Friday, March 30, 2012

Lord Belial - Kiss the Goat (1995)

Lord Belial's debut album, Kiss the Goat, is another example of what happens when musicians attempt to follow that which has become popular and trendy. Released by No Fashion Records, in May 1995, this L.P. is yet another example of a band that has very little idea regarding the true essence of Black Metal. The songwriting is inconsistent, the delivery is halfhearted and one gets the overwhelming sense that these guys were nothing more than fans that got an opportunity to record an album, with hardly any real artistic vision.

My first encounter with Lord Belial was their sophomore effort, Enter the Moonlight Gate. I had heard it described as pure Black Metal (which turned out to be a blatant lie), so I figured I would give it a shot. What a mistake. Bad songwriting, cheesy clean vocals, flutes and cellos, and an irritating female voice all came together to ruin my night, all those years ago. Other than a riff, here or there, it was a total waste. It was no secret that a lot of bands went astray after their first album or so, thus I gave Lord Belial one more chance, some time later. Again, I paid the price for my mistake.

Kiss the Goat is hardly a Black Metal album, at all. Despite what the band chooses to call the noise pollution that they pass off as music, this possesses much more of a Death Metal mentality, from the riffs and song structures to the overall approach. The fact that the vocalist utilizes a high-pitched, raspy style does nothing to change what this is, at its core. The music is rather diverse, from track to track, with a lot of slower sections that may have been intended to darken the mood a bit. Lord Belial failed in this endeavour, as well as whatever goal they had in mind when including a flute in nearly every song. Even as Death Metal, this album is a loss, as it is unable to create any real sense of atmosphere, either way. There is nothing dark, evil or aggressive about this. The vocals are the most positive aspect, but they wear thin before making it through a single listen. The playing is not the best, though the below-average musicianship is not really a problem, as the real issue is the lack of substance or creativity. It is clear that the band looked to what was going on throughout the underground scene and managed to take bits and pieces from all of their favourites, with minimal understanding. The least awful songs on here are "Hymn of the Ancient Misanthropic Spirit of the Forest" and "Lilith - Demonic Queen of the Black Light", though that is not saying much since they are also compromised by a variety of flaws.

The production is rather horrible, but suits the songwriting well enough. As with most other Death Metal albums of the time, the low-end is quite audible, which makes this more annoying for those that are listening in order to focus on the guitar riffs. The bass is too prominent, and the guitar tone is kind of thick and muddy. Between the two of these, Lord Belial lost any chance of creating a cold feeling, though the actual Black Metal riffs are few and far in-between, anyway. As for the flute, at least it is kind of buried, rather than overpowering the guitars.

Though one or two songs might not be completely grating to the ears, Kiss the Goat is a record that is better left forgotten or avoided. Lord Belial never was anything more than a bottom-feeder band that served no purpose, whatsoever. Just like so many others that hopped on the Black Metal bandwagon, without knowing anything about it, these guys should never have been allowed to record an album. Do not purchase this; you are better off just stabbing your ears with an ice pick. You have been warned.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mörk Gryning - Tusen år har gått... (1995)

The Scandinavian Black Metal scene was overflowing with mediocre bands by the time 1995 rolled around. So many clueless musicians had jumped on the bandwagon that it quickly became increasingly difficult to sift through the waste in order to find the few decent releases that were worth hearing. More often than not, the hideous garbage that was spewed out was the work of ignorant children that had no idea what they were toying with. This description was never more accurate than when applied to Mörk Gryning, from Sweden, whose members were 15 and 18 at the time when their debut album was recorded. Released on No Fashion Records in 1995, Tusen år har gått... represented a fairly generic take on Swedish Black Metal, ripping off ideas from the likes of Dissection, Marduk and Dark Funeral, among others.

Musically, there is not an original thought to be found on this L.P. Mörk Gryning simply took elements that were present in the works of their contemporaries and mixed them together in such a manner as to remove any and all possibility of enjoyment. Naturally, the material features a core of cold tremolo riffs and raspy vocals, along with varying blast beats. Of course, most Black Metal from this period centered on such things, but the creativity of the musicians involved made each band's interpretation worth listening to. In the case of Tusen år har gått..., even the very best ideas are undermined by the lack of coherent songwriting and a general lack of understanding for the fundamentals of this style. There is too much of a dependence on double-bass to move things forward, at times, along with pointless keyboards that only serve to water-down the atmosphere even further. The horrible deep vocals that are added in, from time to time, make this whole thing even more laughable. The acoustic guitar pieces give the impression that the band really wanted to attain the same kind of depth as that of Storm of the Light's Bane, but they failed in every conceivable way. The cheesy clean vocals further lend more of a gothic vibe than anything that was derived from the likes of Venom or Bathory. There is not one single shred of dark atmosphere to be found here, which is rather pathetic for a band attempting to record Black Metal. This is as paint-by-numbers as it gets, with absolutely no sincerity whatsoever.

The production is kind of flat, similar to Marduk's Opus Nocturne or Dark Funeral's self-titled E.P. It is very weak and fails to place the emphasis on those elements that best deserve it. To go along with the sub-par songwriting, the production actually serves as an additional detriment, being far too clean and modern-sounding. The guitars lack any kind of sharp edge, coming across as very subdued and safe. The drumming is too prominent in the mix, especially the awful double-bass. There is no complaint about the vocals, with the exception of the ridiculous clean goth vocals, which should have been buried a bit more. The keyboards dominate the sound far too much, whenever they appear, though the music is so generic that this distraction is not all that damaging to the experience.

Tusen år har gått... is a worthless pile of garbage, one that should be avoided like the plague. It possesses no redeeming qualities that make it a wise investment of either time or money. If you are interested in some of the less popular bands from the Swedish scene, it is recommended that you check out Throne of Ahaz, Sorhin, The Black and a couple dozen other bands before ever wasting your time on a band as pointless and talentless as Mörk Gryning. There may have been less technically-proficient bands out there, but few were as painfully below average as these two kids. This is a complete joke.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Naglfar - Vittra (1995)

Vittra is the debut release from Sweden's Naglfar. Released on Wrong Again Records (now known as Regain), in May 1995, this bland album added to the already growing dung pile that was desecrating the grave of the Second Wave. While so many classic albums were spawned from 1992-94, they were increasingly difficult to find due to the large number of worthless records that were being pumped out by every third-rate band that wanted to cash in on what had rapidly become the next big trend in Metal.

First off, this album is usually classified as Black Metal, though with the word 'melodic' in tacked onto the beginning of the label. These are the same blind fools that called Dissection melodic Death Metal, which shows just how backward people can be, sometimes. Vittra has far more in common with the early output from In Flames, as opposed to the likes of Nifelheim, Throne of Ahaz, or old Marduk. It can be stated that this L.P. represents many of the worst qualities that were afflicting the underground, around this time. For one, too much emphasis was being placed on trying to sound pretty, rather than creating an atmosphere of darkness or evil. The utilization of synth, clean vocals and acoustic guitars helps to raise the level of cheesiness. This, coupled with the awful songwriting, make it painfully clear that this belongs in the same category as most of the other wannabe Power Metal nonsense, with harsh vocals, that was being vomited forth from the Gothenburg scene. Everything regarding the construction of the songs goes against what Black Metal was, at the time. One glaring issue that should be noted is that the guitar riffs are not the central focus of the compositions. Instead, it seems as if much of the material is moved forward by the percussion and vocals, an error that was already common in Death Metal, by this period. As well, there is far too much double-bass, which only serves to detract more from the mediocre guitar melodies. Even the very best ideas presented here are boring and come across as very halfhearted. Even as far as melodic Black Metal goes, Naglfar did a poor job. Bands like Sacramentum and Vinterland took many of these same elements and achieved much more with them, as their efforts were far more consistent and possessed more creativity and artistic vision.

The production is just as bad as the actual songwriting, itself. However, due to the nature of the music, it is not surprising that they went for such an over-produced approach. Everything here is far too clean and sterile. There is no room for atmosphere, despite all of the theatrics, based on such an ultra-modern sound. This really sounds similar to Lunar Strain, from In Flames, to a great extent. The clarity of the drumming is a particularly annoying flaw, as this makes much more obvious the fact that the percussion is in a leading role, rather than a supportive one. The bass is too audible, which is a common error with albums recorded at Studio Abyss. As for the guitar tone, it is just as lifeless as the rest, not possessing even the slightest bit of a raw edge; something that Metal should always have. Albums like this are exactly why Peter Tägtgren should never have been allowed to operate his own studio.

It is safe to say that Vittra is the aural equivalent of massaging your genitals with a cheese grater. This is horrible stuff that never should have been recorded, let alone released to the public. That is not to say that Naglfar was particularly detrimental to the underground, as they were but one of many that jumped on the bandwagon and contributed to further polluting the scene, but they were absolutely worthless and their debut album is a good example of this. Waste neither your time nor your money on this.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Nachtfalke - Wotan's Return (2011)

Nachtfalke's sixth full-length album, Wotan's Return, was released by Christhunt Productions in 2011, four years after the band's previous effort. The lengthy time in-between records was enough to build a great deal of anticipation in some fans, while others probably assumed that the project was no more. Often, when so many years pass, musicians will come back with something quite inspired and worth the wait. Unfortunately, that is not quite the case with Wotan's Return, which is a mixed bag, of sorts. It is a good album, but not without a good handful of flaws.

The album begins, strangely, with a cover song. Nachtfalke's rendition of Bathory's "Shores in Flames" is not bad, sounding quite a bit like the original version from Hammerheart, but it is not all that remarkable. Moreover, it is very peculiar to open an album with a cover tune. All in all, this was just not a very good idea. It is no secret that Occulta Mors likes to include a Bathory track on each album, but its placement is completely wrong, not to mention the fact that Wotan's Return features two covers, not one.

This is followed by the title track, which maintains a bit of the gloominess of the first song, but in a different manner. This is a rather meandering affair, with harsh vocals and keyboards added in, along with acoustic bits and brief clean singing. It does not flow very well, and none of the riffs are interesting.

"Deep Into the Woods" is an instrumental track that begins with an acoustic passage. There are some sound effects that help bring the title of the song to life, as well. This is not the most impressive composition and it really feels incomplete, as if it was meant to have vocals but nothing could be figured out. The lead melodies are alright, but nothing all that memorable.

The album finally seems to build a little momentum with "Hyperborean Light", which is kind of a dismal song that moves along at a slower pace, with deeper vocals and a lot of repetition in the songwriting. Things shift during the latter half, taking on a melancholy tone that is emphasized by the tormented howling that appears near the end.

The music flows right into the next track, "After a Rain of Fire", which continues with the morose guitar riffs and miserable screams. As the song progresses, it takes on a slightly more epic feeling. It goes without saying that the Viking-era Bathory influence is fairly strong here, without sounding like a carbon-copy of any particular track. This is actually one of the highlights of the album, with an introspective lead melody and more tortured shrieks carrying the song to its conclusion.

"Autumn Leaves" begins with a mournful riff, maintaining the bleak vibe that characterized the previous tracks. While still mid-paced, this one is a little more lively and features some guitar-work, later in the song, that seems to channel Quorthon's spirit fairly well. The songwriting is pretty minimalist and primitive, utilizing only a couple riffs. In this case, repetition is probably a good thing, as there is no real need to attempt to do too much with this.

The final original song is "Asatru", which consists of more mid-paced riffs that hardly stray from the style employed throughout the rest of the record. However, after a couple minutes, things speed up and brief tremolo melodies appear. While Nachtfalke made use of fast riffs in the past, usually hearkening back to the old Moonblood material, this sounds completely different and bears no similarities to the previous band of Occulta Mors. These sections are short and do very little in the grand scheme of things, as the rest is more in line with the preceding songs.

This L.P. concludes with a cover of Bathory's "Call from the Grave", which seems like a strange choice. Up until this point, Nachtfalke had only covered songs from the band's Viking-era, while this one is taken from Under the Sign of the Black Mark. However, it is still a mid-paced song, so there is some level of consistency. It does not fit all that well with the rest of the material, though this record is plagued by a bit of inconsistency.

Wotan's Return is kind of lackluster, with only three or four decent songs to its credit. The two cover songs, as well as the overall arrangement of the tracks, do very little to help this haphazard endeavour. Occulta Mors should have put more effort into writing original material and structuring the record in such a way as to really get the most out of his compositions. This may still be pleasing to Nachtfalke fans, but it is kind of disappointing considering the length of time since the last record, as well as the fact that the bulk of the album seems like filler. Give it a chance, but do not let your expectations rise too high.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Vermeth - Your Ruin... (2001)

By 2001, it was more or less safe to assume that Les Légions Noires was nonexistent. Bands such as Vlad Tepes and Belketre were no more, while Mütiilation had transformed into something hardly recognizable. Most of the projects ceased by 1996-97, doomed to languish in the shadows of obscurity. However, the Black Lord Beleth'Rim, of Torgeist, resurfaced after about five years of silence, with a new project. Vermeth's debut album, Your Ruin..., was the result of this, released in December 2001 on Drakkar Productions.

Amazingly, this picks right up from where most of the Black Legions bands left off, in the mid-'90s. From the songwriting to the production, the passage of time is completely unnoticeable. The main difference is that the sound is on the clearer side, though still within the boundaries set forth by the classic releases from the scene. The guitar still retains the same jagged edge that characterized so many of the demos from the likes of Torgeist and Belketre. The vocals are prominent enough in the mix to be heard, without going over the top and dominating the sound. The drumming sounds fake, to be honest, but it is not as overtly obvious as on the later Mütiilation albums. Really, this impression comes less from the actual sound and more from the unnatural precision. The overall sound is very hideous and certainly brought a smile to my face, upon first listen, as I had long hoped to run across some overlooked gem from the LLN scene, never thinking to check out something from several years later and encounter music such as this.

Speaking of the songwriting, this shows absolutely no modern influences. Each riff seems as if it could have been taken from recordings such as March to the Black Holocaust, Time of Sabbath, or Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul. The bulk of the material consists of raw Black Metal with a strong tendency toward morbid gloom and utter hatred. Of the six actual songs found here, there is no lack of dismal tremolo melodies, horrifying screams and the typical palm-muted riffs that were so common in past years. Each song is easily identifiable and separate from the others. The only weak point may be that so much of the music possesses a familiar feeling; however, even if this was to be considered total rehash, at least it would be more audible than the originals. Nonetheless, it is better to think of this as a continuation of the LLN sound, more than anything else. There is something draining about this, as the listener is overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and misery that seeps into the veins like poison. Still, it would be wrong to call this overly depressive, as there is an equal amount of bitter hatred that spews forth.

In the end, Vermeth offers nothing new with Your Ruin..., and much of this may still be inferior to the old LLN material, but listeners are provided with a somewhat clearer representation of this style. Everything here is quite solid, as evidenced by tracks like "Let Blood Flow", with no traces of more recent trends. While it does not quite match up to the likes of old Mütiilation or Black Murder, this should still appeal to fans of the Black Legions. Black Lord Beleth'Rim did well with this record, giving birth to another hideous abomination of raw Black Metal. Seek this out.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vèrmyapre Kommando - s/t (1996)

Les Légions Noires were known for producing some of the most grim, lo-fi Black Metal ever heard. That said, the 1996 self-titled demo from Vèrmyapre Kommando pushes the boundaries even more, creating something so hideously raw and evil that many fans of the Black Legions are unable to fully appreciate it. This is one of the various side-projects from Wlad and Vorlok, of Vlad Tepes, though being a fan of their primary band in no way guarantees that this will possess the same appeal.

Musically, Vèrmyapre Kommando differs from Vlad Tepes in a number of ways. The more traditional Metal influences are, more or less, absent. Still, one can detect some hints of old Bathory, though taken to another level. It sounds much less structured, bearing an overwhelmingly chaotic feeling that permeates the material on every possible level. From the noises before and after some of the tracks, to the actual tunes themselves, this comes across as much more spontaneous. However, upon repeated listens, it seems clear that the tumultuous atmosphere is exactly as planned. While one might get the impression that this demo is the product of a live improvisation, the reality is that there is an underlying organization that holds everything together. Wildly maniacal vocals scream over a mixture of tremolo melodies and thrashier riffs, with a barrage of rapid-fire drumming that all come together to assault the senses of the listener; however, following the initial blitz, things often become a bit easier to digest. Some of the material can, definitely, be considered experimental, though employing traditional instruments rather than incorporating alien elements. "Razoir X Guillotine" is a good example of this. Even "Fihveurhr Attack", while being a more straightforward track, utilizes feedback in such a manner as to create an eerie vibe. The real standout songs are "Juden?", for its raw and morbid atmosphere, and "Blitzcarnage", which features some of the most memorable guitar riffs of the entire recording.

The production is atrocious. It is beyond nasty and vile, which should really please those into the LLN bands, or raw Black Metal in general. One gets the impression that the absolute worst recording equipment and instruments were used, as this is completely horrible. At first, everything runs together and sounds like a giant mess, until your ears get used to it and begin to make sense of it all. The vocals seem drenched in reverb and may have been recorded in a separate room. At least, it sounds like it, at times. The drums account for a lot of the noise on this demo, with the cymbals coming through a little too much. The guitar tone has the feeling of a rusty knife, sharp yet filthy at the same time. Due to the sloppy playing and the poor production, riffs may take a few listens to recognize, but this adds to the charm of the music, in the end.

Vèrmyapre Kommando disappeared after this demo, never to be heard from again. Well, at least, Wlad and Vorlok chose not to record anything else under this moniker. It would seem that this particular experiment ran its course without the necessity of a follow-up. The overall impression given off by this is that they simply wanted to try a few things, without doing so under the Vlad Tepes name, and then moved on to something else. This extremely raw and chaotic material was all that was left behind, which may be more than enough for some. This is not recommended for anyone new to the LLN, as it may be a little much to take in, at first.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Belathuzur - Demo '94 (1994)

Belathuzur was one of the more obscure bands from the French Black Legions, releasing only two demos during its brief existence. This was a solo project of Krissagrazabeth, who is probably best known for his stint as the drummer of Mütiilation. No one familiar with the LLN should be surprised at the hideously lo-fi and primitive sound found on the band's 1994 demo.

This demo contains only two real songs and does not seem too dissimilar from the material heard on such releases as Hail Satanas, We Are the Black Legions and Vampires of Black Imperial Blood. "The Black Battlefields of Evil" and "Sorrowful Moon" are both laden with many of the same characteristics, including the dismal tremolo melodies and melancholic vocal delivery. Krissagrazabeth's voice possesses the same kind of sickness and hatred that Meyhna'ch was vomiting forth, around the same time. The only difference is that the approach heard on the Belathuzur material is certainly more subdued. The music shows a variety in tempo, going from the faster parts to mid-paced sections that really allow for the misery and gloom to sink in and poison your mind. It is a good thing, as the songs are both around ten minutes in length. Things get rather repetitious, somewhat, as it takes a good deal of time for the riffs to shift from one to the next, almost causing a hypnotic effect. The drumming is fairly primitive and one-dimensional. Oftentimes, it sounds like someone pounding on a cardboard box; however, it is enough to get the job done. The dark atmosphere created by the guitar riffs is enough to make up for any shortcomings that this demo may have.

The overall sound is very much like that of Mütiilation's Black Imperial Blood (Travel) demo, from the same year. There is hardly any difference regarding the guitar tone, which is cold and mournful. The sound is thin, with minimal distortion, but still managing to create a raw feeling. Actually, it would be safe to say that these songs would have fit in well with those of the aforementioned demo tape, with hardly any perceivable discrepancies. There is a very loud hissing that distracts from the music, to an extent, but this is likely due to the fact that Krissagrazabeth had to record each instrument on his own, with shoddy equipment.

Belathuzur's 1994 demo really does deserve a close listen. Any fan of the early Mütiilation material will like this, as well as most of those into the Black Legions, in general. Despite its flaws, the overall sound is not that bad, with everything coming across rather clearly and never degenerating into senseless noise. There is a purpose to everything that is going on here and that is to create a dark and miserable atmosphere. It is too bad that this project did not last longer, as can be said of many of the band's peers in the French scene.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bathory - Nordland II (2003)

Released by Black Mark in March 2003, Nordland II is not only the second part of this Nordic saga, it is also the final chapter in the career of the mighty Bathory. The Nordland albums represented a return to the band's Viking era, something that many had been wanting since the days of Twilight of the Gods. While Blood On Ice served to quench this thirst for some, it still failed to realize the same glory as Hammerheart. Yet with this epic saga, Quorthon achieved such greatness once again, just a short time before he met his untimely demise. Though the band's middle period was disappointing for most, Bathory's legacy was redeemed with the final two records.

This epic record begins with "Fanfare", which sets the tone quite well. One gets the feeling of having been pulled back through the centuries, into some distant past that bears more of a resemblance to The Lord of the Rings than to recent times.

"Blooded Shore" begins with the same type of epic, mid-paced riffs that characterized so much of Nordland I. There is a great deal of power conveyed by this music. The majestic guitar melodies are supported by thundering drums and a passionate vocal delivery to create something that is memorable and moving. Quorthon's voice seems to be much more confident than on his earliest forays into clean singing, while the trademark choirs add to the atmosphere. Late in the song, a lead solo builds off of the melody of the main riff, before fading into the sounds of the waves crashing against the shore.

This is followed by "Sea Wolf", which starts out with some medieval-sounding instrument. The lyrics tell of a tale immortalized on a rune stone, preserving the deeds of heroes for many years to come. The feeling stirred up by the riffs is a bit darker than on the previous song, though not in an oppressive manner. This one is slower as well, crushing your skull with the force of a giant hammer. Already, one can tell that the arrangement of the songs is no random thing and that they are ordered in such a way as to build upon one another. While progressing toward its own climax, it serves well to add a sense of tension to the album as a whole.

"Vinland" is another epic tune that carries a lighter feeling than the preceding track, though not lacking in terms of powerful riffs and memorable vocal lines. In true saga form, this tells the tale of the glorious deeds of the northmen leading to the discovery of the new world. There is an optimistic feeling present in the guitar melodies, yet Quorthon's voice is almost sorrowful, at times. The track features subtle use of acoustic guitar as well, joining the backing choir in adding more layers to the sound and bringing the song to life in a much more profound manner.

The next song is "The Land", and this destroys a lot of the filler found on Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods, within the first minute or so. The riffs are very heavy and powerful, yet melodic at the same time. The vocals fit well with the music and manage to increase the intensity with each passing line. Late in the song, he emits a scream that sends chills down your spine. As with the rest of the record, you get the feeling of being transported back in time to a world that has since become long forgotten. The guitar melodies are reminiscent of "One Rode to Asa Bay", in some ways, and the overall atmosphere is steeped in grandeur. There is not an extreme amount of variation in tempo, though this is in no way detrimental to the flow of the song.

"Death and Resurrection of a Northern Son" is, arguably, the most dynamic track on the whole album. It is also one of the longer songs on Nordland II. It features fast riffs that sound like a holdover from the mid-'90s, yet these are interspersed with a much more sombre tune, with mournful melodies and vocal lines that create a somewhat darker feeling. The middle section of the song is quite soft, with only Quorthon's woeful voice and minimal instrumentation in the background. Despite the diversity on display here, everything flows seamlessly. The only downside would have to be the vocal delivery during the fast parts, which really does not work that well.

Clocking in at ten minutes, "The Messenger" is one of the longest tracks on here. Unfortunately, it may have benefited from being cut down a little. The main riffs are decent enough, but not quite at the level that one would expect from a song of this magnitude and really kind of possess a generic hard rock feeling. Though not one of the album's highlights, this song includes some really dismal guitar melodies and some bleak and depressing riffs in the final minutes that definitely salvage things.

"Flash of the Silverhammer" is not one of the better songs and is built around some fairly annoying riffs. Thankfully, the rest of the elements manage to pull this one through, relatively unscathed. Still, this is probably the low point of the album and the one track that may be deemed unnecessary. It is unable to stand on its own and fails to add anything to the record, overall.

The grand finale of Nordland II, and ultimately the final song of Bathory's legendary existence, is "The Wheel of Sun". This masterpiece is nearly thirteen minutes in length and is one of the most impressive songs that Quorthon ever wrote. Starting out with a clean guitar passage, the roaring guitars and thundering drums slowly crush everything before them, like an ice age glacier. One of the riffs sounds very reminiscent of "To Enter Your Mountain", from Twilight of the Gods, though this is far superior to anything from that L.P. As if the preceding songs were not epic enough, this track is filled with powerful vocals and majestic guitar melodies that will forever be embedded in your mind. Much like the majority of the material on this album, this song is mid-paced but makes the most out of every single moment. Everything comes together, perfectly, with a strange sense of finality coming across with each note. Even the lyrics speak of the cycle of death and rebirth, and the music really captures the essence of this, with an atmosphere that consists of a combination of the darkness and optimism.

To say that this album is essential would be an understatement. Together with the previous release, Nordland II not only returns to Bathory's classic Viking-era, but it builds upon the foundation that had been laid down over a decade earlier. Rather than just rehashing what had gone before, in a bid to please those fans that had been let down with albums like Octagon, Quorthon picked up from where he left off and took things to their logical conclusion. This is not only a worthy addition to the band's discography, it is the final glimpse of brilliance from a man that was responsible for so much development within the Metal underground. If you have not yet heard this, do so now.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vargsang - Call of the Nightwolves (2003)

Vargsang began as the solo project of the former vocalist of the German Black Metal band Graven. Call of the Nightwolves is the first full-length album to emerge, following this split, released by Undercover Records in March 2003. One has to wonder how necessary it was, given that it came just over one year after Graven's debut album, Perished and Forgotten. Oftentimes, when band members part ways, some feel the strong urge to get right back into the thick of things, to avoid wasting time and to prove something to the other party. At any rate, this was only a good thing for fans of this style, as it provided them with another record in the same vein.

It is hard to differentiate this material from that of Graven. For the most part, this is exactly the same and there is nothing here that could not have been found on Perished and Forgotten. The musical approach is rather minimalist, taking cues from the early 90s Norwegian bands, particularly the early output from Darkthrone and Burzum. There is a grim and mournful quality to the music, coming off much more naturally than on Armagedda's first record, for example. Call of the Nightwolves is filled with memorable riffs that sound much more well-developed than a good number of the other bands that utilize this style. While the songs are rather straightforward, they do possess enough variation to retain the listener's interest. Though a good amount of the songwriting features cold tremolo riffs and fast-paced drumming, there are sections where the drum patterns will switch from the minimalist techniques of Fenriz to something more akin to Varg's work on the old Burzum releases. The guitar melodies, themselves, create a sombre and epic atmosphere. The arrangements include mid-paced riffs as well, thoughtfully placed to accentuate the haunting vibe. This can be clearly heard on tracks like "Whores of the Light". The vocals are reminiscent of Nocturno Culto's efforts on the early Darkthrone albums. There is no real question as to who Vargsang's primary influences are, here. This is an obvious case of a band that was strongly influenced by the Second Wave bands, while probably possessing little knowledge of those that came before. For example, if one hears any Bathory influence on this album, it is most likely to to the fact that Quorthon's music made such an impact on the composers of Under A Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger, rather than any direct connection. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it does expose certain limitations.

The production is rather filthy, though not so much when compared to the albums that Call of the Nightwolves is attempting to emulate. This is very similar to the first Graven record, though with a little more fuzz on top of everything. The mix is fairly good, with the main emphasis placed on the guitar melodies, rather than on anything else. The guitar tone is not as cold as it should have been, but it still retains a harshness that adds to the music. The vocals possess a decent amount of reverb, but not so much as to ruin the natural feelings of hatred that are being conveyed. The drumming shows an improvement over that found on Perished and Forgotten, being buried a little more in the mix and also lacking the annoying double-bass parts.

In the end, there is absolutely nothing on Call of the Nightwolves that has not been heard before. Nonetheless, Vargsang proves very competent in creating more raw Black Metal that will, doubtlessly, appeal to any fan of the aforementioned bands. This material is a bit more primitive than that of the Graven debut, and suits the style much better. While it does not break new ground, this album is one of the more worthy efforts in keeping alive the minimalist spirit of the old Darkthrone records.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Satanic Warmaster - Strength and Honour (2001)

Satanic Warmaster began as one of the many side-projects of Horna vocalist Nazgul von Armageddon. He left the ranks of that band, following Sudentaival, due to being burned out and wanting to express his musical vision in a different manner (according to various sources). It would not be too surprising if these reasons were true, as his final album with Horna was not the high point of their collaboration and was, in fact, the worst record they ever released. Just about seven months later, in November 2001, the debut album from Satanic Warmaster was released by Mikko Aspa's Northern Heritage Records.

First and foremost, Strength and Honour is everything that Sudentaival was not. While the latter was over-produced and lacked a consistent atmosphere, the former was a return to the past in terms of the raw production and primitive songwriting. Musically, this sounds quite similar to the old Graveland material. The rough sound calls to mind recordings such as In the Glare of Burning Churches and The Celtic Winter. The roaring flames in the intro and the recurring keyboard use are elements that are shared between the two. This is emphasized by the drumming, which sometimes utilizes similar patterns, especially on "Raging Fires". However, most of the songs are much more straightforward and less frustrating for those listeners that simply wanted a bit more speed than Darken would ever allow for his compositions. There are still traces of the early Horna sound, though the influences seem to be a little different. Whereas Shatraug's arrangements frequently picked up from where Gorgoroth had left off, Nazgul's songs bear more similarities to Darkthrone and Moonblood, more often than not. The basic formula is rather minimalist, with a lot of gloomy tremolo riffs carried forward by high-speed percussion. The style does not deviate that much, from song to song, yet each track possesses enough variation to maintain the listener's interest, though it can be difficult to distinguish one from the next. There are times when the drum patterns become too catchy and evoke a punk vibe that does not blend well with the guitar melodies, but these indiscretions do not occur enough to ruin the whole album. The outro is a bit long and seems to serve no real purpose, other than to stretch the running time. Still, even if this was completely necessary, it may have been better to make it a separate track. Vocally, the sound is still very high-pitched and not far off from the work of Hat and Pest, on the early Gorgoroth records. It suits the raw sound of the music and the overall musical approach, but lacks any real sense of character and is rather average when compared to the more notable Black Metal vocalists of the past.

The most negative aspect of Strength and Honour is the production. Underground Black Metal is supposed to be raw, and this is no exception. In fact, the sound on this record is very much preferred over the horribly slick and soulless vibe of Horna's Sudentaival. That said, the drums are far too high in the mix, with the bass drum being particularly distracting. The songwriting is fairly generic and there is nothing here that had not been done much better a decade earlier; nonetheless, for those people that want to hear more of this style, a more guitar-oriented sound would have been beneficial. For the majority of the album, the riffs are nearly stomped out by the percussion, which is something that should always be avoided. The vocals are a bit too prominent as well, though the problem may actually be that they sound over-saturated in effects. The cheap microphone did not help matters, as certain puffs of air come through far too much and add to the unprofessional quality that permeates this L.P.

Strength and Honour is a fairly mediocre release, though it is actually one of the better albums to bear the Satanic Warmaster name, ranking just below Opferblut. There is nothing about this record that makes it essential for fans of Black Metal, as there were plenty of other bands doing the same style in a much more impressive manner, around the same time that this came out. It is doubtful that it even drew that much attention from fans of the early Horna material, that may have wondered what their ex-vocalist was up to, since Nazgul's style is not very distinguishable. If you do not demand a high level of quality from musicians, then this may be for you. Otherwise, you may want to stick with originators, while ignoring those that tried to emulate them.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Countess - The Return of the Horned One (1994)

Following the poor display of musicianship and songwriting found on the debut album from Countess, one really has to wonder how they managed to survive long enough to record another one. Every band is entitled to make a bad album or two, as long as they learn from their mistakes and show signs of improvement. However, Orlok had no battle plan ready when he put together a new line-up and began working on the band's sophomore effort. Released in December 1994, The Return of the Horned One not only failed to improve upon the first album, it can hardly be considered a full-fledged Metal record.

Orlok certainly put more thought into the songwriting, as this L.P. does not sound like a collection of rehashed Bathory riffs. Unfortunately, that would have been preferable to the atrocious filth that makes up the bulk of the second Countess album. One is likely to get the wrong impression from the outset, as "Aleidis" is not half bad, and sounds more developed and consistent than most of the material on The Gospel of the Horned One. The synth is too loud and it is clear, from the beginning, that the drummer was replaced by a machine; nonetheless, it comes off as rather solid, though average at best. It possesses somewhat of a gloomy feeling, aided by the ear-piercing vocals, but this track is not indicative of what is to follow. Songs like "Fire and Blood" and "A Cry of Hope Forever Gone" sound like more of a mixture between rock and techno, having almost nothing at all to do with Black Metal. The drum machine and bass lines completely ruin any chance this had, though it is not likely that it was ever going to become a classic along the lines of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. "The Wolf Cries Evil" and "Deisidaimonia" are about the only tracks to not bear these techno overtones, with the latter being the best song on the album. Even with better musicians and real drums, this tune could never hope to amount to anything more than mediocrity, but it really stands out among the horrid aural rape that surrounds it.

The production is really one of the worst things about this album. The guitar tone lacks any sense of rawness, which does no favours for the material. One would think that the band would want the guitar to be the dominant instrument, and to make sure that the sound is nasty and threatening, but it resides in the middle and is quite ineffective. The vocals are a bit too loud and, due to the shrieking nature of Orlok's voice, this becomes a problem. Neither of these things are as damning as the fact that the bass and drum machine are far too high in the mix. First of all, the bass lines are useless and do nothing to help the songs. The drum programming should be buried beneath the rest, to hide the fact that the band did not have a real drummer. Though, to be fair, it still would not have been so bad if the songwriting had been better.

The Return of the Horned One is a terrible album, even worse than the first one, and should be avoided by any means necessary. With this release, Countess proved to be a worthless musical entity and things only got worse from here. If you are just starting to branch out from the Scandinavian bands in your search for more Black Metal of this period, skip this and look instead to the Hellenic scene or the French Black Legions.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Absurd - Thuringian Pagan Madness (1995)

Despite being one of Germany's most well-known Black Metal bands, Absurd's earliest output was hardly deserving of such a label. The primary reason the band was even known had less to do with their songwriting abilities and more to do with the murder of one of their schoolmates. In the end, the entire episode was rather foolish and not at all something to be proud of. Rather than dissolving as a musical entity, the band members were still able to record music and carried on with their particular brand of noise pollution.

The material on Absurd's 1995 demo, Thuringian Pagan Madness, has more in common with Oi-punk than with Black Metal. The guitar riffs and drumming patterns owe a lot to early punk bands. There is a catchy vibe to these songs, especially on those that feature clean vocals, like "Gates of Heaven". Even the utilization of harsh vocals fails to lend more of a black feeling to the music. The riffs lack any sense of darkness or evil, whatsoever. There are moments where a gloomy feeling is conveyed, but it is very mild. The production is total rubbish, which says a lot for how awful this sounds. The percussion is a little too high in the mix, though that makes sense as this appears to have been recorded live. There seems to be little or no distortion to the guitars, which do not sound Metal in any way at all. To label something like this as Black Metal is very misleading, regardless of how Absurd's sound developed in later years. While they may have enjoyed listening to Bathory, Darkthrone and Burzum, their music bears more similarities to the Misfits than any of those groups.

In some ways, this demo is hardly worth listening to. It certainly should not appeal to fans of Black Metal, or even those that appreciate the band's later output. However, it is somewhat infectious and, after a couple listens, it gets stuck in your head. After a while, one might even get used to the odd blend of styles found here. This is particularly true if you like old punk rock with the same simplistic arrangements and garage-quality sound. Otherwise, if you are seeking grim Black Metal that this period was known for, listen to Moonblood instead.