Saturday, July 3, 2010

Black Funeral - Empire of Blood (1997)

American Black Metal is something that, in general, I have little or no interest in. In particular, as it relates to the Second Wave. Too many had been consuming a diet of pure Death Metal for many years, by the time the sounds of the Second Wave reached these damned shores. Sure, there were some that were knowledgeable about the European underground scene, but the majority didn't learn of this until the media hype and the 1993 Kerrang article, in particular. Between this, the church burnings and the murder of Euronymous, people in the US began to take notice and to start investigating these new bands. If one pays attention, it's easy to see that most of the best-known American Black Metal bands didn't come into existence until the mid-to-late 90s, at the earliest. That is, with the exception of those that really had no influence from the Second Wave to begin with.

Either way, what you find is that there is a strong Death Metal mentality to the music, and it persists to this day. The sound is, often, bereft of melody and maintains a 'brutal' approach. The imagery and, maybe, even the overall production will be altered, but the core remains firmly rooted in Death Metal. Some don't even bother to use higher-pitched vocals, sticking to the guttural style. But this is only one example.

The other side goes to the opposite end of the spectrum, stealing some elements from Burzum and Strid, creating the so-called Depressive Black Metal. Usually, this is created by a single person that was, previously, deep into Goth music. They possess just enough guitar skill to get by, and add a drum program and effects for the vocals and the end result is yet another steaming pile of feces, masquerading as Black Metal.

Needless to say, when it comes to American bands, my expectations are low. When I was exposed to Black Funeral, I still didn't have much hope, despite the year of the recordings. Would it be a poor man's attempt at ripping off Darkthrone and Burzum, mixed with Death Metal breakdowns (like Judas Iscariot), or something that opted to mimic Burzum and Strid (like I Shalt Become)? Surprisingly, what I found was something that maintained a raw and dark feeling. And while the influences were fairly obvious, it was still done in an interesting manner. Instead of ripping off Norway's finest and mixing it with Death Metal, Black Funeral sounds much more influenced by the likes of Moonblood and the LLN. And, yes, all of those were influenced by Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum, in some way, they also added their own elements into the sound.

Empire of Blood is the second full-length album by the American Black Metal band, Black Funeral, released in 1997 on Full Moon Productions. The music has been described, by the main figure behind the band, as "Grim Medieval Vampiric Black Metal". Honestly, this sums things up, pretty well. The feeling is dark and evil, while possessing the right amounts of gloom. It's primitive, yet the structures are a little more involved than one might expect. The songs consist of more than two riffs, for example, so it's not quite as minimalist as Transilvanian Hunger. The guitars stand out pretty well, despite the rough production. The melodies are easy to follow and are quite memorable. There may be another reason for that, in some cases, but I'll address that later.

Compared to Vampyr - Throne of the Beast, this album seems a little tighter and the feeling is slightly colder. The bass isn't as present as on the first record, eliminating some of the warmth. The vocals are shrieked and the mic is atrocious, which works for this style. If anything, the vocals certainly remind of some of the LLN bands, or even the demos from Emperor and Enslaved, being nearly impossible to decipher and seeming like possessed howls and shrieks. At certain points, there are bits of chanting/moaning added, for effect. The drumming is just as it should be; an afterthought. The drums are there to keep time, not to take away from the guitar melodies, and sometimes they get a little lost in the mix. No complaints, here.

Of course, there is a serious reason to complain about Empire of Blood. I'm not an expert on this band, but all of my research has led me to believe that Vampyr - Throne of the Beast is the first official album of Black Funeral, as opposed to being a demo. That said, I must wonder about the motivation to re-record so much of the first album, changing song titles, and then passing it off as a new effort. Only two of the songs weren't re-recorded for Empire of Blood, both of those being intro/ambient pieces. "Ex Sanguini Draculae" became "Opferblut". "The Floating Blue Witchlight" became "The Land of Phantoms". "Spectral Agony of Pain and Loneliness" was transformed into "Bathory Incarnate (Goddess of Death Arises)". The same for "Of Dark and Crimson Spheres" being labeled "Leviathan - The Black Oceans Roar" and "Vampyr - Throne of the Beast" morphing into "Empire of Blood" (though clever that the title track of the first album is altered, slightly, and becomes the title track of the second album as well).

It's one thing to be strongly influenced by other bands, and for that to be evident in your music. As long as you are competent in what you're doing, few will raise an eyebrow at such a common occurrence. But to re-record 95% of an album and release the same material again seems a bit lazy. The songs are, generally faster and the playing is improved to a small degree. Also, the vocals are more in the Black Metal style, as they were a bit deeper on the original versions. However, there were no serious flaws with the recordings on the debut album. At least, none that warranted that everything was in need of being re-recorded and passed off as a new album.

Empire of Blood is a good album, being much better than any of their American counterparts in the Black Metal scene of the era. It doesn't quite hold up to anything that was happening in Europe at the time, but that's a matter of opinion. While this is recommended, it's best that you choose between the first and second albums, as only one is really necessary. It all depends on the preferences of the listener.