Monday, September 19, 2011

Bethlehem - Dark Metal (1994)

In 1991, four miserable spectres of negativity and despair came together, bonded by a common sense of loss and hopelessness. The dark entity that would spawn from this gathering would come to be known as Bethlehem. For a few years, this German band worked to cultivate their sound, harnessing the blackest feelings that could be called forth and capturing it on tape. In 1994, they created something so bleak and depressing that to listen to it is to tempt fate itself and to descend into the depths of the abyss with no guarantee that you will ever again see the outside world. And even if you do, your vision will be forever altered and coloured by such dismal hues that you will never be the same. Thus is the result of having experienced Dark Metal.

I was first exposed to Bethlehem through a penpal, from Sweden, that sent me several songs on an old battered cassette. At the time, I often journeyed to an old cemetery on or around the night of the full moon, to soak in the atmosphere and get away from the filth of living humans. Occasionally, I would take music with me and on this night, I was armed with my Sony Walkman and a tape that ended up leaving its mark on me, permanently. Listening to depressing music was nothing new; this often occurred when I was already feeling low, and random Doom Metal bands would fill my ears and feed the mood, in a way. However, the feeling that came from the first Bethlehem album was something different. That night, among the graves of those who had already served their time on this earth and passed beyond the gates of the mortal realm, a new kind of darkness opened its gaping jaws before me.

The opening moments of "The Eleventh Commandment" possesses more of a Black Metal feel, though this soon changes. The almost upbeat riff is ensnared by an overwhelming sense of doom and oppression. The pace slows down, considerably, and the vocals take on a deeper tone as well. As the song progresses, a mournful lead slithers through, before giving way to an ominous tremolo riff that is accompanied by mid-paced drumming. In the course of one song, elements of Black, Death and Doom Metal are brought together in a very unique manner, creating something that can only be described by citing the album's title: Dark Metal.

The second track is something altogether different, a beast that exists to torment you in the deepest of nightmares. "Apocalyptic Dance" brings to life such horrors that it almost feels that you are being pulled into a dimension of pure suffering, as the woeful melodies slowly suffocate you. The song moves at a glacial pace, slowly crushing all hope and replacing it with a cold emptiness that transcends words. The song includes some rather subdued moments where there is little else but a few words spoken and brief utilization of a clean guitar. After about four minutes, the song appears to begin in earnest, with yet another Black Metal riff that is joined by Classen's higher pitched vocals as well as subtle keyboard use, giving the sound of a funeral organ. This is followed by a section with just the bass guitar and another keyboard effect that sounds like a cello, adding depth to the already sombre atmosphere. This is contrasted by the transition to a faster pace, moving from the realm of doom back to a blacker area. The blasting drums and raspy vocals soon fade into nothingness, with a truly sorrowful clean guitar melody emerging from the shadows, with a plodding bass line underneath and minimalist drums. From the dark comes a grief-stricken lead solo that infects your heart with a poison that puts you in a hallucinatory state, unable to distinguish nightmare from reality. Visions of loss and trauma fill your mind, as demons from the past reach out for you, draining you of life. The song ends with a piano melody that lures you on, deeper into the darkness.

"Second Coming" is the next song, and this one picks up right where the previous one left off. The slow doom riffs weigh heavily on your soul, crushing your feeble hopes and grinding them into dust. The deeper vocals suit the heavier riffs, and the relatively clean production allows for every note to have the fullest effect in annihilating any lingering remnants of positivity. The guitar harmonies encircle you with gloom and anguish, bringing forth the deepest of pains that exist within the recesses of your mind. The middle of the song introduces an ephemeral tremolo melody, soon leading to another mid-paced riff. As it all ends, a wretched guitar passage leads you back to the impenetrable obscurity where you shall continue to wither and fade.

This is followed by "Vargtimmen", which bears little resemblance to the previous tracks. The main riffs lack the same type of dismal vibes that characterize the rest of the work, despite brief hints of despondency. The song still has more of a down-tempo vibe, but it is not as severe and this serves as a brief respite from the mental and emotional onslaught of the album.

"3rd Nocturnal Prayer" resumes the descent into the blackest regions of misery and torment. It begins with slow doom riffs that truly feel as if they are pulling you down, deeper into an abysmal melancholy from which you know there is no escape. There is almost a sense of beauty in such irrevocable hopelessness and ruin. In a way, this only works to prevent you from even trying to turn back, as you are strangely attracted to the tenebrous landscape before you. Though the things briefly pick up speed, it inevitably returns to the listless pace from bearlier Another organ passage adds a layer of sorrow and soon you see a crypt that is illuminated by funeral torches. A coffin waits for you, wide open and so inviting. Another guitar melody rises from the murkiness to shred your flesh and allow the crimson stream to guide you toward the eternal grave. With the final notes, you finally realize that no one will be there to weep for you. As you pass from one level of hell to another, it becomes clear that you are already forgotten and that you shall perish in utter solitude.

From the very first moments of "Funereal Owlblood", you can feel the life being drained from your body and all energy dissipating in the cold night sky. The depressive guitar riffs are joined by some of the deepest vocals to appear on the entire album. The drums are crushing, yet simple, while the primary focus is exactly where it should be: the hauntingly miserable guitar melodies. During these moments, the listener is imbued with a profound sense of emptiness. By the middle of the song, there is a dynamic shift as the songs takes on a faster pace and the vocals are much thinner than before. Sections like this give the album its Black Metal feel, though it is rather brief. As things slow down once more, untold horrors are visited upon your mind, as you soon dread what is to come.

"Veiled Irreligion" contains more sorrowful melodies that carve right through your chest like a freezing cold blade. The pace is varied, going from lethargic and oppressive to rather upbeat in a strange way. While the slower sections are truly anguished and create a sensation of pressure on your chest, the other parts alleviate this just enough to allow you to pass through, relatively unscathed. However, just as you think you are out, the final austere notes wrap around you and give one final squeeze.

The album ends with "Gepriesen Sei der Untergang", which is even slower and more ominous than some of the previous tracks. The atmosphere is less depressive and more hellish. It is at this point that your own cries die down just enough to hear the demonic laughter emanating from the shadows, as your journey through the realm of eternal flame begins. A few sombre chords from a clean guitar signal the end of the proceedings, as your pathetic soul wanders deeper into endless torment.

As common of a saying as it may be, Dark Metal is not for the faint of heart. If any sense of despair or melancholy resides within you, the bleak melodies and soul-crushingly oppressive riffs will allow it to wholly consume you. While doing so may be dangerous and leave you in a pool of your own blood, this album is best appreciated in the solitude of the nocturnal hours. Whether it owes more to Black or to Doom Metal is inconsequential, as this record should appeal to anyone that wishes to immerse themselves in something truly dark. Take it for what it is and get this immediately.