Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Black - The Priest of Satan (1994)


The Priest of Satan is the first L.P. from the obscure Swedish Black Metal band, The Black. Recorded at Underground Studio, in April/May 1993, this album is dark, dismal and raw as hell, not straying far from the standard sound of that era. Many people may have heard of this band due to the involvement of Jon Nödtveidt (credited here as Rietas). On this album, he utilizes his trademark vocals, though they seem even more raw and hate-filled than on the Dissection material.

I discovered this album by chance, as I was looking through endless piles of used CDs, one day. Immediately, I took notice of the Satanic aesthetic as the cover art depicted a horned figure with what appear to be torches raised overhead, standing before a cowering mass. Even the logo features pentagrams, an inverted cross, the number 666 and even a dark castle. The back displayed obscure photos of the band members, in a nocturnal wintry landscape. I remembered reading of Jon mentioning this band in an interview, so that was all the motivation that I needed to take this home. Though one complaint can be made, as the drummer saw fit to include three photos of himself on the inside of the insert, all in the same exact pose, yet leaving his band mates out. This is countered by the great line, found in the liner notes: "The Black bestraffar Gud genom Satans eviga kraft."

The album begins with the brief intro, "The Beast of Fire". This helps to create a bleak and obscure aura. Distant, tormented screams are drowned out by demonic howling. There is truly an uneasy feeling about this.

"The Book of Leviathan" fades in from the silence, unleashing fast tremolo riffs and blasting drums, which are kept low enough in the mix to not be a distraction. The vocals are absolutely raw and unrestrained. There is a fleeting moment where things calm down, accentuated by minimal keyboard use, adding an eerie effect. The respite is ephemeral, as the pace suddenly quickens. There is not much room for complaint, here. The production isn't as cold and sharp as The Somberlain, but it is not as flat as the Hellspawn/Unisound job that Opus Nocturne received.

Next is "Towards the Golden Dawn", opening with a nice tremolo riff and later joined by the drums and bass. This continues the fast pace established by the first song, though there is a unique build-up before the song really gets going. Sadly, this song is over very quickly.

"The Sign of the Evil Spirit" is introduced by the sounds of thunder and rain, before a mournful tremolo melody goes straight for your heart. The drum work shows more variation on this song, being a bit more relaxed during certain parts. This truly is one of the most raw and straight-forward Black Metal albums to come out of Sweden, around this time. Mid-way through the song, the pace slows down a bit. There is a brief section with nothing but the cold tremolo riff filling the silence. The riffs are very memorable, despite being so raw and primitive.

The opening riff of "Lady Lilith" creates some sense of tension and this unsettling feeling continues even as the song slows down. In addition to performing the vocals and playing guitar, Jon Nödtveidt is also partly responsible for the short keyboard passages, which are more closely related to Edge of Sanity rather than Emperor. It is definitely not overdone and it suits the music perfectly.

"Black Blood" is another very short song, though it leaves a lasting impression. This kind of puts the listener into a trance, as the vocals are sort of scarce, here.

"The Spirit of Solitude" begins with a slower riff, filled with doom, accompanied by some eerie keyboard use. After a short time, the song speeds up. One may notice that the bass is fairly audible, as in old Mayhem. Jon's vocals sound absolutely desperate and anguished at certain moments in this song. Near the end, there is another moment where a lone tremolo riff fills the terrible silence shortly before the song ends.

Some of these shorter songs leave the listener wanting more, though that is probably much better than songs that overstay their welcome. "After My Prayers" begins in kind of a mid-paced way. After a little while, you hear the sounds of wolves howling at the full moon, as it is prominent in the night sky far above. The tremolo melodies found here are brilliant and it become surprising that more did not come of this band, all those years ago. There are a lot of tempo changes and the arrangement displays deep roots in early Black Metal. Near the end of the song, the pace slows down again and the vocals take on a very morbid tone.

"The Goat of Mendes" starts off with very old school doom riffs, accompanied by a hellish scream. There is a very nocturnal quality about the guitar melodies. There is even an eerie solo thrown in, joined by Jon's haunting whispers.

One of the darkest works on the album, "The Priest of Satan" is possessed with a dark atmosphere of impending doom. This truly features some of the best riffs of the whole album. There is a building sense of dread as cold tremolo riffs stab and slash your skin like knives of ice. Halfway through, the song slows down and the freezing cold open-arpeggio riffs swirl around you like winds of sorrow. The keyboard use, along with the morbid whispers, really adds to this bleak feeling. With this song, alone, The Priest of Satan instantly earns the status of 'forgotten/lost classic'. This song is epic in its evil and macabre aura. It is almost enough to forever take the breath from your lungs and to leave you lying dead on the frozen ground.

Following this masterpiece is the almost serene song, "The Black Opal Eye". This begins with keyboards and acoustic guitar, to establish an ephemeral peace that is crushed into the soil as the heavy Black Sabbath-inspired riffs emerge from the darkness. This is followed by a cold tremolo riff that is soon joined by fast drums and the possessed vocals of Rietas. The keyboard part, as the song is fading out, sounds like something in a 70s horror movie.

This great album concludes with "Whirlwinds Through the Land of Ice". Appropriately enough, the song begins with the sounds of cold winds blowing. This is the longest song on the album, and it certainly feels epic. The riffs freeze your skin as the song moves at a slower pace than most found on this album. After some time, things speed up. The songwriting and arrangements really seem to have some roots in traditional metal. This is constructed very well. This song conveys the feeling that you are nearing the end of a mystical journey. There are some moments of near-optimism, though they are completely destroyed by the black clouds of hate. Melancholic open-arpeggios are accompanied by a truly demonic voice, calling out from the darkness. This is followed by some of the coldest tremolo riffs heard on the album. The journey is not over. This is not the end, or the beginning of the end. Yet the end of the beginning. The cold winds return to claim your soul for the The Black...

This is a lost classic of Swedish Black Metal. This is much rawer than Dissection, though one would assume that any fan of that band should find much to appreciate here. If you ever encounter this rare album, do not hesitate to pick it up.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Immortal - Damned In Black (2000)

Damned in Black in the sixth full-length album from Norway's Immortal. For this record, Abbath and Horgh were joined by Iscariah, on bass. All of the lyrics were, of course, handled by Demonaz. Recorded in Abyss Studios and produced by Peter Tägtgren, that would only mark the beginning of the mistakes made with this collection of songs. In April 2000, when Osmose Records released this album, Immortal fans were likely expecting something else, entirely.

My first impression was that this was a horrible album. Despite Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism and Pure Holocaust being my favourite Immortal albums, At the Heart of Winter won me over and I hoped for something similar. Sadly, the epic, melodic feel of that record was replaced with the jerky, stop/start riffing reminiscent of Blizzard Beasts. The terrible modern production made things even worse, as even the Teutonic Thrash riffs seemed strange and out of place. I was tempted to return the CD, several times, and kept changing my mind on a daily basis. Being such a fan of the band, I wanted to like this and gave it many chances, but eventually just gave up and let it collect dust for a while before randomly tossing it in a couple years later.

To get the negative things out of the way first, the songs seem rather short and uninspired when compared to the previous album. Even worse, the lyrical content that Immortal had come to be known for was largely absent. The grim images of winter landscapes and frost demons were now a thing of the past, which was rather disappointing. The overall feeling was that they had gone out of their way to abandon what they started on At the Heart of Winter in order to try making Blizzard Beasts Part II. However, in that context, it should be stated that they did a much better job the second time around.

The album begins with "Triumph", which is the most memorable and energetic song to be found here. It features a great deal of Thrash riffs, but to call this Black/Thrash would almost be misleading, as it would conjure images of grim 80s bands instead of the polished and modern sound that Immortal achieved on this release. The only thing that really saves it is that it is quite intense, and the feeling is there. Other than the middle section, the song keeps a frantic pace and has a sense of violence and force that was lacking on the last record.

"Wrath from Above" keeps the fury going, as it sticks to the intense (almost Death Metal-like) riffs that reminds one more of Morbid Angel than any Norwegian Black Metal band. Again, the middle section sees a slower pace but it soon speeds up and proves to be completely ineffective. In later interviews, Abbath admitted that the album was somewhat rushed and that seems quite apparent here.

The next song is "Against the Tide (In the Arctic World)" and this one sounds reminiscent of At the Heart of Winter, while not managing to be as epic. One noticeable difference between the two albums is that Abbath's vocals seem weaker, as if he was battling some sort of illness while recording. The song features a few changes and a decent solo and, while standing out when compared to other songs on this record, it still falls somewhat short of what the band was capable of.

"My Dimension" goes right back into the speed, with rather generic Thrash riffs that do little to convey any sort of intensity or feeling. Later riffs seem a bit more natural, though the song seems carried by the percussion more than it should be. The slower riffs, in the middle and at the end, are far more appealing and could have been used to build a different song, altogether.

Next up is "The Darkness That Embrace Me", which is a little more subdued and flows more naturally. It would be one of the better songs on here, if not for the breakdown in the middle, which completely kills the atmosphere, dead. Eventually, the song recovers, but it is hardly worthwhile after that disgusting display.

"In Our Mystic Visions Blest" starts out with the intensity of a Death Metal song, and the effects on the vocals only add to this feeling. For one reason or another, it reminds me of something that belongs on Covenant, by Morbid Angel. This is not a huge surprise, as they once said that they were inspired by them. Later in the song, some more interesting guitar melodies are introduced, though that is not quite enough to give the song a better rating.

It all ends with the title track, "Damned in Black", which starts out as if it is going to be epic as hell and thus represents the last hope for any traces of the previous album to be found. The more epic parts alternate with parts that can be described as slow staccato riffs as well as some restrained Thrash bits. Later in the song, the speed increases and hearkens back to the old days, before a calm acoustic section leads into another mid-paced riff. Some of the riffs drag a little, but this is still one of the better songs on the album.

Damned in Black is an odd album in that Immortal seemed to run away from the style that they utilized on At the Heart of Winter, in an effort to revisit and improve upon Blizzard Beasts. While the result was much better than that atrocity, it was still a let down and many fans were grateful that they got back on track with Sons of Northern Darkness, a couple years later. This is not a completely horrid effort, but it remains something for die-hard fans and is certainly not essential. If you give it a chance, keep in mind that it may take a while to grow on you.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Darkthrone - Plaguewielder (2001)

2001 was a dark period for real Black Metal. The trendy symphonic bands had claimed most of the attention from labels and fans alike and those bands that were attempting to keep true Black Metal alive were forced deeper underground. The truth of the matter is that most bands were trying to jump on the synth bandwagon and abandoning the core values of this music, while the few that did their best to keep the flame burning were doing a poor job. Nocturno Culto and Fenriz were in an odd position, by this point. They did not wish to join the masses, yet their own trademark sound had been stolen and the underground was being flooded with sub-par clones. Not quite ready to make a huge musical shift, and already reeling from the fact that the two previous records were not well-received, Darkthrone made a safe record that was not too similar to the early output yet contained no real signs of change of experimentation.

Plaguewielder is the ninth studio album from this Norwegian band and it is rather mediocre compared to most of their releases, though still being a few steps ahead of Total Death and Ravishing Grimness. Naturally, it does not compare with the "Unholy Trinity" of A Blaze In the Northern Sky, Under A Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger. As a matter of fact, it isn't even up there with Panzerfaust, but it is the best of Darkthrone's mid-period and the last one to be recorded in this style before they began the major shift in sound.

The album begins with an intro that hearkens back to their first Black Metal record, soon followed by the type of sound that fans had come to expect from the band by then. The opening tremolo riff is accompanied by more of Fenriz's sloppy drumming, as seen on the previous album. Thankfully, he wakes up after a minute or so and the song sounds a bit more appropriate. The variation in the drumming adds a new dynamic, and may have been done for the sake of not sounding like the old stuff, but most would agree that the songs were clearly written to be faster. The same thing occurred on the last album, with Fenriz choosing drumming patterns that went against what Nocturno Culto had in mind for the songs. A slower section arrives, around the middle of the song, and doesn't do much to add to the atmosphere. While containing some of the better riffs on the album, "Weakling Avenger" is a little too long and needed the more primitive style of drumming that was present on the band's classic releases. It's not bad, but it could use improvement.

The next song is "Raining Murder", and it begins with another decent tremolo riff that is joined by some rather boring drum-work. After a minute, the drumming shifts and then compliments the guitar melodies a lot more. Unfortunately, there are some effects added to the song that only serve to create more noise and distract from the riffs. One cannot be certain, but it would really seem that, by this point, Nocturno Culto was doing his best to keep the band alive while Fenriz was rather apathetic and doing his best to create a feeling of mediocrity. He was clearly bored with the type of music that they had been making but wasn't ready to move forward yet. As the song progresses, there is a mid-paced section that actually fits in in rather well. As it nears its conclusion, the pace slows down even more, giving a feeling of dreariness and doom.

"Sin Origin" shifts gears and goes right into Hellhammer-mode, which somewhat kills the flow of the album. For one reason or another, most bands fail to remain interesting when they aim to rip off Hellhammer / Celtic Frost. While they succeeded in doing this on Panzerfaust, it simply isn't as good this time around. With the two previous songs containing slower and mid-paced sections, the last thing that was needed at this juncture was another plodding tune. The track is excessively long as well, though the ending riffs create an uneasy feeling and are a worthy addition to the record.

This is followed by "Command", which is another mid-paced song. It definitely would have benefited from being preceded by a faster and shorter track. Despite this, it is actually one of the more impressive songs on the album. The slower riffs are dismal while the fast sections do well to create a sense of tension and this is one of the few times where the dynamic range of the songwriting is actually a positive thing. This is one of the most impassioned vocal performances of Nocturno Culto's career. Everything slows down in the middle, leading to a new riff that introduces incredibly fierce screams that are absolutely inhuman. The drumming that follows is a clear sign that the punk vibes were always present in Darkthrone's music, just not as overt as they would be in later years. The song is repetitive at times, and could be slightly shorter, but is the best track on the album.

"I, Voidhanger" opens with some odds riffs and odd timing. About halfway through, the pace picks up and resembles something more normal for a Darkthrone record. Like most of the other tracks, this one sounds over-analyzed and goes on a little longer than it should.

Plaguewielder ends with "Wreak", which clocks in over nine minutes in length. It starts out with a catchy riff that soon transitions to something faster. The shift is a little unnatural and one gets the sense that the riffs were kind of thrown-together. The production of this album is not as raw as most fans would have liked, and that may have contributed to the negative impression that it left on many listeners. Much like the cover artwork, the production is too organic and lively. A cold, minimalist approach would have really suited these songs much better, as well as removing some of the unnecessary parts. The final song really drags until the four-minute mark, when a brilliant tremolo riff finally breaks free from the stagnation and reminds one of the glory of Transilvanian Hunger. Has this track been stripped down and only the best riffs left, along with a production job more similar to the Necrohell sound of the past, this would have turned out much better. The song plods along for another couple of minutes before the mournful tremolo melody returns, accompanied by the correct style of drumming, which creates a sorrowful atmosphere and also imbues the listener with a sense of disappointment, seeing how great this could have been.

Darkthrone's mid-period was a sad thing to behold. Total Death was completely neutered by the dull production job and the random song arrangements. Ravishing Grimness was killed by more awful production and incoherent songwriting (with the two members working against one another, rather than together). Plaguewielder was lambasted from the beginning for the colourful cover art alone, but the music is not as awful as many would claim it is, though it does clearly show that the band had no clue what exactly they wanted to do. It would appear that Fenriz was ready to move on to something else, while Nocturno Culto wanted to keep some connection with their old style. The Hellhammer influence was a little too noticeable on this album (as with the one before), though one could almost sense some inspiration from Burzum and even their own earlier works. While there are a few really good riffs and a couple decent songs, this record could have been so much more. It would take the band several more years to work out their creative problems and finally make the transition to what they are doing now, but the path was a painful one.

This is not recommended for anyone new to the band; however, die-hard Darkthrone fans should give it a listen and judge for themselves. If possible, adjust the stereo with the bass all the way down and the treble on high and it will nearly sound like it came from Necrohell. This isn't a great album, but it contains some good riffs that are worth hearing and it is certainly more enjoyable than some of their other offerings from this era.