Friday, October 31, 2008

King Diamond - Fatal Portrait (1986)


In early 1985, following the tour for Don't Break the Oath, Mercyful Fate split up. The prime reason seemed to be creative differences between King and Hank Shermann. Along with Michael Denner and Timi Hansen, King Diamond embarked upon a solo career that would carry on the same musical tradition, with some new elements, and also saw the Satanic Black Metal of Mercyful Fate replaced with a horror concept. King Diamond's debut album, Fatal Portrait, was written entirely by King and Michael Denner, with no input from new guitarist, Andy LaRocque.

This was the second King Diamond album that I obtained, just weeks after acquiring The Eye. It was a cold night in November, and I experienced this masterpiece, for the first time, with only a few candles illuminating the room. There was just enough light for me to follow along with the lyrics. It took several months before I gave this album even a moment's rest.

Several of the musical influences utilized by Mercyful Fate are still present on this album, particularly the complex song structures, inspired by early Black Sabbath, along with the speed metal that was typical of the era. “The Candle”, “Dressed in White” and “Haunted” all possess these highly complex structures. However, more straight-forward songs such as “Halloween”, “Lurking in the Dark” and “Charon” are a bit of a departure from the old days.

Fatal Portrait is unique, within the King Diamond catalogue, as it is not a full concept album. The story is only present in about half the songs, indicating that this may have been somewhat of an experiment. Of course, the works that followed this were full concept albums.

"The Candle" begins with sounds befitting a horror score. The keyboard intro goes well with the Hellish vocals that lead into a haunting organ piece. It very well may serve to raise the hair on the back of your neck. As the guitars and drums come in, it is apparent that this is the legacy of Mercyful Fate. King's vocals create an eerie effect before actually singing. Throughout the album, his mostly utilizes falsetto, and it really suits the music. The song is mid-paced, maintaining the atmosphere of horror. As with Mercyful Fate, the riffs are very epic, and listening to this gives one the feeling of going on some sort of journey back in time. The solo is beyond words.

"The Jonah" features another horrific intro and a demonic voice, continuing the same wicked mood as the previous song. Again, King uses his vocals as an instrument, in place of keyboards, to add an eerie melody. This song is mid-paced as well, and just as epic as its predecessor. The riffs are very memorable and the atmosphere is dark and haunting. After a few minutes, the pace picks up, accompanied by wicked solos. These brilliant riffs would not have been out of place on Don't Break the Oath.

"The Portrait" begins with a brief keyboard passage, for effect, before kicking in with a bit of a faster pace than the previous songs. Another hellish solo rears its head, rising from the flames. As the story progresses, this song carries a feeling of urgency and creates some tension. It is impossible for me to understand why many people consider this as the weakest King Diamond album. This is my personal favorite and, regarding the old albums, I'd say that "Them" is the true weak link (mostly due to the production). The vocal melodies here are just as important as the guitars and King does an excellent job here.

"Dressed In White" is next and continues with a similar pace as before, not quite fast but not as slow as the first two. The rhythm of the song is, somewhat, reminiscent of Iron Maiden. That is absolutely not a bad thing. The solos are incredible and the vocals are without fault.

The next song, "Charon", is a bit more raw than the previous ones, featuring a thrashy riff, early one. Again, due to the brilliant guitars and vocal melodies, this song maintains the same epic feeling that is present on the rest of the album, despite being relatively short. This song also features a riff that sounds very similar to the main riff in "Abigail", around the two minute mark. The solo, near the end, is godly. That seems to be a recurring theme with this band.

"Lurking in the Dark" has been a staple of my radio show, throughout the last seven years. It begins with a thrashy riff and inhuman howling, followed by a killer solo. King's high-pitched vocals are really the highlight of this song. The chorus is nothing short of amazing. One of the faster songs on the album, though not really that fast, this song also features some double bass, for a bit. It's also not short on great solos. This is great music for driving in the middle of the night, on a deserted road, with cold winds blowing in the open window.

"Ahh!!! It's Halloween!"

"Halloween" is fucking awesome. The riffs and the feeling in the vocals are incredible. It sounds as if this song, in particular, was quite enjoyable for them to record. There's an extra bit of passion that shows in King's vocals, on this one. Just listening to this makes me want to sit down, for several hours, as my eyes feast upon classic horror movies, such as the original Halloween, as well as anything with Bela Lugosi.

"Voices From the Past" is a short instrumental piece that serves to take the modd down a few notches, creating a darker atmosphere than the previous songs. The guitar on this one is played by King, himself, as Andy was just unable to master the riffs that were written. This song is eerie and leads, perfectly, into the next song.

"Haunted" returns to the storyline and concludes this horrific tale. It maintains the dark feeling and even features some acoustic sections. The solo work is very deep and adds yet another dimension to this classic album.

"The Lake" is one of my favorite King Diamond songs, ever. The galloping pace and the piercing vocals accompany some of the most memorable riffs on the album. The melodies are absolutely haunting and will remain in the dark recesses of your mind, long after the album has ended. Not featured on the original release, for some reason, this song possesses the same epic feeling as the rest. I can't fathom why this one was kept on the shelf. Even the way the song ends serves as a very appropriate way to conclude an album.

Fatal Portrait does well to carry on the spirit of Mercyful Fate, while giving birth to something new as well. This album is the bridge between Don't Break the Oath and Abigail. In my view, it's tied with the latter as the best King Diamond album ever recorded...far from being the 'weak' album that many seem to label it as. If you don't own this classic, throw yourself off a cliff. Hopefully, the jagged rocks, beneath, will knock some sense into you.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ophthalamia - A Journey In Darkness (1994)


Ophthalamia is a fantasy world created by IT, of Abruptum, in 1989. All of the songs are connected to stories about this realm. A Journey In Darkness is the first Ophthalamia album and features the vocals of Jon Nödtveidt, of Dissection, listed here as Shadow. The album was recorded in early 1993, in Unisound Studios, and produced by Dan Swanö.

I stumbled across this album, in a used CD shop, several years back. I remembered reading that Jon Nödtveidt had been the vocalist, on one of the albums, and quickly gave this a listen. Indeed, I had discovered the one I'd read about and, being a huge Dissection fan, I bought the album. For some reason, my earliest expectations were that this would be, sort of, a Swedish counterpart to Burzum. I'm not sure where I got this idea (maybe the intro), but I was a little disappointed after listening to this for the first time. I played one of the songs on my radio show, a few weeks in a row, and then forgot all about the album. For years, it collected dust. It wasn't until this past Winter that I thought about Ophthalamia again and gave the album another chance. While freezing and reading about early Medieval history, I listened to this, over and over again. Once I'd finally given the album a chance, having no expectations, I found that it was quite enjoyable.

A Journey In Darkness is a very dark and gloomy album, possessing a lot of doom riffs, greatly inspired by Black Sabbath. It begins with "A Cry From the Halls of Blood / Empire of Lost Dreams", an intro piece that features an incredibly intense performance by Shadow. The melodic riff is almost depressive and the spoken words section builds in intensity until the vocalist seems overcome with emotion and screams from the very depths of his being.

The album carries a dark and mysterious atmosphere of melancholy and despair, yet also nocturnal beauty. The vocals of Jon Nödtveidt compliment the music, perfectly. He displays quite a bit of range, including some clean vocals and an eerie whisper, along with his usual style. The songs possess and epic feel, maintaining a certain amount of gloom, despite a few upbeat riffs and brief female vocals. It is difficult to choose the best songs as they are filled with so many different riffs and tempos. For the majority of the album, the songs are slower or mid-paced, though it does vary. Also of note is the relevance of the bass guitar, here. The album is filled with memorable riffs and melodies, throughout. One of my favorite riffs is a particularly miserable one, around the three minute mark, in "Castle of No Repair / Lies From a Blackened Heart".

The outro gives the feeling of being ripped away from this world, as if waking from a dream; a dream that felt more real than life, itself. As if the dream is where you belong and the life you are being pulled back into is a nightmare that cannot be escaped. A Journey In Darkness is epic and majestic Black Metal, with a very strong doom influence.

If you are fortunate enough to run across this album, make every effort to pick it up and give it a good listen. It is well worth the time and effort.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mütiilation - Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul (1999)

Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul is considered to be a compilation album, of sorts, released in 1999. The first five songs were initially intended to be released as Mütiilation's debut album under the title of Evil: The Gestalt of Abomination. They were recorded in 1993 and this debut L.P. was supposed to be released on a Colombian label, Warmaster Records. It is a shame that these plans fell through, as this material really should have been heard during that period. As for the last two songs, they were recorded solo in 1996. The liner notes claim that Meyhna'ch was dead as a result of the pathetic Black Metal scene of the time.

This album was my first exposure to Mütiilation. One summer night, my band mate arrived outside the radio station, in order to drop off a couple CDs that I was borrowing for my show. With a little time to kill, and a decent air conditioner in his car, I accepted the offer to check out a couple bands. While the others were of no interest to me, whatsoever, this one stood out. From the opening moments of "Suffer the Gestalt", I was drawn deeper into this hellish recording.

The album begins with inhuman moaning. Sparse drumming leads into very primitive guitar riffs and screams of torture and suffering. This is agony and pure Hell caught on tape. It lasts but three and a half minutes, yet it seems too epic to be so brief. You are compelled to shred your own flesh and to bleed in the candlelight. The screams almost seem as if they are emanating from within your own ruined soul.

"To the Memory of the Dark Countess" begins with simplistic guitar riffs, speeding up a bit with awkward sounding drums, before settling into a mid-paced and mournful Black Metal riff. The guitars are very droning and the vocals are possessed with madness and torture. Torches light the hidden chambers, in the depths of the crumbling castle. Girls are tormented and killed to be drained of their blood for the dark queen to bathe. With this song, one can feel their terror as they await their grisly demise.

The album continues with "Possessed and Immortal". As with the previous song, it mostly consists of mid-paced riffs that convey the blackest and most pure melancholy. Meyhna'ch's hateful and mournful screams emerge from the shadowy depths of his being and perfectly suit the raw sound. The scene is one of a solitary spirit, crushed to the black earth, surrounded by empty bottles and dull razors. The light of the candles illuminates the prison-like walls, casting shadows of a miserable creature slicing away at his own skin, painting the room with his own blood. Life has no meaning. To exist is to suffer.

"Through the Funeral Maelstrom of Evil" is the longest song on the album and begins with a bit of a faster pace, though still a bit plodding. The sort of clumsy drumming fits the raw and primitive nature of the recording. There is a feeling of desperate hopelessness imparted upon the listener, as a result of the utterly dismal guitar melodies and the immensely distressed cries. One could say that the production is pretty terrible, making Transilvanian Hunger sound polished. However, it adds to the overall feel.

"Travels to Sadness, Hate and Depression" begins with an thoroughly miserable riff. It is slow and very suitable to lead one right into the abyss. One can almost feel the dampened earth as the grave lays open and welcoming. The woeful riffs and tortured vocals combine to create such a grim and dreary atmosphere that you begin to feel a heavy weight on your chest. It is not for the weak and certainly not for those accustomed to newer, so-called suicidal Black Metal bands. This is pure agony and hell, in recorded form. The dramatic statements made in the liner notes, in 1999, have no effect on these songs. There is no posturing, here. This is absolute misery and hatred captured for the ages. It reaches into your chest and tears at your heart, squeezing until life expires. The pitch-black despondency of these riffs makes this one of the best songs on here, accentuated by the frenzied nature of the vocal performance.

Tacked on to the end of this classic recording are a couple of tracks recorded solo by Meyhna'ch, in 1996. "The Fear That Freeze" and "Holocaust in the Mourning Dawn (French Version)" don't really fit with the rest of the material and would have been better served if released separately, somehow. The sound is nowhere near as raw and the drum machine is a little distracting as well. The former is very fast and somewhat reminiscent of Norwegian Black Metal. The latter is a re-recording of an older song, not really doing it justice. The version from the Satanist Styrken demo is much better. 

Despite the ill-placed bonus material, Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul is absolutely the definitive Mütiilation album and a classic of second-wave Black Metal, in general. More raw than Darkthrone and darker than Burzum, it is really too bad that these songs weren't available for listeners back in 1993. The first five songs are a great example of what this band once was, while the last two songs offer a fair representation of the later albums. If you haven't slashed your veins and bled to death by the time the album has concluded, it would be highly recommended for you to seek out all of the early releases from this band.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Watain - Sworn to the Dark (2007)


Sworn to the Dark is the third full-length album from Swedish Black Metal band Watain. Released in the cold month of February 2007, this was the band's first effort on their new label, Season of Mist. The cover art includes the words "no return", which can be viewed in many ways. This was the beginning of the band's departure from the obscure depths of the Black Metal underground. Not only did they leave behind the more cult label, Drakkar, but their sound evolved to something more accessible. This coincided with a great number of interviews in the Metal press, drawing more attention to the band. 

I first heard Watain many years ago, being introduced to a song from their debut album. While it was good, I neglected to really pay a lot of attention. I was reintroduced to them around the release of Casus Luciferi, as I happened to be living in Stockholm. This offering was quite impressive and I did everything that I could to spread the word. It was difficult, early on, as I soon realized that too few people had even heard of the band. Upon returning to the states, two years later, it seemed as if no one at all had any idea who they were. After successful tours with Dissection, Celtic Frost and Kreator, word seemed to spread quite rapidly and, by the time Sworn to the Dark was released, I found that I wasn't the only one anticipating this album.

It was a freezing cold winter night when I first listened to this L.P. I waited a few days, after receiving it, as I wanted to give it my full attention. This was common for me, since I was younger, to focus on the music and read along with the lyrics during the first listen. In the case of this album, I had very high hopes and the atmosphere had to be just right. It was late and I was sitting in the corner of the room, surrounded by black candles. Through the spaces between the blinds, I could see a faint light reflecting off of the snow. With headphones on, the volume was turned all the way up and I prepared myself for the second coming of Casus Luciferi. Doubtless, nothing could have lived up to the expectations that I had for this album.

As the record begins, one will surely notice the thicker and more powerful sound. It suits the music well enough, though it sounds a little too modern when compared to the somewhat more raw and cold production of its predecessor. It also comes off as somewhat claustrophobic, maybe due to some kind of compression, as there is a lack of space between the instruments. This is but one of several complaints.

Watain was never really known for possessing the most original songwriting. Looking back, the prime reason that their sophomore album was so appealing to many is that it hearkens back to the glory days of Mayhem and Dissection, with hints of Burzum thrown in as well. It was, more or less, an updated and amalgamated version of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and The Somberlain. What one finds with Sworn to the Dark is that the Mayhem influence is practically gone and the inspiration taken from Dissection is stronger than ever; however, rather than taking their cues from the old records, this release seems like the more underground brother of Reinkaos. There are still far more pure Black Metal riffs, but the overall sense of melody and structure has changed, considerably. This is evident from the first song, "Legions of the Black Light", which offers up sinister tremolo melodies mixed with more old school riffs, before diving headfirst into a continuation of Jon Nödtveidt's work. From the eerie solo to the riffs that play beneath it, it is clear that Watain has been influenced by their association with Dissection. This fact becomes more obvious with tracks like "Storm of the Antichrist" and "The Light that Burns the Sun", though the latter does feature some brilliant tremolo melodies that weave in and out, reminding one of the band's last outing.

Though starting and ending on strong notes, much of the album's remainder leaves a bit to be desired. There is a dark and morbid atmosphere that permeates most of the songs, with some truly haunting melodies here and there. Still, many of the tracks feel as if they could (and should) have been much better, as is the case with "Storm of the Antichrist" and the title track. "Sworn to the Dark" certainly sounds like the band traded artistic integrity for an attempt at making something catchy. The riffing style features a lot more of a thrash influence, with less emphasis on the tremolo melodies that made the previous album so memorable. This is painfully demonstrated on "Underneath the Cenotaph", which begins with a very mournful melody and then degenerates into thrashy nonsense. When the tremolo riffs do appear, they seem to play a supporting role, only serving to accentuate the rest of the composition rather than being the central focus. This is definitely the case with "The Light That Burns the Sun". "Darkness and Death" is also a bit of a letdown, being the most straightforward song on here and yet still not reaching the quality of the band's earlier work, though it does have its moments.

While paying attention to the negative aspects, such as the often boring songwriting and the modern production, one cannot overlook the drumming. The percussion is far too high in the mix and incredibly hyperactive. At times, it is almost reminiscent of Marduk, which is not a good thing. It is bad enough that the riffs are not as strong this time through, but the drumming often distracts and also gives yet more of a modern feel to the music.

With that said, it's not all downhill after the opening track. There is still some quality material to be heard, here. "Satan's Hunger" is one of the better songs, though it really sounds quite similar to Gorgoroth's "Possessed (By Satan)". Watain uses the same galloping drum beat to carry the listener toward the gates of Hell. Thankfully, the riffs have a morbid feeling and there is an overall dark and sorrowful vibe that makes this one of the most memorable songs on the album. The tremolo melody that appears around the four-minute mark is among my favourites on Sworn to the Dark, though it is all-too-brief. Still, from the composition to the execution, this track possesses a very epic atmosphere and more than makes up for the flaws found elsewhere. As the song finishes, it flows into an otherworldly instrumental piece, "Withershins". This track is very haunting and you almost feel as if you have passed through a gateway into a realm of nightmares. Though only lasting one minute, this is clearly one of the highlights of the album. It really has a way of messing with your mind, as if it offers a short glimpse into another world. In some ways, it seems as if it is foreshadowing a horrifying future, yet it ends before you are able to get a clear picture. This would be a fitting piece of music to die to.

"The Serpents Chalice" is one of the best songs on here and manages to succeed where some of the other songs came up short. It is mid-paced, with more of the Mayhem / Burzum influence evident in the main riffs. This is one of the more consistent tracks on Sworn to the Dark, and does well to mix elements of their earlier efforts with their new approach. Two-thirds of the way through, everything stops, with the exception of the guitar. Haunting whispers accompany the open arpeggio riffs, building up into a very melodic riff that is pure Dissection. The song ends on a very sorrowful note, which is also one of the more memorable moments of the album.

The final chapter of Watain's third album begins with "Dead But Dreaming", another haunting instrumental that serves as the calm before the storm. It lulls the listener into a trance, preparing them for what is to come. This leads into "Stellarvore", which witnesses the band keeping up their tradition of ending albums with something more epic and awe-inspiring. This is pure Black Metal magic, finally offering up the sort of melodies that have been hinted at, on and off, up until this point. This song creeps out of the abyss in a slow and menacing manner, a creature of horror and dread prepared to unleash Hell upon the sleeping world. It is very memorable and the vocals are possessed with a macabre conviction. Not every riff is pure brilliance, but the tremolo melodies that lurk within this beast of a song are masterful and really take you away from this world, into a place of indescribable darkness.

"Let us welcome the bringer of the end with open arms
Let us adorn the gates to nothingness with blood"

Sworn to the Dark is the beginning of a new phase for Watain. It seems as if they all but abandoned their previous path in an effort to ascend to the cold and dusty throne left vacant by the passing of Dissection. In that respect, they have succeeded. In many ways, this is what many expected Reinkaos to sound like, and certainly does well as a follow-up effort. There is no way to know if the shift in style was simply due to the affiliation with Jon, or if the band was looking to broaden their sound and fanbase as well. It would seem that they have definitely done that, as nearly everyone is jumping on the bandwagon now. Hopefully, this is not the beginning of the end. So, while this album is a step down from Casus Luciferi, it is a powerful piece of music that is likely to grow on you with time.