purposes well. Within the confines of that style, they find frequent opportunities for ecstatic expression. One such moment is the acoustic guitar line on “All Fleas Carry The Souls Of Men” that arrives to escort the icy main riff out of the song. (Darkthrone pull off a similar move on “In The Shadow Of The Horns,” possibly the greatest black metal song of all time, and that passage on “Fleas” feels like a deliberate nod.) Later, on “The Father’s Path,” a clean vocal part cuts through the haze of riffs, reorienting the song around its doleful melody. Chaz Frazer, the album’s quiet MVP, peppers his blasting drum patterns with lively fills that keep the band on their toes. Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil’s songs are all long and true to genre, but they’re not monolithic or, heaven forbid, boring.
The epic sound works to reinforce the album’s strong thematic center. Yfel make the struggle of the coal miner – and the laborer, more generally – sound like the most urgent, important fight in the world. Black metal is a powerful sound that’s been co-opted by plenty of knuckleheads over the years. Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil refuses to be apolitical (or worse). Instead, it’s an urgent rallying cry for what Yfel’s kindred spirits in Ashenspire would call “the Great Many.” Fans of Panopticon’s 2012 bluegrass-and-black-metal masterpiece Kentucky will likely hear echoes of that album in what Yfel are doing here. (Vigil was mixed and mastered by Spenser Morris, who has been Panopticon’s go-to engineer for years.) Both albums use the vast scale of atmospheric black metal to revive the union-song tradition and shine a light on the oft-forgotten plight of the coal miner. But the line goes back to Hazel Dickens, and to Woody Guthrie before her, and even further back, to any working person who has ever sung out for what they deserve. What Yfel achieve on Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil isn’t new. It’s merely the latest chapter in an ancient, hallowed tradition.
Beneath The Mountain’s Vigil is out 12/22 via Fiadh Productions.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Conway The Machine & Wun Two’s Palermo
• Bad Time Records’ Concert Film Live Album This Is New Tone
• Bun B & Statik Selektah’s TrillStatik 3
• NewJeans’ NJWMX Remix Album
• Pile Of Love’s Super Sometimes EP