Thursday, March 27, 2008

At the Gates - The Red In the Sky Is Ours (1992)


At the Gates rose from the ashes of Grotesque, a Satanic Swedish Black / Death Metal band from the late 80s. With the Gardens of Grief E.P. the band already showed a definitive shift from the sound of Grotesque to a heavier, more bottom-heavy sound more related to other bands of the time. The vocals were much deeper as well, for the most part, but the release showed promise.

The Red In the Sky Is Ours is the debut full-length from Sweden's At the Gates. This is truly a masterpiece of an album, and far surpasses anything the band would go on to release. The spirit of Grotesque lives on here, but in much different form. This is not typical Swedish Death Metal, at all. It is actually much more reminiscent of early Burzum. In many aspects, this album possesses a similar feel and the structures are quite more complicated than most Death Metal. However, it does feature some of the rhythmic structures of that subgenre.

Vocally, Tomas Lindberg's style is a terrible shriek, that fits alongside that of Varg Vikernes. It works brilliantly with the hauntingly miserable melodies of this album. It sounds much less controlled than on later releases and is one of the best aspects of this album.

"The Red In the Sky Is Ours / The Season To Come" starts off furiously with tortured screams, blasting drums and fast tremolo riffs. This album gives the impression that the band could have easily chosen to go down a different path. They could have made the transition to Black Metal, such as Darkthrone did, and been quite successful. One can even find minor similarities between this and Soulside Journey. It is a shame that At the Gates chose a simpler way, following this album. At the conclusion of the opening track, there is the sound of thunder and rain, accompanied by a violin. This seems to accentuate the atmosphere very well.

To explain the production, the sound is clear enough but not overdone. It's not exactly raw, either. To best describe it, one would have to compare it to the first two Burzum albums and even Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism from Immortal. The guitar is definitely audible, but not very sharp. Really, the album may have benefited from the guitars being a little bit louder in the mix, but this is a minor complaint. The drums drive the songs nearly as much as the guitars do, so it may not be right to bury them in the mix.

In some places, one can find doom-inspired riffs, maybe in the vein of Dissection's The Somberlain. There is definitely a dark and somber atmosphere being created with this work. "Through Gardens of Grief" is one of the best songs on here, and features brilliant harmonies. There is also another violin piece in this song, going further to add to the depressive feeling. The song is mostly fast-paced, but not entirely. The vocals really convey a deep hopelessness here.

The epic feeling continues on the next song, "Within." It begins with a doomy riff, yet manages to get up to full speed later on. There is even another violin passage that blends in, seamlessly. And it is at this point the listener must realize the pure genius of this record. Here, At the Gates have created an absolute masterpiece, yet it seems to have occurred naturally. Many bands try to achieve such lofty goals, only to fall short. They try too hard. On The Red In the Sky Is Ours, the members of At the Gates flawlessly executed their goal. They brought their vision to life, and it was only a coincidence that it turned out so brilliantly. It was an extension of their creativity, which seemed to have no boundaries at this point. Only later on would they appear to limit themselves and thus suffocate this brilliance.

As the album continues, "Windows" offers great melodies filled with tension and dread. "Neverwhere" is certainly one of the standout tracks on this album. The dark melodies, agonized vocals and lyrics flow together, perfectly.

"Life doesn't belong here."

"The Scar" seems to be more of an extension of the previous song. The mood is much the same, though the delivery is much more subdued. Though quite simple, the song does well in painting a very bleak picture.

"The end, it reaches out for me. My soul still calling to be free."

This short piece manages to, effectively, create a very bleak and hopeless feeling. As the album draws to a close, the pace picks back up, somewhat. We also get a new version of "City of Screaming Statues" which was originally released on the Gardens of Grief E.P. This song is blindingly fast, most of the way through, yet it is a fitting close to this monumental album. Such an achievement would never again be equaled by this band or any other that attempted to follow in its wake. This album represents that peak of creativity for At the Gates. If you have not yet heard this, then you do not truly know this band.

Necrophobic - The Nocturnal Silence (1993)

The Nocturnal Silence is the first full-length L.P. from Sweden's Necrophobic. The album was recorded in Sunlight Studio in Stockholm, in March 1993 and it was produced by Necrophobic and Tomas Skogsberg. Despite being recorded in this well-known studio, the album definitely has its own atmosphere and is not typical of most Swedish Death Metal. It sounds as if the band consciously avoided going for the typical buzzsaw guitar tone made popular by bands such as Entombed and Dismember. The more raw feeling really suits the overall atmosphere, as this music is much darker than anything being done by their peers.

Necrophobic formed in 1989, and had gained much attention through the release of two demos, Slow Asphyxiation and Unholy Prophecies. Far from being stagnant or sounding just like everyone else, it was clear that this band was on a different path right from the start. They stood out from the mass of bands in Stockholm by possessing a bit more technical skill, Satanic themes and a vocalist with more of a raw and hateful voice. Anders Stokirk utilizes an approach similar to Masse Broberg of Hypocrisy, but not as deep. In general, everything about The Nocturnal Silence possesses more of a blackened sound and really embodies the more evil feeling that was given off by some of the earlier Death Metal bands, such as Morbid Angel.

The album begins with a short keyboard intro, that could easily fit in a horror movie. The slow, creepy riff that follows really sets the mood for the album. Then, in typical Slayer fashion, Hell is unleashed. "Awakening..." is a pretty fast-paced opening track. The musicianship is high quality and David Parland's guitar work is excellent. His is an easily identifiable sound, no matter what band he plays in. The first song already displays a decent variety of speeds. The production is very good, being clear enough to hear everything well but also raw enough to convey the right feeling. The vocals and riffs combine, perfectly, to create a rather hateful and abrasive feeling.

The albums continues on with blasphemy and an ever-darkening atmosphere. "Before the Dawn", especially the slower riffs with the brief spoken passage, was very successful in creating an evil feeling. The solo really does well to add a sense of gloom to everything. This album really seems positioned in between Black and Death Metal, as it doesn't entirely belong to one or the other. As the album progresses, "Unholy Prophecies" features more of the same hellish aura that has been produced thus far. However, at certain points, one would expect things to really speed up but it never quite gets fast enough. This is only a minor complaint.

One of the real gems of this album is the title track, "The Nocturnal Silence." The acoustic intro and the brilliant solo that starts the song really imbue the listener with visions of the full moon in the blackened night sky. Then, the Satanic ritual begins as the song takes off. The vocalist sounds as if his throat has been shredded by broken glass and the result is very good. The song has a certain doomy quality, until things speed up. Here, the fast tremolo riffs dominate. The intensity builds as the song progresses, with a very morbid section coming late in the track. Parland's "nocturnal" solo near the end is perfect as well. The solos really help to set Necrophobic apart from the other bands in the Stockholm scene, and add a lot of depth to the music. There really is little or nothing to complain about when it comes to this album. This song is definitely one of the highlights.

"A freezing silence descends in the night
Cold winds whisper damnation
Deathlike shadows rising on the ground
The call from the lords of creation"

This is followed by the brilliant instrumental, "Shadows of the Moon", which really continues the feeling that was created by the slower parts of the title track and serving as the perfect bridge between the first and second half of the album, doing a fantastic job in leading into "The Ancients Gate". Though fairly brief, it is as memorable as anything else on this album. Unfortunately, this track is not present on most versions of The Nocturnal Silence, due to some miscommunications with the label. "Inborn Evil" was supposed to be left off, as the band didn't think that it possessed the right feeling, but the instrumental was dropped instead. Only the American pressing, by Cargo Records, includes the proper track listing as the band wanted.  

From the demonic voices in the beginning to the brilliant solo that follows, "The Ancients Gate" proves to be a real classic. This track is very dynamic and feels somewhat epic, at times. For a song to stand out on an album filled with such greatness truly means something. It begins with a rather subdued pace, featuring an almost hypnotic lead solo, before bursting forth with demonic fury. The slower section, featuring the acoustic bit, adds a sense of gloom to the atmosphere, before returning to an absolutely hellish and evil sound.

"Sacrificial Rites" is another uncompromising track, dropping the mid-paced part from the demo version and just exploding out of the darkness and going right for your throat. The riffs are intense and powerful, with Stokirk's frenzied vocal delivery really lending a sense of urgency to the song. Despite being released in 1993, this is another song that shows that the band's creative forces were really rooted in the '80s. Once again, another masterful solo appears near the end.

"Father of Creation" includes a lot of slower (by comparison) riffs and allows the listener a little bit of a break, though the diabolical hatred is no less than on the previous songs. The real highlight of this track, for me, is the old school drum break in the middle, sounding much like something from ten years earlier. Parland's solos not only demonstrate his skills, but really add a total nocturnal feeling to this song and most of the others, conjuring up images of dark forests illuminated by moonlight and blood rituals being performed by torchlight in old and forgotten cemeteries.

Somehow, though the entire album is bursting at the seams with memorable riffs, "Where Sinners Burn" manages to open with yet another one, coupled with a haunting lead solo. Like much of the album, it possesses many speeds and it is dripping with evil. This song really does well to close out the album, as there is just some sense of finality put forth by nearly every riff and vocal line. The song ends with a particularly gloomy riff that just fades into the nothingness.

The Nocturnal Silence is an incredibly strong debut album. The fact that this band did not gain as much of a following as many of their inferior contemporaries (in Sweden and elsewhere) is an absolute crime. This puts most every other Death Metal release from this time to utter shame, even including the much-hailed Covenant, released by Morbid Angel just a couple months earlier. This shows the value on toiling in the underground, playing shows and recording demos before putting together an album. Not only is the musicianship excellent, the songwriting was well thought-out and Necrophobic easily achieved what they set out to do. This is a classic piece of Satanic Death Metal history and one of the best albums to ever be recorded at Sunlight Studio. If you have not heard this, you've been missing out.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nifelheim - Servants of Darkness (2000)


Servants of Darkness is the third full-length from Sweden's Nifelheim. As always, this band gets better and better with each release and continually display why they are among the elite. This was the first Nifelheim album I had ever heard, years ago, and I managed to pick it up at Sound Pollution, in Stockholm.

The album begins with the sound of wind blowing and bells chiming in the distance. A short acoustic passage stands in contrast to the full on Black/Speed Metal assault of "Evil Blasphemies." This song is filled with speed, chaos, fury and a wickedly haunting melody. Nifelheim are masterful at creating songs that, no matter how short, possess some sort of epic feeling to the harmonies. This is no exception.

"Sadistic Blood Massacre" and "Black Evil" continue on with the same frenetic pace as the opener. As with many Nifelheim songs, the beginning is much more wild and psychotic, and the melodic part seeps in later on. The melodies are really haunting and eerie, and no one does it like this anymore. There is a certain intensity to the vocals as they spew forth uncontrollably and the pace hasn't really let up yet. The war has only just begun...

The pace slows down a bit for the next song, "The Bestial Avenger." This is pure old school madness. This is the longest song on the album, and one of the most memorable. This is fucking evil perfection! This owes much of its existence to 80s Metal. I cannot emphasize enough just how brilliant this band is. This song, like so many others, is like a Satanic anthem. The pace slows down a bit, midway through, and then builds the intensity back up. Definitely one of the best on here.

"War of Doom (Armageddon)" was the first Nifelheim song I ever heard. Without knowing who it was, my first thought was that it was some gem from the 80s that I had missed. I thought that, surely, this was made not long after the classic Bathory albums. I was somewhat shocked when I learned that it was only a year or so old, at the time. Words cannot do justice to this song and its epic nature. The song title is very appropriate, as this sounds like a war march. Varying paces and otherworldly lead solos make this another stand-out track.

The pace picks back up with the title track and "Infernal Desolation." The album continues on with a variety of paces, epic arrangement and furious playing. The production is perfect for this kind of music. It sounds strong and powerful, while still being easy to mistake for something twenty years old. Even the bass is audible at certain parts, adding something to the sound. Oddly enough, I've read idiotic reviews claiming that Nifelheim made noisy, chaotic, talentless music. Such losers should stick to their favorite glam rock albums, as this is not for them. This is classic Black/Speed Metal and is definitely some of the most memorable stuff I've heard.

As we near the end of our Hellish journey, we go "Into the Morbid Black." This is one of my favorite songs on the album. Again, this starts fairly slow, compared to the others, but doesn't fail to speed up here and there. The song title is appropriate, as there is a very morbid atmosphere created with this one. During the slower parts, the vocalist sounds like a possessed corpse that has recently risen from the grave. There is no way that I will ever be able to articulate the brilliance of this song, along with the album closer "Sacrifice to the Lord of Darkness." I don't want to be repetitive, but this song is definitely defined by its intensity and epic nature. Those themes are present throughout the whole album, and most of Nifelheim's albums. This is just one more example of why they are among the elite.

If you don't own this, kill yourself and do it now.