Friday, February 22, 2008

Dark Funeral - The Secrets of the Black Arts (1996)

The Secrets of the Black Arts is the first full-length album from the Swedish Black Metal band, Dark Funeral. It features cover artwork from the legendary Necrolord. Originally, this was recorded at Dan Swanö's Hellspawn/Unisound Studios, the same as the self-titled E.P., but Blackmoon was dissatisfied with the sound, insisting that it be re-recorded at Peter Tägtgren's Studio Abyss. As somewhat of a perfectionist, he fought hard to not release the first version of the album. The sound is a vast improvement over their previous release, which is odd to say as the Abyss sound is not always so good; however, on this album it was done just right and there is little to complain about. After this, many other bands began using the same studio.

When most people think of Dark Funeral, a very useless band comes to mind. You are filled with apathy at the thought of a meaningless style of music, which seems to be made to please the ignorant masses. This is understandable, as the band has not been relevant in many years. Yet The Secrets of the Black Arts is from a different time. At this point, Necrophobic-mastermind, David Parland (Blackmoon) was still the main creative force and the music benefits from this. As a matter of fact, Lord Ahriman was so intoxicated during the recording process that Blackmoon often played both guitar parts.

My first encounter with this band was around the release of Vobiscum Satanas, which made a bad impression. Actually, it was so bad that I almost didn't bother to listen to their earlier material. However, as I glanced over their debut L.P. for a brief moment, something caught my eye. I noticed David Parland on the back cover and, being a fan of his work in Necrophobic, I knew that I had to give this a listen. In some ways, this could be considered a companion piece to their second album, Darkside.

The Secrets of the Black Arts begins with a very brief intro, "The Dark Age Has Arrived". This does little more than to lower the listener's guard. As you put the CD in, you are expecting something, of course. This intro helps to maximize the impact as the first real song erupts with hellish blasphemy.

Spilling forth from the gates of Hell, the title track begins with icy cold tremolo riffs, blast beats and some of the most demonic vocals, ever. The one thing that seems to dominate the sound is the guitars, which is as it should be. The songwriting is nothing short of amazing, as everything is arranged perfectly. Even the drumming has enough slight variation to keep things from being boring or too typical. The freezing melodies possess a very nocturnal quality.

"My Dark Desires" is a little less violent than the previous song. This song first appeared on the Dark Funeral E.P. This new version would seem to be the superior one, especially considering Themgoroth's evil and maniacal vocal performance. The fast parts are always well-balanced with more mid-paced overtures, in order to give oxygen to the sinister energy that lies among these notes. So often, the glacial, sharp touch of the guitars is mixed with dark, gloomy melodies and this adds a sense of ritualism to the sound.

"The Dawn No More Rises" begins with a slow pace, but not for very long. Themgoroth's hellish vocals rise from the abyss like a chorus of demons and the song explodes with malevolence. The tremolo melodies are like razors of ice, carving through your flesh, creating a grim and cold nocturnal atmosphere. This song goes well with Immortal's "The Sun No Longer Rises", Marduk's "The Sun Has Failed" and Sacramentum's "Far Away From the Sun" as yet another cold northern hymn of darkness.

The next song starts off as if already in progress. "When Angels Forever Die". This song is actually more straight-forward and, probably, used as a template for the band's later sound. The difference is that, although this is pure tremolo riffs and blast beats all the way through, the dark and sinister feeling is never lost. It is done with purpose and accomplishes its goal.

"The Fire Eternal" continues on with this hellish pace, yet is is easily discernable from the previous song. There is more of a somber element to the melodies on this song. Technically speaking, there is nothing groundbreaking, here; minor chords, tremolo strummed with a treble heavy guitar tone, arranged into riffs which shift in dissonant and chromatic fashion. The important thing is that this all comes together in creating a sense of darkness and evil. That is what separates this release from so many others; everything is done for a reason.

"Satan's Mayhem" features simple and cold melodies that often move counter to the harmonies in a device to create tension and an unsettling sensation of fundamental dischord. Themgoroth sounds as if his throat is being shredded, yet he never relents. The furious and intense drumming of Equimanthorn is very precise. Blackmoon's dark and frigid guitars serve as the centerpiece of the song.

"Shadows Over Transilvania" is another song that was originally released on the debut E.P. It is difficult to decide which version is preferable, as the original is probably more familiar, yet the guitar tone is superior on the L.P., in most places. All in all, it was probably done better the first time. This is one of the best songs on the album, as it is morbidly consumed with nocturnal atmosphere. The slower sections and the haunting melodies found therein are key to allowing the sinister energies to grow.

"Bloodfrozen" enters the soundscape with a very slow, doomy pace. The open-arpeggio riffs work well in establishing a dark and sorrowful feeling of dread. As the song speeds up, this feeling remains. Very few guitarists have ever been so successful at harnessing the nocturnal forces quite like Blackmoon. The title of the song is appropriate enough, as the blood freezes in your veins, while listening.

The next song is a cover of Von's "Satanic Blood". There is not much to say about this. It is straight-forward and does not stray from the original. Blackmoon does the vocals on this song. This song doesn't really contain the same atmosphere as the rest of the album. One could say it serves as a break from the rest, so that it is more appreciated when it returns or that it is out of place and, maybe, belonged on an E.P.

"Dark Are the Paths to Eternity (A Summoning Nocturnal)" returns the listener to the cold depths of the nocturnal abyss, bereft of life or light, surrounded by the dark forces from beyond. Themgoroth has become fully possessed, at this point. It is obvious that some vocalists hold back or simply put forth minimal effort, yet one can easily hear all of his being pouring forth in his performance. The riffs are the epitome of true darkness. This is like a hymn to the majesty of the eternal night sky and blackness so dark that even shadows cease to exist. As the song slows down, there is a clean-spoken part that adds to the atmosphere being created by this nocturnal ritual. The guitars are cold as ice and the melodies build a sense of tension, as you are being led toward the great unknown. As the brilliant guitar melodies fade into silence, so too does Dark Funeral's true potential fade into obscurity.