The Chinese black metal scene is one of the newest to crop up in recent years, and, for myself, is perhaps the most exciting movement developing at the moment. Such a unique country, with its long separation from modern Western culture, heavily developed history and tradition, and astoundingly high population, poverty, and pollution, is a ripe setting for black metal to take off from. Due to the understandably sparse nature of these releases, each album gives a fascinating glimpse into the budding scene, but, so far, Zuriaake's Afterimage of Autumn is certainly the best that I've heard.
Use of samples and classical instruments is an integral part of their style, crafting an atmosphere that is both charmingly naturalistic and uniquely Chinese in feel. The title track breaks out into bright piano, bird samples, and peaceful flutistry, melding and supplanting the black metal like a truly dour take on Perfect Cherry Blossom. Other tracks, such as "Desolated Mountain," have the requisite drippy Burzum keys in all their glory, while 'Return Journey" juxtaposes those with traditional pipa trilling. These elements never overpower the metal or become heavily relied on; rather, they're deftly interwoven amidst the cold guitars. The riffs themselves are decently basic, exhibiting a hypnotic repetition obviously culled from the Burzum school of black metal, but they flow well and have a calm air of purpose about them that suits the style well. As is all too rarely seen in black metal, the bass is charmingly present in the mix, slightly catchy yet also lending a bit of doom to the proceedings. The vocals are magnificent, offering up a wide range of cries, going from keening, snarl-less wails that would make Wedard blush to something straight out of the existential dementia of Ataraxie. The style is heartily rooted in the depressive/suicidal tradition, yet more cohesively varied than most singers manage to pull off. All in all, Zuriaake's sound is quite unpretentious and heartfelt, clearly done by those who understand what was important in the second wave of black metal.
In terms of criticism, I think that Zuriaake were actually a bit too conservative with the atmospheric elements - I certainly wouldn't object to a larger presence for the Chinese instrumentation. These chaps have proven that they don't need to rely on it as a gimmick, so hopefully we'll see more in that regard next time. As for now, Afterimage of Autumn stands as a damn fine debut, propelling the band to the forefront of the Chinese black metal movement and setting a precedent that other bands will hopefully follow.
Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (gotta love that cover art, too)