Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Watain - Lawless Darkness (2010)

Anyone following Watain for the past decade should be well accustomed to the lengthy passage of time that separates each of their releases. So, it was no surprise that the follow-up to 2007's Sworn to the Dark took over three years to come forth. There was a great deal of anticipation for the new record, and even the promotional campaign was proclaiming that, on 7 June 2010, Black Metal would be reborn. Such a statement was maybe a bit arrogant, especially seeing as how many bands have kept the black flame burning throughout the years. Not long before the release of their fourth full-length album, Lawless Darkness, the Reaping Death E.P. gave listeners a small taste of what was to come. Unfortunately, it was a rather disappointing affair and did not bode well for the full-length that followed.

It is difficult to believe that it took so long for the band to write and record this album, as it is quite forgettable. So much of it sounds like recycled ideas from Sworn to the Dark. Those parts that are more memorable come across as them trying to hard to write something anthemic that would appeal to a mass audience, thus seem really boring and contrived. The sing-along chorus of "Total Funeral" is enough to make Euronymous turn in his grave. This seems to be a direct result of the moderate success the band enjoyed since the release of their previous record. Occasionally, there are interesting melodies that seem to hint at the gloom and morbidity of their first two offerings, but these moments are brief and fail to make an impact. One of the few songs that might have the listener coming back for repeated listens is "Malfeitor", though it is only a matter of time before it becomes apparent that the most interesting riff of the song is a rip off of Burzum's "Jesu Død". It still possesses a decent solo, as do several of the other songs, showing that the band has become far more comfortable with their melodic side than creating anything truly dark or menacing. It really seems that these guys are doing their best to try to carry on the style that Dissection utilized on Reinkaos, to a large extent. There are momentary reminders that this is the same band that created Casus Luciferi, but it all ends up just being very disappointing. It is apparent, with the closer "Waters of Ain", that they tried very hard to create something epic but failed. It has its moments, but the more meaningful parts are mixed in with random riffs and passages that only serve to interrupt the flow of the song and kill whatever atmosphere they were able to build up. With the album clocking in at well over an hour, one gets the sense that much of this was simply for the sake of length and it can be a tedious listen, at times. Perhaps, the rigorous touring did not allow them to focus on the compositions as much as they would have liked.

Aside from the haphazard songwriting and rehashed ideas, one of the most detrimental aspects of Lawless Darkness is the production. As with their previous albums, it was recorded at Necromorbus Studio. However, this sounds is even more polished than before, hardly befitting the underground image that the band still tries to project. Then again, that may have died with the multitude of bizarre magazine covers. There is nothing raw or gritty about the sound of this album, rather, it is very clear and somewhat overdone. The drums are far too high in the mix, as well. Sworn to the Dark was the first step in this direction, but Lawless Darkness shows Watain completely abandoning any attempts to maintain an underground Black Metal sound and going for a presentation that is rather plastic and modern. It could be worse, but the production really does no favours for the music.

The lyrical content is a real turn-off, as it contains more of the Orthodox nonsense that seems to be so popular these days. Erik has even stated in interviews that he believes in the existence of the Judeo-Christian god, which should come as disturbing to real Black Metal fans. Many newer/younger listeners look to this band as the epitome of Black Metal, sadly enough, being introduced to this music through this trendy movement and being brainwashed. Then again, most people are sheep in the first place, so it's no surprise that so many of these kids are repeating everything that they read in interviews and professing to share the same beliefs. 

A lot of bands begin to stray from their path, after a couple albums albums, or their material simply lacks the quality of their past work. Watain is no different and have failed to live up to the potential shown on Casus Luciferi, in particular. That album, itself, owed a lot to early Mayhem and Dissection, but was done very well. It seemed that the band would go on to do great things, and to keep the old spirit alive, but fame and success appear to have been more important than artistic integrity. Lawless Darkness is a product intended to generate profit for the commercial entity that is Watain. They will continue to amass a large following, further dumbing down the music and wandering outside the boundaries of Black Metal while still using the aesthetics and rhetoric in an attempt to connect themselves with something that was significant. If you want pure Black Metal, stick to the old albums or follow lesser-known bands like Horna. The music of Watain is now more geared toward children and beginners. Any relevance this band once possessed is long dead and buried.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sargeist - The Dark Embrace (2008)

In November 2008, well over three years since their last full-length album, Sargeist released The Dark Embrace, through Moribund Records. This 7" E.P. was limited to 1000 copies and featured the first new songs that the band had recorded in two and a half years. At the time, it was a welcome sign that this group was, indeed, still alive and functioning. What listeners can expect is another dose of raw Black Metal, retaining the old school approach and production of the early Second Wave, with the distinctive Finnish sense of melody.

The title track begins with a mournful riff that is not too far removed from Horna's more recent material. However, the overall feeling is still more identifiable as belonging to Sargeist. The more melodic sections blend well into the faster tremolo riffs and it really is reminiscent of Satanic Black Devotion, in a sense. The main theme is very memorable in a haunting way, and manages to remain embedded in your skull long after the music has ended.

"The Crown of Burning Stars" starts with an eerie intro that conveys a very gloomy and despondent feeling. In a way, this causes the listener to lower their guard, caught unprepared as the main riff then bursts from the darkness. The tremolo melody is more ambitious than those of the previous song, though maybe not as instantly memorable. It requires a couple listens before its full impact can be felt.

The Dark Embrace is very brief, especially for those of us who had waited three years for another album. In the past, the band didn't seem to give split releases the same type of attention as the full-lengths, since I always felt that there was something lacking. However, in the case of this E.P. they broke away from this, providing songs that are of the same high quality that one would expect from their albums. Sometimes, bands release an E.P. to keep the fans sated while they are working on a new record or just to keep their name out there. This is a rather obscure release, as it came in the middle of a five-year dry spell and was limited to so few copies. Whatever the case, it's a worthy addition to their discography and fans should seek this out, if at all possible.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sargeist - Let the Devil In (2010)

Five years have passed since the last Sargeist full-length. Shatraug has been extremely busy during this time, releasing a large amount of material with his primary band, Horna. As for Sargeist, only a couple split albums and a single E.P. have stood as proof that the project had not been laid to rest. The wait has been, at times, quite excruciating. However, November 2010 marked the release of their third record, Let the Devil In, on Moribund Records.

Of all the high-quality bands to come out of the Finnish Black Metal scene, Sargeist has always been my favourite. From the first time that I heard Satanic Black Devotion, I recognized something special about this particular group. Shatraug's trademark songwriting style was present, but somehow this deviated from the material that he had written for Horna. For those that have not heard this band, you are missing out on something truly powerful. Working within the established boundaries of the Second Wave Black Metal sound, Sargeist manages to implement these well-known tactics and still create something that is unique and entirely identifiable as their own. And therein lies the magic of this band; they remain true to the roots of this musical style, paying homage to those that paved the way, and yet there are also elements that build upon this foundation and take the listener deeper into oblivion.

Let the Devil In picks right up where Disciple of the Heinous Path left off, in many ways. In fact, though the first two albums have quite a bit of sentimental value for me, this one may be superior in that the various tempos and riffs are arranged seamlessly, with no awkward changes or strange riffs to bridge from one theme to another. All of the same ingredients can be found, such as the mournful tremolo melodies, the mid-paced and somber riffs and even a few galloping sections that add even more to the old school feeling. Where there were a couple of oddly arranged parts on the previous record, which hindered the overall atmosphere, this is wholly absent from Let the Devil In. Everything fits together very well, and in no way distracts from the atmosphere being created. The feelings conveyed are those of darkness and a somber sense of despondency that permeates the majority of the riffs. Many of the guitar melodies stick with you after the first listen, but to fully appreciate the album it is best to sit in total solitude and focus on the sounds in utter darkness or only the light of a few candles. This is not mere background noise, it requires some effort on the part of the listener, and you will find that deeper concentration will allow you to fall deeper into the dark realm conjured up by this album.

The production is not far off from their previous releases. The rough edges of Disciple of the Heinous Path are slightly smoothed, and that is in the most minimal sense as I can possibly indicate. It is comparable to Horna's Musta Kaipuu; raw enough to suit the music while retaining enough clarity for the melodies to be heard. The sound isn't exactly bitter cold; more like the feeling of slight warmth from the funeral torches as one wanders through the frozen gravelands. The main focus seems to be exactly where it needs to be, and that is on the guitar riffs. The drums are just loud enough to do their job in keeping the tempo, but not so much that they would distract from the melodies. In other words, this is Black Metal done right. There is no double-bass dominating the album and carrying the music as in many modern releases. As for Hoath Torog's vocals, he gives an excellent performance and really suits the vibe of the music. In addition, his accent adds to the exotic feeling of the music, as one can notice when reading the lyric sheet and following along with the music.

Let the Devil In contains absolutely no filler. There are no intros or outros, no instrumental interludes, no songs that are overly repetitive for the sake of reaching a certain length. The material is remarkably strong, and this is evident from the early moments of "Empire of Suffering" as the mournful tremolo riffs envelope you in a whirlwind of hate and misery. The half-paced sections really do well to stick to your brain, immediately. This carries on with each successive song. It also becomes clear that the structure of the album was given a lot of attention, with each song placed precisely where it needed to be. Unlike most modern Black Metal bands that simply copy what came before with no original input, whatsoever, and just cram a bunch of noise onto the album, Sargeist have worked to carefully and methodically craft something beyond what mere impostors could ever hope to achieve.

There is almost a sense of beauty in the utter darkness that is evoked here. Listening to the main riff of "Burning Voice of Adoration", for example, almost seems to lull you into a trance and take you somewhere beyond the realm of the mundane, to a otherworldly dimension where things seem to take on more significance. Songs like "Nocturnal Revelation" truly embody an incredibly gloomy and menacing sentiment that few bands are capable of calling forth. "As Darkness Tears the World Apart" displays an epic and majestic sensibility in the guitar melodies, transcending the pedestrian approach of their contemporaries. The overall atmosphere is undeniably dark and projects a deep hatred for life and light. Also, as can be expected, there is a powerful disdain for the religious sheep and the Great Lie that is professed by believers of the Judeo-Christian mythology. This is rather typical for Black Metal, but you definitely get the sense that it is very genuine in Sargeist's case, rather than a product of style.

"I invert the cross of hope
And dwell in black despair
Every moment of every day
I'm blasphemy incarnate"

It is a crime that this band is not more well-known as they have continued to raise the bar for what modern Black Metal releases should be striving to accomplish; strict adherence to the traditions of the style and keeping the old school spirit alive, while building upon that foundation to produce something admirable and worthwhile. In the last year or two, several Black Metal bands have released impressive albums, including Burzum, Gorgoroth and Immortal. As good as those have been, none of them manage to capture the pure darkness and genuine feeling of Sargeist's latest opus. In a word, Let the Devil In is brilliant and it is highly recommended that you seek this out and listen to it immediately. Fans of their previous efforts will not be disappointed and those new to the band will be instantly converted.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mordant - Momento Mori (2004)

Mordant formed in Sweden back in 1997. After releasing a couple demos and the Suicide Slaughter E.P., they finally got around to recording a full-length album in 2004. Released on Agonia Records, Momento Mori is a surprising slab of old school Black Metal that places them alongside the likes of Aura Noir, Desaster and especially Nifelheim, in keeping the ancient flame burning.

From the very beginning, it is evident that Mordant is firmly rooted in the spirit of the 80s underground scene. They play a very primitive style of music, and this album sounds as if it could have easily been released 15 or 16 years earlier. The songwriting is bereft of any real traces of modernity, which is a very positive thing. The arrangements sound very natural and nothing is out of place. With a variety of tempo changes, they do enough to keep things interesting while also maintaining a sense of uniformity. The songs are filled with memorable guitar riffs and vocal sections, from the refrain of the title track to the eerie solo in the middle of "Necrophiliacs from Darkness of Hell".

The production suits the style perfectly, being quite raw yet clear enough for the full scope of their creativity to be appreciated. For some, this may be considered demo quality, but this is exactly what this type of music should sound like. It's not overdone, yet it's not grating on the ears, either. The focus is primarily on the guitars, which is right where it should be. The vocal delivery is also in the rougher, old school style, being very harsh and not smooth or processed like so many modern bands seem to prefer. They are placed high enough in the mix for their effect to be fully felt, and add a lot to the atmosphere. There is a strain of desperation that permeates many lines, such as the refrain from "Right Hand of Lucifer". This approach adds so much to the feeling that is being conveyed, and lends a sense of purity to the whole affair.

As much as I like this band, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, at times, they sound just like Nifelheim. The overall style is pretty much the same and especially the way they utilize the creepy lead solos and guitar harmonies, such as the intro to "Message to Devastate". It gets to a point where one has to wonder if they simply share the same influences, or if they are drawing this inspiration from Nifelheim, themselves. I'm not one to claim that all bands have to be adding something entirely unique, as there is a strong necessity for maintaining traditions within Black Metal, and it's not as if there are 200 bands that sound just like this, these days. All in all, they do an excellent job with the style they've chosen to implement and I wish I'd known of the existence of Momento Mori during the lengthy break between Nifelheim's Servants of Darkness and Envoy of Lucifer. To be fair, Mordant displays a little less of an old Bathory influence, with more Thrash in its place.

In the end, this album proves that there is still quality music being released, though in relative obscurity. It seems that, for the most part, the only good new releases are those that carry on the legacy of the past. Pick this up and listen at full volume!