Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tiamat - The Astral Sleep (1991)

While Sumerian Cry was more of a direct continuation of Treblinka, The Astral Sleep is the first record with a more distant feeling. For their sophomore release, Tiamat chose to record outside of Sweden and the well-known confines of Sunlight Studio. Instead, the went to Dortmund, Germany to record at Woodhouse Studio (the same place where Unleashed recorded their debut album, earlier that year). The location and producer were not the only things to change; Tiamat's style had undergone quite a progression. No longer did they play Black Metal. The music on this album is actually somewhat difficult to label. To call it Swedish Death Metal would be pretty misleading. There are more traditional metal elements found here, as well as an atmospheric Death/Doom approach. Released in September 1991, The Astral Sleep would be one of the first albums to begin the process of 'maturing' that many Swedish bands would later do.

This is actually a fairly difficult album to review. I acquired this very late, actually, during the most pleasant period of my existence. Listening to it brings back memories of peaceful times, yet it is now stained with sorrow as this period is gone forever. At the time, I listened to this over and over for quite some time. Probably, within the first couple weeks of owning it, I had made up for the lost years of not yet possessing it.

After an atmospheric intro, that really sets the tone for what is to follow, "Lady Temptress" erupts with furious thrash riffs. This is one of the more up-beat songs on the album, possessing a lot of energy. There's a lot of variety in the vocals, going from deeper growls to near-tortured screams. The tempo varies, as well, slowing down near the middle, just before a killer solo emerges. The drum beat underneath this is total old school and really gives away the band's 80s roots.

"Mountain of Doom" couldn't be more appropriately titled, as it is exactly as described. Beginning with some keyboards and an acoustic guitar, this slowly builds up. From the earliest moments, there is a sorrowful feeling present. As with the album as a whole, this song has an epic sensibility as the structure is more complex than one might expect. The general pace of the song is slow, but it is not static. In the latter half of the song, the speed picks up, briefly. While many of their contemporaries were seeking to emulate Entombed, Tiamat went in a completely different direction and created something quite unique.

"Now I'm there
Enjoying my peace of mind
In this lair
Death is what you'll find"

"Dead Boys' Choir" is more of an interlude than a real song, clocking in under two minutes. The feeling conveyed is dark and dismal, still maintaining the mood from the previous piece. Lyrically, it is fairly close to earlier efforts.

"They are gathered here in the fivepointed star
To close up ritual of a time so far
End what was not ended before
To meet the lord Satan they highly adore"

The pace picks back up with "Sumerian Cry Pt. 3", which is a very dynamic song. Not only is there quite a bit of variety with the vocals, going from deep growls to raspy ones and then insane screams, but the drumming includes brief blast beats and the guitar riffs are vicious yet quite melodic at other times. There's even some strange keyboard effect added in.

"On Golden Wings" sees the furious energy completely drained. It begins with a sorrowful acoustic section, reaching into your brain like a icy claw and pulling terrible memories to the forefront of your mind. As the song really gets going, it is not quite as doom-laden as one may have expected, though it has its moments. Later in the song, there is a quiet acoustic piece accompanied by a brief and wailing guitar lead that fades into oblivion.

The next song is "Ancient Entity", which is the longest one on the album. It begins with a murderous scream, joined by more energetic guitar riffs. This is one of the more epic compositions on the record, being quite memorable as well. The atmosphere is still dark, though not utterly oppressive. Lyrically, this one tells quite a wicked tale.

"Beneath the fullmoon
Covered in gloomy clouds
Obscure funeral spirits
Evil shadows on haunted ground"

From slower sections with keyboards and a brooding atmosphere to faster parts that include wild lead solos, this song really has it all and is a very good representation of The Astral Sleep. Some of the riffs would not have been out of place on Sumerian Cry, or even the old Treblinka demos.

"The Southernmost Voyage" creates a very somber atmosphere with use of keyboards and acoustic guitar. This is a hint of the style that would become dominant on the release that followed this one. Vocally, it is more of a spoken word piece than anything else. There are some dark whispers to accompany this, but no singing of any kind. A miserable lead solo floats in the background, giving this song the feeling of some cloudy nightmare.

The bleak feeling carries over into "Angels Far Beyond", which begins with a slow doom riff. Keyboards are, again, utilized to accentuate the atmosphere. They always seemed to fit more naturally into Death or Doom Metal, as opposed to Black Metal. Perhaps that is because their use was, generally, more complimentary rather than being the sole source of feeling. This track also includes a nice, old school galloping riff as the speed increases for a few moments. A soulful lead solo shoots out like hands from an old grave, pulling you toward the moist ground. However, this passes before you find yourself below the surface. Demonic laughter ends the song, almost as if to remind you that you can be taken at any moment.

"I Am the King (of Dreams)" is more straightforward, featuring a blast beat and more intense riffs. The vocals are a bit deeper, also. This song is another that would have fit nicely on their debut album. Its placement displays the brilliance of the album, as none of the songs are in the wrong spot. Everything was arranged in the proper manner, so as to take the listener on quite an epic journey. By the later part of the song, a hellish guitar solo rises up from the depths, before fading into nothingness.

"A Winter Shadow" starts out as a song would usually end, giving a unique feeling to it. This one, also, makes use of some sparse blast beats, before going into more of a mid-paced riff. For the most part, this song has a more relaxed tempo. As it fades, the outro gives the sense of awakening from a surreal dream, learning that the life you thought you had was the dream and a new reality awaits you.

The best comparison I can make between The Astral Sleep and its predecessor is to liken it to the change Morbid Angel made from Altars of Madness to Blessed Are the Sick, in a sense. However, in this case, the progression went even further. Tiamat's second album is more epic and melodic than their previous material, though it still retains a vicious side as well. This would, finally, be eliminated on their third album.