Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Armagedda - Only True Believers (2003)

These days, rather than spend some years playing small gigs and recording demos, many bands skip straight to putting out a full-length album, whether or not they are truly prepared for such an undertaking. Often, it turns out that their debut albums are released prematurely, before the material has had time to really take shape and reach its maximum potential. As a matter of fact, it seems that a lot of bands hardly bother to really find their style and fully commit to a direction before getting a record deal. Such was the case with Sweden's Armagedda, whose 2001 album The Final War Approaching was inconsistent and not really worth much attention. However, some bands actually learn from their mistakes and improve upon them, which is what these guys did by the time they got around to recording their sophomore album. Spawned from Necromorbus Studio, under the watchful eye of Tore Stjerna, 2003's Only True Believers displayed a band that was far more capable than what one would have expected.

It was in the early months of 2004 when I discovered this album, though I had been aware of it since before it was even officially released. Still living in Stockholm, I had many opportunities to pick this up, but the band's first effort left a bad taste in my mouth and I had written them off as negligible. At the time, I was still too busy listening to Watain's recent release, Casus Luciferi, to pay much attention. Eventually, I got curious enough to give it a quick listen, particularly after hearing that Erik had played drums on the record. I was not immediately impressed, since I was comparing it to other albums, but when listening to it right after their feeble debut, I could not help but appreciate the improvement that had been made.

"Refuse the Blood of Jesus" begins with a ridiculous intro that actually started things off on the wrong foot. This has been the case with many that have heard this record, and it is something of a mystery that they would include this. At any rate, once the song begins, one can immediately tell that the band has come a long way since their first album. The songwriting is more concise and less derivative. Of course, the influences are still apparent, but the sense of outright plagiarism is absent, this time around. The playing is tighter and the overall feeling is that Armagedda is a serious band rather than children imitating their idols. The opener is rather fast-paced throughout, with various tempo changes and a lot of variety in the riffs and drumming.

The title track keeps this up, and one can get a sense that Graav has finally come into his own as a vocalist. It is not totally different from his sound on The Final War Approaching, but it comes off as less comical and it no longer feels that he is trying too hard to sound evil. The production is a lot stronger, not overdone in the slightest, but more full and possessing more of a punch. Somehow, it is more reminiscent of Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky, whereas its predecessor was going for the more necro sound of Transilvanian Hunger.

"Emperor from the Eternal Dark" is next, and this is one of the true highlights of the album. It starts with an almost upbeat rhythm, but an eerie part soon creeps in and slowly corrupts the sounds that bleed from the speakers. The main riff of the song is a standard tremolo melody that is driven along with the skilled drumming of Hor. The riff changes help the song maintain the listener's interest, and the brief lead solo possesses a morbid feeling. The track never delves to the depths of the abyss, but the listener gets a glimpse of such horrors and this serves as a bit of foreshadowing. Otherwise, the song is fast-paced and straightforward, yet interesting.

The next song is "For I Am His Slave", which almost hints at some later Darkthrone (for the time), but actually managed to pull of the necro Black Metal feeling far better than they were capable of at this point in their career. By the middle of the song, they inject an old school section that sort of reminds one of Hellhammer or Celtic Frost, but not too overtly. It goes back and forth between these riffs again, sort of dragging on a little longer than such ideas deserved.

"Poetry from a Poisoned Mind" is another one of the best songs on here, possibly ranking first. It starts out at full speed, with wicked vocals and unsettling riffs. This absolutely destroys anything from the first album, and shows that the band worked hard to realize their potential. The middle section is the best, with the eerie riff and the ghastly vocal work. The atmosphere is utterly morbid and consumed with darkness. This is the type of feeling that Black Metal bands should seek to imbue their listeners with. The tremolo riff that follows this is mournful and still black as night. Everything, from the guitar melodies to the subtle drum techniques, comes together to create what is, quite possibly, the best song that this band ever recorded. It fills your mind with visions of misery and death, feeding the growing urge to slice open your veins and spill your blood under the empty nightsky.

The pace picks up a bit with "Demons", though it features some random tempo changes. I am not sure if it is just the unfortunate position that this song holds on the album, following such a masterful performance, of if the track is filler, but it does not really grab my attention in any way. At first glance, it seems just as solid as the preceding tracks, but it is lacking something.

"FTW" slows things to more of a mid-paced gallop, reminiscent of early Darkthrone. Though the band is still unable to fully escape this, they do far more more with the influence and actually add their own ideas to the mix, so the end result is much more enjoyable. Some clean guitar is utilized, adding a nice effect, albeit briefly. This track is one of the longer ones, clocking in around six minutes, but the execution enables it to keep some level of interest. While there is still a hint of the nightmarish tone from earlier, the song lacks the overpowering morbidity of some of the other pieces.

The album concludes with "Endless Fields of Sorrow", which is a slow-paced song with a rather sorrowful and hopeless feeling. The riffs hearken back to early Darkthrone, as well as hints of Burzum and the old Mütiilation material. It possesses kind of a droning, depressive atmosphere, despite the faster parts that come and go. Like the filthy rats that we all are, these sounds lure us out of our shadowed dwellings and down the path toward the endless graveyard that rests atop the mouth of hell. The most epic melodies of the entire record are found here, causing this track to stand out from many of the others. As the album ends on such a dreary note, the listener can feel the life being drained from him.

"Over empty fields of nothingness
Through everlasting darkness
Follow the path, away from mortal life
Soon i will be there"

Only True Believers is a very solid album and well worth checking out. Everything has improved from The Final War Approaching, from the production job to the songwriting itself. While the Darkthrone influences are still easily detected, the band did something very important that they failed to do the first time around: they infused their tribute with a few original ideas and ended up with a much more impressive record for their efforts. This album is not a classic, for it is still too derivative and simply emerged in the wrong era to have any real impact; nevertheless, for anyone interested in this style it is highly recommended.