Sunday, March 20, 2011

Clandestine Blaze - Falling Monuments (2010)

Falling Monuments is the first full-length album to be released from Finland's Clandestine Blaze in quite some time. Arriving at the end of December 2010, from Northern Heritage Records, four long years had passed since the last album, Church of Atrocity. It seemed that the band was put to rest with that record, since Mikko was busy with Deathspell Omega. In a sense, it was almost as if this had become a forgotten side-project that he no longer had time for. Even the last album was rather lackluster, compared to those that had preceded it. Clandestine Blaze was never really known for being terribly original; more than anything, the band served to keep alive the basic sound and spirit of the Second Wave of Black Metal, with a little something else added in. However, a clear progression could be seen over the course of the first few albums. 2004's Deliverers of Faith marked the high point of Mikko's creativity, something that was lacking on Church of Atrocity. Following that release, Clandestine Blaze seemed to fade into nothingness, destined to remain a footnote as the solo project of the DsO vocalist, and nothing more.

After four years of silence and making pretentious music that no longer had anything to do with Black Metal, the old spirit began to stir and Mikko felt the need to return to his roots. Much like with the last album, Falling Monuments had very little promotion and I only learned of the release by chance. Due to the feeling of being somewhat let down by Church of Atrocity, I was somewhat hesitant to give this a listen, despite the lengthy amount of time since the band's last output. Upon first listen, the album is not particularly impressive and does not do much to correct the mistakes from the last outing. Nonetheless, it is another decent slab of northern Black Metal that is sure to satiate those needing more of this type of music.

"Unfolding Madness" begins with an intro that is reminiscent of the one used for the Satanic Warmaster / Clandestine Blaze split. Noises that almost remind one of something from the Hellraiser films are joined by distant and tormented screams. Suddenly, the music comes in and begins pounding your skull. Fast tremolo riffs and blasting drums signal the return of one of Finland's least known Black Metal bands. The production is a bit strange, being kind of hard on the ears at first. This keeps in line with the last few albums, since he chose unorthodox sounds for each one, for one reason or another. The drums are a little too loud in the mix, though this might please those who always complain about how low the percussion is in minimalist Black Metal. After a couple minutes, the pace slows a bit, before a more miserable and torturous melody dominates the sound and is joined by howls of despair. The final moments of the song are the most memorable and it is at this point that your ears begins getting used to the odd mixing.

The next song is "Possession of Nordic Blood", which is more mid-paced and features some ominous riffs. The sound is very primitive, yet still has the trademark Clandestine Blaze melodies and is slightly disturbing, yet not as dark as it could be. Typically, Mikko includes one or two mid-paced tracks that rip off Celtic Frost riffs, and end up being boring as hell. Thankfully, this one is still dynamic enough to avoid falling into such traps.

"Call of the Warrior" begins with some simplistic and rather boring riffs, before speeding up and becoming a little more interesting. The riffs are difficult to hear, but some sort of horn accompanies the proceedings and gives more character and helps add a feeling of dread to the song. It could be something else entirely, but that is what is sounds like. There are some decent riffs, but the production hinders any possibility of fully appreciating them. In that sense, it's almost like some of the old Moonblood rehearsal tapes; there would be brilliant melodies that were impossible to really soak in, due to the poor sound. Necro production is one thing, but one should always ensure that the guitars are clear enough for the full effect to be felt. In this case, it's walking a fine line.

This is followed by "Melancholy of the Falling Monuments", which is a slower-paced song that really drains the life out of you. From the first moments, this manages to stand out from the rest of the songs as one of the true highlights of the record. Mikko's vocals hearken back to the early days of the Second Wave, reminiscent of Nocturno Culto, in a way. The riffs are sorrowful and one can feel the hopelessness and the urge to turn away from the dying world, to simply crawl into an open grave and forget all that has been lost. There is no longer any will to fight and reclaim what once was; rather, it is easier to sacrifice all hopes and dreams and to just put the blade to your flesh and begin carving until the snow is stained with your blood. The song is very minimalist, yet subtle additions come near the end to ensure that the somber atmosphere crushes your spirit.

"Bloodsoil" picks up the pace, after a brief intro. The cold tremolo riffs don't sound terribly original, and you almost get the sense that you've heard these same melodies from this band before, but it is all well done, nevertheless. Again, the drumming is a little too high in the mix, but the guitars are able to cut through. This track is very reminiscent of old Burzum, especially as the pace slows down and a tortured scream leads into a section where nothing is left but a lone guitar. Nothing is wrong with this, especially since Varg is no longer interested in keeping his old sound alive.

The next song is "Horizon of Ego Annihilation", another mid-paced song that features good use of tremolo riffs to accentuate the power chords. The vocals are placed well, suiting the dreary aura quite well. As the riffs change, one gets the sense that something horrible will soon happen, and that the worst is yet to come. The song is very short, clocking in at just under three minutes, but its simple melodies are effective.

"Endurance of Supremacist Ritual" starts out with slow doom riffs, before the drumming kicks in and an eerily familiar guitar melody rises from the darkness. It should be easily recognizable to any fan of Norwegian Black Metal, as it was ripped straight from "Where Cold Winds Blow", from Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Odd that Mikko took four years in between Clandestine Blaze releases, yet was unable to write a full album of original material. The song is not bad, but I preferred it the first time I heard it... on the Darkthrone record.

Finally, the album ends with "Discordant Howls of Tormented". This is another mid-paced track, featuring some rather miserable sounds, though not as dark as anything found on Deliverers of Faith. After a couple minutes, the song speeds up with blasting drums and fast tremolo-picked guitar riffs, soon joined by the haunting sounds of a funeral organ. This small addition manages to do a lot for the atmosphere of the song, which is somewhat strange to think of since Clandestine Blaze always managed to do so well with so little, in the past. The song fails to deliver the type of soul-crushing despondency that is alluded to in the opening moments, due to odd structuring and ideas that are never fully built upon. While possessing some of the best riffs of the album, the song clearly struggles at some points.

Much like Sargeist, Clandestine Blaze was dormant for several years. However, unlike his Finnish peers, Mikko was unable to return to form in a way that makes the listener feel that the lengthy wait was worthwhile. Falling Monuments has its moments, but one gets the sense that the brilliance that was touched upon with Deliverers of Faith will never again be matched, as many of the ideas that made that album what it was were stripped away and used for Deathspell Omega instead, leaving Clandestine Blaze with only the more primitive and less-inspiring material. The new album is solid enough and is by no means bad, but one would expect a bit more from a band that has been silent for four years.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Burzum - Fallen (2011)

Fallen is the eighth studio album from the legendary Norwegian Black Metal band, Burzum. Recorded and mixed during two weeks at Grieghallen Studios, it comes just a year after Belus and continues the sound that was established on that album. Varg Vikernes returned to his old ways of being very productive, and it should be no surprise to those familiar with the classic Burzum albums since they were all recorded in a short span of time. In the press release, it was stated that the new record would have more influence from the debut album and Det Som Engang Var, though the reality of the situation is that this is not as overt as many might have hoped. Of course, a similar thing happened with the last release.

It was in a 2005 interview where Varg made the announcement that he would record more music and that Filosofem was the album that most resembled the new material that he had in mind. This was mistaken to mean that his next effort would possess this same sound, which was neither what he said nor (probably) what he would want anyway, since that album had already been ripped off an infinite amount of times and was no longer unique to Burzum. What seemed to happen, with the passage of a decade, was that the music still managed to develop and elements of the classic releases were mixed with the strange atmosphere of Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf, along with some new darkness that was now hanging above. While not exactly the same, it was clearly Burzum.

Belus was Varg's first release in eleven years, and it was the first proper Black Metal album released under the Burzum name since 1996's Filosofem. Expectations were extremely high, from the long-time fans to the legions who had discovered Varg's music during his incarceration. Whether they wanted to enjoy his music or to simply have more fuel for the constant criticisms of his character, Mr. Vikernes found himself the subject of quite a lot of scrutiny. Belus had a heavy task, as there was a lot of pressure to deliver something that would not only introduce the band to a new generation of listeners, but to somehow retain the old fans as well. Those who did not get what they expected with the last record have likely already wandered on to something else, and a great deal of the media hype has long since faded with the many months of silence in the Burzum camp. With the ice broken, Varg had more freedom and less pressure as he worked on the new material.

Fallen follows the path that was taken on the previous album, maintaining a similar feel and yet pushing the boundaries of experimentation. That is not to say that there is really anything present that would not seem normal or natural for a Burzum release, just that there is more of it. While there are a decent amount of similarities to the band's classic period, Varg has truly entered a new phase of his musical career and must be respected for his efforts. He could have been lazy and just made Metal versions of all of the tracks from the two ambient albums, before working on new songs. Instead, he used a few ideas and then moved on into new territory, keeping true to his roots while expanding the Burzum sound.

The album begins with "Fra Verdenstreet", which is a brief intro that hearkens back to the old days. It is not particularly useful, but does not detract from the proceedings and adds to the atmosphere of the album in its own way.

"Jeg Faller" is the first proper song, and it begins with the cold tremolo riffs that one would expect from Burzum. In a way, the long period of inactivity has allowed Varg to serve as a window to the past, being somewhat more pure than most of his peers that continued making music for the last two decades. Upon first listen, this song is slightly disappointing, as it is at this point where the realization hits that any similarities to Det Som Engang Var would not include the vocals. The tortured shrieks of the past are truly gone and shall never resurface, it appears. The use of clean vocals has increased and this takes a couple listens to get used to, for some. In particular, the strange spoken word sections seem to interrupt the flow of the song, at first. After a few listens, this feeling passes and it sounds more natural. The music begins with a faster pace, before transitioning to something a little slower. The track is rather dynamic, never sticking to one riff for too long and including a variety of ideas. The faster parts, at the beginning and end, seem to stand out the most.

The next song is "Valen", which seems to stand out as the most memorable of the whole record. It is more mid-paced and melancholic that the previous track. The riffs are haunting and epic as well, though never quite reaching the same disturbing levels of misery that were found on Belus. Once the new vocal approach has been accepted, one can really enjoy the performance given on this piece, as a lot of feeling is conveyed and a dark atmosphere created by the utilization of clean and harsh vocals. While unable to compare to the performances of "Black Spell of Destruction" or "En Ring Til Aa Herske", there are some truly miserable sounds emitted from the man once known as Count Grishnackh. The riffs are rather simple and repetitive, but technicality was never a key ingredient to Burzum's music, nor should it be. This is all about atmosphere, and that is something that this Norwegian band is well known for. The hypnotic melodies are enough to carry one to the dark realm where life is traded, willingly, for glorious death.

"Døden var her først
Glemselen seirer til slutt"

The next song is "Vanvidd", which is another one that features a strange use of clean vocals. The pace is much faster and the razor-thin tremolo riffs slice into your weakened flesh with ease, as the drums pound your skull into dust. After a couple minutes, the song slows down to the standard mid-paced Burzum death march that most longtime fans are used to. This lulls the listener into a a trance, preparing them to be mercilessly assault by the horrible screams that soon follow. This has a chilling effect and soon restores all faith in Varg's abilities as a vocalist, despite his development since the early 90s. Over the course of the song, even the clean singing seems less unnatural, though certain parts would still benefit with only the freezing cold riffs to command all of the attention.

"Enhver Til Sitt" begins with a brilliant doom-laden riff, with mid-paced drumming and spine-tingling vocals that soon accompany the miserable feeling of depression and melancholia. Hopeless tremolo riffs join the sorrowful bass lines in creating an aura of despair and all-consuming dread. The title translates to something along the lines of "each man gets what he deserves" and, in this case, mankind deserves horror and death. The lyrics are very poignant and thought-provoking, as well. Again, one has to be amazed how the Burzum sound seems to expand, subtly, while still remaining pure.

"Jeg fryser ikke mer
Jeg varmes av månelyset"

The final song is "Budstikken". which begins with somewhat of an epic build-up, with the mournful tremolo riffs accompanied by thunderous drums, before the song truly breaks free and moves forward at a faster pace. Somehow, this is slightly reminiscent of "My Journey to the Stars", and it is at this point where one can really feel the connection between new and old. The bass, which has been rather audible throughout the entire record, seems to stand out the most on this track, adding a layer of misery to the atmosphere. Strangely, this song is sorrowful while also being the most upbeat of the whole album. The clean vocals bring things back to a somber place, as the guitar riffs shift back to something darker and more life-draining. In a sense, the music gives the feeling of going off to war, to fight in a battle that you know will be lost, yet one that you must fight anyway. However, by the end, you simply wish for a cold grave to swallow your lifeless body and to be forgotten for eternity. The old ways are gone and the world is crumbling. All that we possess are fading memories of a dead age and the knowledge that what once was is forever lost. The roots of Irminsûl are rotten and dead. Existence is pointless and life itself seen as a curse.

Fallen ends with "Til Hel Og Tilbake Igjen", which is an instrumental piece that, at first, seems quite useless. When it was mentioned that the album would feature some ambient tracks, this was not what most fans had in mind. The first few minutes are more annoying than anything else, but the final moments make it worthwhile as a simple, yet effective, acoustic guitar passage manages to tear your spirit right out of the body and to slowly smother it into nonexistence.

In the end, Fallen is a worthy follow-up to Belus. It is a little more dynamic, in that the atmosphere includes more highs and lows, rather than the soul-shattering misery of the previous record. The use of clean vocals seems to be slightly overdone, but this may continue to grow on me as time passes. This is a solid album, worthy of the Burzum name, and there is no reason to doubt Varg's musical abilities at this stage in his career. His passion and creativity are as evident as ever, something all Burzum fans should be grateful for.