Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thergothon - Stream from the Heavens (1994)

Funeral Doom is a very unique sub-genre of Metal. This style of music takes things to a completely different extreme than what most others had in mind. As an offshoot of Death / Doom, these bands took the heavy and depressing vibe that was already present, along with the harsh vocals, yet slowed the music down much more than ever before. This helped add to the feeling of lifelessness, as the crawling pace was the total antithesis of the high-energy, fast-paced stuff that was more likely to get the adrenaline flowing. Thergothon's one and only full-length album, Stream from the Heavens, is considered to be the most influential work within this scene. Released in 1994 by Obscure Plasma Records (the same label that released Mayhem's Live in Leipzig), this monumental record has stood the test of time and never fails to obliterate those that are lured to the dark depths wherein this music resides.

Upon first entering the world of Funeral Doom, there is a distinction to be made between the words 'doom' and 'depressive'. One would expect a certain level of sorrow to permeate such songs, yet this is not always true. In fact, a lot of more recent bands focus on creating an atmosphere that is almost completely bereft of any feeling other than a sense of impending dread. In my view, these fail to connect with people on a more meaningful level and are not quite as dark as they could be. However, the Finnish band Thergothon perfectly blends both, creating a masterpiece of Doom that gives the listener the feeling that the end of the world is near while also poisoning your very spirit with a feeling of unbearable grief. In this way, the music captures the ill fate of the world in general, while also zeroing in and reflecting the more personal destruction that comes from within and the despair that it begets. The morbid pace of the songs has a way of really draining the life out of you, causing you to feel empty and hopeless. Very rarely do things pick up enough to where you get any sense of life, here, other than that which is slowly dying in utter anguish and misery. The guitar riffs are absolutely oppressive and make it somewhat difficult for you to breathe. Throughout the album, these slow and sombre riffs crush you, again and again, leaving nothing but crumbled remains. The guitars are the most dominant aspect of this, possessing a very heavy sound that has become the trademark of this sub-genre. The drumming is fairly low-key, which perfectly suits the songwriting. There are fills, here and there, but the percussion does well to maintain the funereal pace of the music and never distracts from the riffs. Accentuating the bleak atmosphere is the rather tasteful use of synth. In this case, it is not overbearing and comes and goes as needed in an effort to add a little depth. As for the vocals, there is some variation though the primary approach is a very deep and almost belch-like growl. Vocalists often ruin otherwise decent Funeral Doom, as so many go for such a low pitch that there is no feeling conveyed and thus they add nothing to the atmosphere. In this case, it is done in such a manner as to imbue the listener with the image of a being that has been subjected to untold torment. Whereas Count Grishnackh's voice, on the old Burzum albums, conjured the image of a create that was currently suffering terrible agony, Thergothon's vocalist sounds as one that has already suffered unimaginable hell and has been transformed into something almost inhuman. Traces of his humanity call out from the dark, from time to time, through the use of occasional clean vocals that do a lot to contribute to the dreary feeling. 

The production is fairly low quality. Everything is kind of muddy and subdued. The mix is such that all of the various elements blend together, in a way. Also working against this album is the fact that is possesses a relatively low volume, compared to most normal CDs. The poor sound is not necessarily a horrible thing and does not have such a detrimental effect on the music. There are times when the guitars come off sounding as if the master tape was slightly warped, before they produced the CDs. In a way, these shortcomings lend something to the overall obscure vibe of the album. The only difference that I would have liked would be a slightly sharper and colder guitar tone, which would have worked well with the atmosphere. That said, this warmer sound may have something to do with the oppressive character of the music. 

Stream from the Heavens is absolutely essential for those into Funeral Doom. You are not likely to find any other album in this sub-genre that is as completely flawless, regarding the songwriting and execution. From the apocalyptic feeling of tracks like "Yet the Watchers Guard" and "Crying Blood + Crimson Snow" to the utterly sorrowful and depressing quality of "Elemental" (the most epic track on here, and personal highlight of the album) Thergothon did everything right and set a precedent that has hardly been matched in all the years since. They perfectly captured the misery and emptiness of this existence, and such woeful sounds will likely lead many to an early demise. Seek this out with confidence.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Nightbringer - Death and the Black Work (2008)

Nightbringer is yet another below-average, trendy Black Metal band from the useless shores of America. For the most part, USBM is completely worthless, and these guys do nothing but add more truth to that statement. Rather than jumping on the depressive bandwagon, like so many of their countrymen, this band has gone for the pseudo-intellectual crowd that lurks in the underground. Everything about them reeks of posturing and going out of their way to impress people with how many occult books they've read and referenced in the lyrics. Like so many similar bands, these days, it is all image and no substance.

Released in 2008, Death and the Black Work is certainly one of the most boring releases that many of you will ever try sitting through. The only minor entertainment may come from counting the number of imitation Watain riffs, or simply laughing at the pathetic attempt at creating an occult atmosphere to match the image that the band so strongly tries to cultivate. Right away, you'll notice that the vocals are horrid. This guy relies way too much on a more guttural approach that has no place in this sort of music. It seems that, in one way or another, Americans cannot let go of their Death Metal roots, in a precedent set by Judas Iscariot long before. The songwriting is incredibly poor and under-developed. The guitar melodies are painfully boring and generic. Worst of all, they seem to go nowhere. There is this constant feeling as if the riffs are about to build up to something, but nothing ever happens. Apparently, even the drummer got bored with the lame riffs as, whether the pace is fast or slow, he is way too overactive in trying to compensate for the lack of interesting ideas. Nightbringer was too busy trying to fit in all of the trendy elements of modern 'cult' Black Metal that they forgot the one thing that mattered most, which is sincerity. This record does not possess one ounce of it. They've got the mixture of high and low vocals and the occasional Funeral Doom bits tossed in, with a very choreographed and inorganic feel to it all. This is truly the sound of a band trying way too hard, and coming up with absolutely nothing but random riffs that have about as little meaning as the faux-philosophical lyrics.

As for the production, the overall sound of the album is warm and muddy. This is not what you want in a Black Metal release. There is not one moment where it feels cold or dark, whatsoever. The mix is rather claustrophobic, with the percussion seeming to surround you and to block out the riffs, at times. This would be fairly detrimental to the album, if not for the fact that the riffs are pointless. The vocals are buried in the mix, to a degree, seeming to blend in with the guitars. With such a weak vocalist, they should have tried some studio trickery to make him sound somewhat better, but they opted to let him rot in a lame attempt at sounding more obscure and underground. Unfortunately, this all reeks of modernity, from the sound to the actual songwriting.

The band's bio claims that they have been together since 1999, yet Death and the Black Work gives off the impression that they had formed not long before recording this, after having listened to too many Watain and Deathspell Omega albums. This does not sound like the work of musicians with any real old school roots. There is no connection to the past, as this is completely derivative of their contemporaries, rather than showing any understanding of those who had come before. This only adds to the modern feeling that permeates every aspect of this recording. This is sure to appeal to the type of crowd that saves their lunch money to buy more Jewish occult texts, especially those whores that try to appear evil in an effort to impress their friends on the internet. Don't fall for the hype. If you want real Black Metal, don't go anywhere near this. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ulver - Bergtatt (1995)

Bergtatt is the first full-length from the Norwegian Black / Folk Metal band Ulver. Released in February 1995, on the record label Head Not Found, this album has gone on to attain high levels of praise, for one reason or another, despite being very weak and lacking real creativity. Here, we have a group of musicians that probably wanted little more than to ride on the coattails of others, joining a scene that they really did not belong to. That much would be proven, as the years passed.

It cannot be said enough that Bergtatt is an incredibly overrated album. Most likely, one reason for the high praise it receives is because the masses are simple-minded. If a band is doing something that they don't understand, many will assume that it is on a higher intellectual level than they are and, not wanting to seem ignorant, will hail it as brilliant. There is nothing impressive going on, here. Mixing elements that do not belong together is not a sign of musical maturity, rather it just displays that the band was incapable of creating anything meaningful within the established boundaries of the genre. What this L.P. is, is a clear example of what happens when musicians attempt to jump on a bandwagon of something that is popular, without truly understanding it. With this record, Ulver absolutely defecates all over what Black Metal is supposed to be about. The soft guitar riffs and mellow leads, along with the abundance of clean vocals, just screams easy listening. Hailing from Norway and tossing a painting of some trees on the cover is not enough to be counted among the like of Darkthrone or Burzum. There is nothing dark about this music, at all. Even the 'pure' Black Metal moments are generic and meaningless, and those are usually undermined further by the cheesy Folk elements. It seems clear that, even if these guys had tried to make a real Black Metal record, they possessed too little knowledge or passion about it, other than ripping off their peers. Even the most 'true' riffs sound like throwaway melodies from Gorgoroth or Enslaved. The harsh vocals are rather generic as well, sounding like an amalgamation of some of the better-known vocalists in the scene. This makes lower-tier stuff like Kronet Til Konge sound like a classic, by comparison.

The production is rather strange. The Black Metal sections are fairly rough and things kind of run together, at times. The drums, in particular, become quite muddled during the fast parts. The guitar tone is not too bad, and has a pretty cold feeling during those brief times when it goes unmolested by the other nonsense. That said, many of the softer elements possess a clarity that does not mix well with the rest. The leads sound uncharacteristically clear and the same goes for the acoustic passages and the clean vocals. It just does not sound very natural seems to further exemplify the clash of styles. The vocals are too high in the mix, clean and harsh, though the latter may be helpful in adding some small sense of roughness to the sound. 

Bertatt is an album that was made to try to capitalize on the hype in Norway. It is painfully obvious that Ulver had no true passion for Black Metal and got bored with it, very quickly. This may account for the sparseness of such passages. Far more time and attention was given to the Folk side of things, though these guys did little to try to reconcile the two styles with one another. It all comes off as very sloppy and contrived. This may best serve as a gateway album, to appeal to listeners that prefer something soft and easygoing, while giving them small doses of generic Black Metal. Don't buy into the claims that this is the product of genius. Definitely preview before buying, if you are still curious about it. If at all possible, avoid this.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enthroned - Prophecies of Pagan Fire (1995)

Released in April 1995, Enthroned's first full-length album came as a direct result of their total worship of the northern Black Metal sound. To be sure, this is a lower-tier band and Prophecies of Pagan Fire is in no way original or even all that good, compared to the bands that these guys were inspired by. Here is an early example of the newer wave of Black Metal bands that, rather than looking to the '80s, were too busy rocking out to the likes of Emperor and Marduk to know anything about Bathory or Venom.

The bulk of this material is really boring and struggles to be average. For the most part, it comes off as a really mediocre attempt to emulate the Norwegian sound. The music really drags on, even from the start of "Deny the Holy Book of Lies", taking forever for the introductory part of the song to give way to the rest. This is something tolerable when a band is doing a good job building some sense of tension, or if the riffs are just that good. Neither is the case here. The guitar melodies are, largely, forgettable and do nothing to evoke a feeling of darkness. There are a handful of lead solos, throughout the album, that try to add some depth. While they aren't bad, the basic themes of the songs just cannot be helped. Occasionally, there are more old-school passages, but it sounds more as if they picked up the old influence from a newer band, rather than having any real '80s background, themselves. The cheesy keyboard bits are a total joke and only serve to make the atmosphere more comedic than it already is, featuring worse choices than even that of early Enslaved. The vocals sounds like a generic version of just about every Scandinavian band of the early '90s, just without the evil or possessed feeling. The vocalist also includes lame parts with deep and high mixed together, diluting the actual Black Metal feeling of the album even more. This is somewhat appropriate, since there are more than a few Death Metal riffs to be found on Prophecies of Pagan Fire.

The production is just awful, and not in a good way. It sounds like a muddled mess. The bass is too high, adding a sense of warmth to everything, thus eliminating what little chance the guitar riffs had of creating a cold and menacing atmosphere. The guitar tone, itself, sounds rather harmless and possesses no edge, whatsoever. It is almost as if the mix was done by someone with more experience with Death Metal than with Black Metal. The only good thing about this poor production is that, at least, the music is quite uneventful so nothing was ruined or lost. Even the most grim and raw sound imaginable couldn't have saved this.

The best songs on here are "Tales from a Blackened Horde" and "At the Sound of the Millenium Black Bells", though that is not saying much. It is a shame that Prophecies of Pagan Fire is the best album that Enthroned ever recorded, since that means that this band's entire existence has been completely pointless. They added absolutely nothing to Black Metal and it would have made no difference, at all, had they never existed. That is not to say that this is the only unoriginal band out there, for there are countless copycats lurking about, but Enthroned failed to even do a good job at ripping off their heroes. Rather than at least carrying on tradition, they simply took something and made their own inferior interpretation of it, passing it off as something worthwhile. It is not. Avoid this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blut aus Nord - Ultima Thulée (1995)

Blut aus Nord is a French Black Metal band that hails from Normandy, a region with close historical ties to the Scandinavians of the Viking age. Perhaps, it is because of this that the band's debut album, Ultima Thulée, sounds much more related to the output of the Norwegian scene as opposed to the band's own countrymen, such as Les Légions Noires. Released through Impure Creations Records, in January 1995, this L.P. represents the high point of Vindsval's songwriting.

There is a very otherworldly quality to the music presented here. On the most basic level, this is not all that dissimilar to some of the material released by the likes of Burzum and Immortal, a couple years earlier. However, this may be even more atmospheric than the former and a little darker than the latter. The atmosphere of this record is strengthened by an extensive utilization of eerie synth melodies, though the keyboards do manage to fit in a bit more naturally than on Satyricon's Dark Medieval Times. It almost sounds influenced by the synth instrumentals found on the early Burzum and Isengard records, especially on "Rigsthula". Other than a few certain points, the music is not as repetitive as one might expect, with a lot of variation within each track. The various sections of the songs work well to take the listener on an epic journey, with a mixture of mid-paced and faster riffs, also joined together with more ethereal passages that sound like something from the first Katatonia album. Such can be more clearly heard in songs such as "The Plain of Ida" and "The Last Journey of Ringhorn". Certain ideas take quite a while to conclude, but this only works to increase the odd, dream-like quality of the album. Also nice is how there are occasions where the lead guitar is used to add depth to the music, making a wise choice to not simply add more keyboards in a situation where the guitar is better suited for the job. The vocals are rather impassioned and consist mostly of tormented screams, though maybe a bit generic considering the time period. Either way, it works very well to add to the sombre feeling of the album. There are the occasional background chants, and the track "My Prayer Beyond Ginnungagap" consists of almost nothing but clean chanting, serving as an interlude of sorts. Of course, with the cultural ties to the north, it is no surprise that all of the lyrics deal with Norse mythology.

The production is very similar to that of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism and Det Som Engang Var, to an extent. One would think that this could have been recorded at Grieghallen, almost. The icy guitar tone is very thick and full, yet somehow sounds hollow at the same time. Thankfully, this is the most dominant element, with the rest kind of buried deep within the snow and ice. It is a good thing that the percussion is not any higher in the mix, as it sounds like the work of a drum machine; therefore, it is all the better to remain less noticeable in order to not ruin the atmosphere. The overall production is probably considered raw by today's standards, but it actually sounds fairly well-done and far above demo-quality.

Ultima Thulée is like a lost Norwegian Black Metal album, in many ways. Despite being a French band with a badly translated German name, Blut aus Nord fit in well with their neighbors to the north, at least with the likes of Burzum, Immortal and Enslaved. If you are a fan of the early works from those bands, you are well advised to check this out. This is a very solid album and much better than anything they've released since hopping on modern trends.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Gorgoroth - Promo '94 (1994)

In April 1994, roughly one year after releasing their first demo, Gorgoroth decided to release a promo tape that included two new songs to be featured on their upcoming full-length, Pentagram. The band's sound had been streamlined, just a bit, from the earlier recording. Infernus, Hat and Goat Pervertor had also been joined by Samoth, of Emperor, during this time. The end product sounds more professional than the previous demo, though not nearly as good as the album that would follow.

The songs featured on here are "Katharinas Bortgang" and "Måneskyggens Slave". The latter is somewhat of an odd choice, in that Gorgoroth basically decided to ruin the surprise of the very best song of the upcoming album, six months early. Usually, it would be wise to save that for the full-length and to tease people with something else. Either way, this material must have increased the anticipation for the release of Pentagram, given the high quality of the songs. One of the main differences between this and the tracks on A Sorcery Written in Blood is the somewhat more melodic orientation of the songwriting. There are less old school '80s riffs thrown in, with more of a reliance on the hypnotic tremolo melodies. Both compositions are very dynamic, giving them somewhat of an epic atmosphere that was not present on the first demo. Another major shift is the change in the vocal department. Hat's voice has now become a much higher-pitched rasp, rather than the torn-throat shrieking of before. It flows a little better and suits the music, especially considering that he sounds to have better control over his breathing and a higher lung capacity, but it loses something in that his previous approach was just so utterly hateful that you could truly feel it.

Recorded in Grieghallen and produced by Pytten, the sound here is quite a bit better than A Sorcery Written in Blood. However, this does not represent the final mix that would be used on the full-length, thankfully. Though these are the same recordings that appear on the album, the overall sound is very different. Everything is kind of flat, as opposed to the fuller and more powerful sound of Pentagram. It is almost like the different between Transilvanian Hunger and De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. This is good in that it shows improvement from the demo and gives a decent idea of what is to come, but it cannot compare to the finished versions.

Promo '94 was likely a useful release at the time, keeping the band's name out there during a time when so many classic albums were being released. However, it is rather useless now. These are the exact same recordings that are on the Gorgoroth's first full-length, just with an inferior mix, so there is not even the curiosity of hearing a different version of the songs, as with the demo. This is not even really recommended for die-hard fans, as it just offers so little. If you seek this out at all, find one a reissue that also contains the previous demo tracks.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dimmu Borgir - For All Tid (1994)

Dimmu Borgir. The name is practically a curse word within the Black Metal underground. This is a band that is reviled and ridiculed, with good reason. They are widely considered to be posers and sell-outs, more of a corporation than a real band. To most of us, a Dimmu Borgir record is a mere product; something that is made out of the desire the make money, lacking any true substance and having no connection with real Black Metal, despite taking its name. The music that this band is best known more accurately falls under the annoying term 'extreme Metal', which is basically a way to way to indicate that it features harsh vocals and lots of double bass, while the riffs are a mixture of Black, Death and Thrash Metal, all tied together by an abundance of horrible synth.

Yet, despite how hated these guys are, even a great number of 'elitists' will cite their first album as being decent. For a group of musicians known for creating so much worthless garbage, it is difficult to believe that they ever recorded anything worthwhile, but there are many examples of once-meaningful bands losing their way and traveling down the wrong path. It is common for bands to make good albums in the beginning of their career and to then to follow up with mediocre material. It was with this in mind that, about a decade or so ago, I finally gave this band the benefit of the doubt and listened to their 1994 debut full-length, For All Tid. This was a decision that I soon came to regret.

One would think that it would be rather difficult for a 'Norwegian Black Metal' album, released in 1994, to be all that bad. After all, this was considered by many to be the peak year of the movement. It was then that Mayhem's De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was finally unleashed upon the world. This was joined by, arguably, the most influential Black Metal album of all time, Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger. Highly regarded records such as Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, from Burzum, and Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse were released that same year, as well as the debut albums of Gorgoroth, Enslaved and Satyricon. Judging by this, one would expect nearly any Norwegian release, during this time period, to be a fairly safe bet. Yet there were some differences between Dimmu Borgir and the rest. For one, most of the aforementioned bands had, at one time or another, had some association with Euronymous, who was quite an influential figure in the scene. Those bands also had existed for some time, putting out albums or at least demos in the years prior to this, while this band sprang up during or after all of the media hype and pumped out a full-length in rather short order. That said, Shagrath at least had the background of having played in a real Black Metal band, Fimbulwinter, once upon a time. In recent years, he has claimed in an interview to have had some contact with Euronymous and Varg, while contradicting this in another by saying that he did not know him and had never met Varg, either. Chances are his only contact was going to the Helvete shop to purchase a record, once or twice. At any rate, it is very clear that there was no true association between Dimmu Borgir and the real Black Metal bands, thus making it easier to understand the disparity in musical quality and the total ideological disconnect.

Regarding the actual material on For All Tid, it becomes painfully obvious that Dimmu Borgir had no real concept of what they were doing, nor could they execute their weak ideas in a convincing fashion. As Shagrath once said, "many bands came into the scene after the death of Euronymous, that would not have lasted more than a few days if he had still been alive" and that "these children have no knowledge or respect for Black Metal". He was literally describing his own band, while pretending to be part of the old guard. This becomes all the more hilarious to think of while listening to the one Dimmu Borgir album that possesses the most 'credibility' within the underground. This is drenched in a lame gothic atmosphere, as the album is consumed by a total abuse of keyboards that often dominate the sound. If you found it difficult to stomach the synth found on Dark Medieval Times, then you will absolutely vomit when you hear this. It is not even used in a manner that could possibly add a dark or evil feeling to the music, rather it comes off as cheesy and almost romantic. The piano bits and clean vocal passages only add to this effect. One also has to wonder whose idea it was that a flute, or whatever that is, belonged in Black Metal.

Even if one were to somehow look beyond all of these irritating elements and to focus solely on the guitar riffs, there would come only disappointment. The riffs are completely generic and create absolutely no feeling, on their own. There is not one single guitar melody on this album that jumps out and commands the listener's attention. None of this works well to convey any sort of feeling, other than a feeble attempt to mimic other bands while pouring a lot of bad ideas on top of it all, creating nothing more than a total mess. Even lumping this in with Black Metal feels dirty. While there are raspy vocals and a good amount of tremolo riffs, there is nothing at all dark or evil about this record. For All Tid lacks even a single moment where the atmosphere becomes black as night and a sense of menace can be detected. At least there could be some kind of sorrowful feeling that imbues the listener with a melancholic vibe. In fact, the material here sounds quite the opposite, almost seeming as happy as an '80s Power Metal record. For the most part, these dime-a-dozen, sub-par riffs are just there with no purpose. The same can be said of the generic vocals, which don't do anything to stand out. Oddly enough, while the vocals are harsh, there is no aggression to be heard, whatsoever.

As for the production, this is probably as 'grim' as the band ever sounded, compared to their later albums. It does not reek of the same modern, slick sound that they would go on to embrace, but it is still awful. The keyboards and acoustic bits are way too high in the mix, completely drowning out the guitars. In this case, that is probably appropriate, since the only attempts at atmosphere come from the synth and not the guitars. Still, when synth and percussion are higher than the guitars on a 'Metal' album, there is a severe problem. This is not a consistent issue, which is really strange, since the mix tends to vary from track to track. All in all, this sounds unprofessional in a way that does not even earn it underground points for sounding raw or necro. It just comes off as rushed and haphazard.

For All Tid is about as evil as the first In Flames record. For anyone that hates Dimmu Borgir but is curious about the myth of their first album being good, don't waste your time. This record is completely impotent and would be totally worthless if not for the fact that it serves as proof that this band never played real Black Metal. They began as just as much of a joke as they are now, the only difference being that they had not yet cultivated the rock star image that they now possess nor could they afford the top-of-the-line studios in which to obtain the slick, plastic sound that everyone seems to love so much. Avoid this at all costs. However, if you are ever confronted with this abomination, kill it with fire.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Gorgoroth - A Sorcery Written in Blood (1993)

Gorgoroth's first demo, A Sorcery Written in Blood, is an absolutely savage and primitive piece of Norwegian Black Metal. Released in early 1993, this features two songs that would later appear on the band's debut full-length, Pentagram, yet these versions possess a completely different atmosphere. With this recording, you can almost smell the rotting blood that stains the altar of Gorgoroth.

Other than the chaotic and hellish intro, "Gathered at Blåkulla", this demo features only two songs, both of which were re-recorded for the first album. "Sexual Bloodgargling" is an earlier version of "Ritual", just with a worse title. This is joined by "(Under) the Pagan Megalith". Structurally, both songs are the same as the L.P. versions. As far as the songwriting goes, they were already in a completed form by 1993. However, as a result of the production and the execution, to some extent, this older recording sounds much more raw and hateful.

The first thing to mention has to be the vocals. Hat's vocal approach on this demo is nothing like the sound he would later adopt and is more reminiscent of Varg's work on the early Burzum albums, being more of a shriek. That said, the tone is less anguished than it is just utterly consumed with pure, cold hatred. The first time that I heard this, the vocals seemed like the real weak point of the demo. Nevertheless, after a few listens, it became clear that this much more primal sound suits the manner in which the music is presented, here.

The production is not the best, with some volume issues and the common problem of the drums being too loud in the mix, compared to the guitars. Still, somehow, the rougher production gives the music even more of an old school feel. In particular, "(Under) the Pagan Megalith" features some thrash parts, as well as riffs obviously inspired by Celtic Frost, near the end. The shoddy sound of this demo actually works well to accentuate this old school atmosphere moreso than on the full-length.

The playing does not seem to be as smooth as on Pentagram, at times, but this does not have a detrimental effect. It works in unison with the rough production and Hat's inhuman shrieking, creating a primitive atmosphere that is much uglier than what the band would go on to do. In some cases, when demo tracks are re-recorded for an album, in basically the same form, there is no need to hear the originals. That is not the case with A Sorcery Written in Blood. This demo is mandatory for any Gorgoroth fan and should be in the collection of anyone into Norwegian Black Metal.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Enslaved - Hordanes Land (1993)

Hordanes Land is the first official release from Norway's Enslaved. This three-song E.P. was released by Candlelight Records in May 1993, later reissued as a split with Emperor. For many, this half an hour of music served as their introduction to the band. This effort is not too far removed from Yggdrasill, for the most part, though it does display Enslaved's more ambitious side.

Right away, it is obvious that the production has 'improved' since the Yggdrasill demo. It is clearer and a little more professional, while still sounding rough. However, for my taste, the raw sound of the demo tape was much better. Nonetheless, this was a necessary evil, as there seems to be a bit more going on here and the fuller and deeper sound allows for every element to be heard well, from the acoustic bits to the clean vocal passages. The drums are definitely clearer than before, and possess somewhat of a heavy echo. The guitars do not seem as effective since they lack the razor sharp tone and severely harsh edge as before. The keyboards are too loud as well. In this case, the band was better off with either the raw quality from the demo or the somewhat more professional sound of Vikingligr Veldi. This rests somewhere in between and doesn't quite suit the music as well as either of those.

As for the music, this is rather decent. "Slaget I Skogen Bortenfor" is a massive piece that serves as an early sign of the band's lofty goals. For those that followed their development from the demos onward, this must have come as somewhat of a surprise. Clocking in at over thirteen minutes, this was one of the first examples of Norwegian Black Metal really breaking with convention and going for something more epic. This even predates Burzum's "Det Som Engang Var", for what it's worth. That said, the songwriting is not quite as skilled and there are times when one gets the impression that the track could have been shorter, but Enslaved surely gets credit for pulling it off rather convincingly, anyway. The only real complaint would have to be the keyboards, which sound really ridiculous. Whoever thought the odd horn sound somehow added to the music should be beaten. The song is filled with a good number of high quality tremolo riffs and Grutle's absolutely vicious vocals, so such effects were simply unnecessary.

This is followed by a re-recording of "Allfaðr Oðinn". Right off, this is a bit of a letdown as they changed the lead solo at the beginning of the song, making it less memorable and nearly impotent when compared to the original. Otherwise, it still retains the opening moments inspired by Celtic Frost and then the transition to the colder tremolo melodies. Again, the vocals are possessed by a hateful and aggressive tone that really goes beyond what a lot of the other Norwegian bands were doing. The keyboards distract from the riffs, at certain points, but they are done a little more tastefully than on the previous track. All in all, there are not too many differences between this version and the original. The epic atmosphere may be more perceptible here, though the rawness of the demo recording is still preferable to my ears.

"Balfǫr" is a strange track, utilizing some odd riffs that kind of foreshadow some of the material from Frost. The vibe is definitely more relaxed as the song moves along as a slower pace. Here, the subtle synth touches actually fit the music better than at any other time of this E.P. A brief lead solo adds depth to the song, with somewhat of a sombre touch. The riffs are more thrash-oriented, for the most part, though the mid-paced parts of somewhat reminiscent of old Bathory. While this is certainly different, it makes for an interesting listen and is pretty memorable.

Hordanes Land is definitely an interesting release. It seems that it would fit more naturally between Vikingligr Veldi and Frost, rather than between the demo and the debut. Either way, it is filled with rather dynamic compositions that seek to create an epic atmosphere beyond what most of Enslaved's Norwegian peers were up to. Strange that, when considering the split release that featured these songs, Emperor seemed to get the most attention despite the Enslaved material being far more interesting and well-executed. At any rate, for those fans of the band's early period, this is an essential release.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Emperor - As the Shadows Rise (1994)

Released by Nocturnal Arts Productions in 1994, As the Shadows Rise is the second Emperor E.P. and features material recorded back in December 1992, during the same sessions as the tracks that ended up on Emperor. This effort is similar in that it includes re-recorded versions of songs from Wrath of the Tyrant, though no new tracks are present. Nonetheless, this mini-album is superior to their first, yet remains strangely obscured by time.

The production for this E.P. is fairly decent and suits the material well. It is not horribly modern or over-produced, but neither is it as necro and ancient-sounding as Wrath of the Tyrant. The sound quality is still rather grim, with a fuzzy guitar tone that is somewhat similar to that of Under A Funeral Moon. The riffs are just clear enough to be comprehended a little better than before, which may help some appreciate these songs a bit more. The vocals are not as loud in the mix as before, also possessing less reverb. The drums are at the perfect level, with Faust pummeling away in the background and not getting in the way.

Musically, these compositions are not much different from the original recordings. The only real alteration is during the middle of "Witches Sabbath", where there is a somewhat melodic doom riff that is not present in the old one. However, in trade, the morbid moans seem to be much lower and less effective, practically removing something that added to the eerie effect on Wrath of the Tyrant. Otherwise, there are not too many other differences, though there was not a lot of time to re-work the songs anyway, since this was recorded later in the same year. Obviously, the sound is a little clearer and this may alter the atmosphere of the songs, somewhat, just because there is less chaos and distortion. It also allows for some of the guitar melodies to be heard better, which may bring out more of the original intent behind the writing of these tracks. As with the versions on Emperor, Ihsahn decided to add synth to "Ancient Queen" and "Witches Sabbath". If there is any present on "Lord of Storms", it is too low to be noticed. As for the others, the keyboards are actually done in a much more subtle and tasteful manner than on the previous E.P. When used, it truly accentuates the dark atmosphere being created by the music, instead of working against it. Another positive is that the synth is not so high in the mix as to overpower everything else. It is rather surprising, as all of the material was re-recorded during the same session, yet the songs that they released first were the worst of the bunch.

As the Shadows Rise is a worthwhile E.P. and is highly recommended for fans of early Emperor. It is unfortunate that these tracks are harder to come by than the ones on the first mini-album, those being later released on the split with Enslaved and on reissues of Wrath of the Tyrant, since this collection of tunes is greatly superior in just about every way. For a bit of a different perspective on some classic Emperor songs, as well as another dose of old school Norwegian Black Metal, seek this out.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Horna - Varjoissa (1995)

Varjoissa is the first demo recorded by Horna, released in September 1995 and limited to 150 copies. This obscure tape would serve as the foundation on which to build the legacy of one of Finland's most important underground bands, possibly the best ever. Whereas bands like Beherit and Archgoat would make their contributions rather briefly and fade back into the shadows, and even Impaled Nazarene only had two or three good albums in them, Horna has grown like a malignant cancer that feeds on the darkness within us all. The band has only improved with time, yet remaining true to its roots, and it began here.

The material here is almost more closely related to what the band would release in its later days, as opposed to the very demo and albums that immediately follow it. There is a dark and haunting atmosphere created by the abundance of mournful tremolo melodies and the anguished vocals. At times, there is even an epic feeling, such as the riff that appears around the middle of the title track. There is a close connection between this music and that of the early Norwegian Black Metal scene, with Shatraug often citing Emperor's earliest work as one of the primary influences for forming a band. In fact, the songwriting is quite a bit stronger than a lot of the aforementioned band's works, with a strong sense of consistency that runs through all of the songs. There is a decent amount of variation in tempo, though most of the songs are built round the typical northern sound, with fast-picked tremolo riffs and intense drumming. The pace slows down, at times, when needed. The vocals sound influenced by Count Grishnackh's efforts on the early Burzum records, being sort of a tormented shriek instead of anything particularly demonic. It definitely suits the sombre tone of the guitar riffs.

Another factor in making this such a good demo is that the production is exactly how it should be. Whereas the band's first albums sounded a bit too modern, at times, this has a pure underground production that really helps with the obscure and sorrowful atmosphere that the music creates. Everything is arranged to allow the guitars to be the center of attention and to have space to breathe. The vocals are buried in the mix, a bit, but this only helps the overall feeling. The drumming is clear enough to keep time but never interferes with what is important. This may not compare to the necro sound of Wrath of the Tyrants, but is more along the lines of A Sorcery Written in Blood or Transilvanian Hunger. It is strange how the band developed, as this overall sound and material almost seems more in line with the efforts that follow Sudentaival.

Varjoissa may be overlooked as some meaningless demo tape, but to ignore this release would be a serious mistake. What Horna managed to create here is actually much more impressive than anything on Hiidentorni, for example, with a better sound and higher quality songwriting. The vocals may take some getting used to, but Shatraug did a much better job with this style than Nazgul ever did. Seek this out, one way or another, and witness the raw misery and darkness of Horna's earliest days.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Emperor - IX Equilibrium (1999)

Following the success of Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, the members of Emperor became ever more active in their various side-projects and moved further away from the true essence of Black Metal. They took the positive reactions to such a flawed album as meaning that they should continue in the same direction, which only led them to create a record that can only be looked at as an abomination. Released in November 1999, IX Equilibrium saw Emperor return to be hailed by many as the kings of Norwegian Black Metal. This is incredibly ridiculous, as there is hardly a trace of Black Metal to be found on this record.

By 1999, Black Metal had become a worldwide trend and a good number of these bands were taking influence from Emperor's earlier works, incorporating a great deal of synth into their music, often at the expense of actual riffs. Even worse, they were adding gothic elements and making something that was really the antithesis of what it claimed to be. Ihsahn, himself, jumped on this symphonic/goth bandwagon with his side-project, Peccatum. It is kind of humourous that he got swept up in trends that he had some part in influencing in the first place. Meanwhile, Samoth had been moving in a different direction, becoming more interested in technicality than obscurity.

Therein lies one of the greatest differences between Emperor's third full-length album and those that came before it. There is a total absence of the obscure atmosphere that was conveyed by In the Nightside Eclipse, which itself was somewhat of a leap in quality from the necro sound of Wrath of the Tyrant. Still, there was a common thread that ran between them. Even from the band's debut L.P. to Anthems... one can hear some traces of their Black Metal roots, despite how overblown and convoluted that whole record was. They had at least tried to create some kind of atmosphere, even if their horrid symphonic approach failed. With IX Equilibrium, they failed in a different way.

This album fails to live up to the Emperor name, and that takes into account my complete disdain for its predecessor. While the goofy keyboards and Ihsahn's trademark raspy voice have remained, along with an abundance of clean singing, this is a totally different beast. This is the point where Emperor ceased to be a Black Metal band and joined the growing legions of generic 'extreme Metal' groups. The music here is heavy and technical and features a lot of fast riffs and Trym pummeling his drum kit to bits while Ihsahn screams over everything, but there is no substance. Out of the entire album, there are a very tiny amount of actual Black Metal melodies, and even these are used to bridge other nonsensical ideas together. The riffs are mostly a combination of Thrash and Death Metal, drenched in soulless technicality that has replaced the obscure atmosphere of their past releases with a sterile feeling, but hoping to impress listeners with how flawless the playing is. This is the sort of thing that happens to musicians that started out their careers not knowing how to play all that well, but creating nonetheless, and then wanting to show off their developing skills. The trouble is, by the time these types can master their instruments, they have lost the ability to write worthwhile music. Such was the case with Emperor.

What other crime is committed here, other than trading songwriting skill for musicianship? Of course, the rotting and festering, hideous stench of all things modern. The production is as clean as it gets and sounds like the band went to a top-notch studio with all of the latest equipment for completely draining the last few remaining drops of sincerity right out of this. Every element is crystal clear, which would allow everything to be heard perfectly if not for the fact that it is all mixed so loud that things seem to run together, anyway. It is odd to think of something being so clear and yet sounding like a mess at the same time, but that does seem to be the case. A lot of it has to do with the synth, which is severely abused and far too high in the mix. Since the actual music lacks any hope for creating atmosphere, they relied on the keyboards to do it for them. Instead, it just makes the proceedings sound all the more light-hearted and ridiculous, as there is no way possible that was meant to sound dark or menacing.

With this record, the members of Emperor reveal themselves to be posers of the highest order. They began making generic Death Metal and that is what they returned to, once they were no longer hanging around the likes of Euronymous and Varg Vikernes. In this case, the pure Black Metal of Wrath of the Tyrant and In the Nightside Eclipse must have been more of an anomaly, inspired by the scene that they were caught up in at the time, rather than something that was truly burning within them. Along with bands like Satyricon and Enslaved, it became clear that the followers knew not where to go once their leaders had passed on.

If you wish to wallow in the soulless and sterile stench of modern 'extreme Metal', then IX Equilibrium may be for you. If you are more drawn to shameless pretentiousness and egotism rather than a dark atmosphere, you may enjoy this atrocity. This album is filled with the sort of faux-progressive nonsense that easily impresses more simple-minded listeners. If you want to be associated with Norwegian Black Metal without actually having the courage to listen to the real thing, then this is the perfect L.P. to get you such scene credibility. Otherwise, save your money and avoid this like the disease-ridden filth that it is.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Enslaved - Blodhemn (1998)

After the incredibly disappointing Eld, Enslaved appeared to realize that something had gone terribly wrong, in just about every manner possible. From the production to the songwriting to the playing, itself, that record did nothing but stain the band's reputation. The following year, in 1998, they returned with Blodhemn. While this L.P. is a a few steps above its predecessor, in all aspects, it still fails to match the band's earlier output and even manages to give rise to new problems.

From the very beginning of the record, one does not even have to bother checking the liner notes to tell that this album was recorded in Studio Abyss, produced by Peter Tägtgren. This was mistake number one, though it was a common thing for Black Metal bands in the late '90s. As a songwriter and musician, Peter is excellent. Anyone with the old Hypocrisy and Abyss albums in their collection is well aware of this. As a producer, he really fails to capture the appropriate atmosphere and seems to often mold the band's sound to the way he thinks it should be. The worst curse that this album can suffer from is the stench of modern production, which absolutely ruins it. From beginning to end, one cannot help but think how much better this would have sounded if recorded elsewhere, or maybe some years earlier. By the late '90s, this plastic sound was becoming more and more prevalent and was seemingly impossible to avoid. Truth be told, one could make a fair assessment that this album is worthless based off of the info in the booklet, before ever hearing a single note.

With regards to the music, Enslaved really went out of their way to try getting back to their roots, to an extent. Songs like "I Lenker Til Ragnarok" and "Eit Auga Til Mimir" hearken back to the fast-paced and intense songs from Vikingligr Veldi and Frost, possessing much more of a typical Norwegian Black Metal vibe than one the last L.P. The clean vocals, introduced on Eld, are still present but they are done in a much more tasteful manner. In the case of the former, I am 100% convinced that Peter came up with the vocal melodies, as they sound so similar to something that one would expect from Hypocrisy's middle period. In the case of some of the other tracks, the modern feeling is present even with the songwriting, with too much reliance on double bass, at times. "Ansuz Astral" even includes some really terrible synth that kills the supposed 'Viking' atmosphere and gives one the impression that the Martians have landed. For the most part, the bulk of the material is generic and uninspired, even if it is an improvement over their last effort.

Every band is allowed to slip up and put out a bad record, but Blodhemn makes two horrible albums in a row. As a result, any and all credibility that Enslaved ever had was wiped away and forgotten. While the songwriting is somewhat stronger and the production a little more suitable for the material than on Eld, the fact is that the music and the sound reeks of a modern, sterile sound that renders it all worthless. It is a shame that Darkthrone was not more productive during the late '90s, as the rest of the Norwegian Black Metal scene were either wimping out and jumping on trends or just making lousy records. This release by Enslaved is a good example of both.

Enslaved - Eld (1997)

In the old day, before the prominence of the internet, there were times when one had to make a judgment of an album based on the cover art, hoping that it would serve as an indication as to whether or not the music was any good. Sometimes it worked, yet every now and then this method would fail. In the case of Enslaved's third full-length, the ridiculously lame cover should serve as a warning to not bother listening to this. Released in March 1997, Eld came a few years after Frost and showed that the band had acquired new interests and had returned to the scene with a somewhat different approach. Those that were hoping for a continuation of the early material were sadly disappointed.

Where does one start with such an irritating record? The production is terrible and not in a good way. It is difficult to believe that Pytten had anything to do with this, as the sound is all wrong for this material. There is too much open space between the instruments, as if they are somehow not connected, properly. Even on tracks where they go for a full-on Black Metal assault, the mix seems more geared for a simple rock band and the whole thing is just totally neutered. The drums are too loud in the mix, which makes the disconnect all the more noticeable. The guitar tone is not all that bad, but the overall sound does not match the style of music that is being played.

As for the material itself, Enslaved really lost their way on this one. Either they failed to accomplish that which they set out to do or they were actually trying to make something totally horrid and bereft of any value, whatsoever. The opener, "793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)", clocks in at over sixteen minutes and doesn't feature a single enjoyable moment. Right from the onset, the band decided to challenge the patience of the listener, bombarding you with all of the new elements that they chose to embrace; i.e. an overflow of clean vocals, acoustic passages, more of a folk-like vibe. This is usually a sign of a band that was not that committed to what they were doing in the first place, having run out of ideas and needing to find some sort of gimmick. In this case, all of the new additions helped them gain praise from those that see such nonsense as progressive and thoughtful. Some tracks, like "Hordalendingen" and "Alfablot", try to inject some of the old intensity into things, but the execution and production really prevent this from ever happening. And, of course, the use of keyboards and clean vocals has to be ever-present. There doesn't appear to be a single pure Black Metal song on the album, which is really what they needed since their brand of 'Viking Metal' is so disappointing.

Eld represents the exact moment when Enslaved became completely irrelevant to the Black Metal scene and began to belong to some faux-progressive movement, populated by musicians that had utterly lost any and all sense of purpose and were content to start throwing things against the wall to see what stuck. There were certainly hints that this might happen, particularly on Frost, but it is doubtful that anyone could have predicted such an atrocity. Avoid this.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Immortal - s/t (1991)

Immortal rose from the ashes of an earlier Death Metal band, known as Amputation, back in 1990. For one reason or another, it was decided to start fresh despite having lost only one rather unimportant member. What some may not be aware of is that Immortal started out by continuing on the same musical path, playing their own form of Death Metal. It was sometime after this that Euronymous got Abbath into Black Metal, thus altering the course of Immortal's career (and quite likely saving them from becoming yet another forgotten band, among countless others that were playing the same style). Though they had just released their first demo in July, by October 1991 Immortal unleashed their first E.P. upon the world. This would mark the first Norwegian Black Metal release since Mayhem's Deathcrush, in 1987.

This E.P. only contains two songs, plus an intro. In this case, the intro is short enough and does a good job in establishing a dark and ominous tone. "Unholy Forces of Evil" is an interesting song, as it officially introduced the underground to the band's new sound. Abbath's vocals have changed from the very deep and guttural sound that was heard in Amputation, and on the first Immortal demo, to something much more raspy. His voice was very close to the way it would sound on Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, but not completely. Much like Darkthrone would do, Immortal chose to recycle some of their Death Metal riffs, rather than taking the time to create entirely new songs. Perhaps, they were in a hurry to record something that reflected their change in outlook. "Unholy Forces of Evil" includes re-worked riffs from the earlier demo, most likely from the song "Suffocate the Masses" (though it is difficult to tell, since all of those tracks are so similar). For one reason or another, the atmosphere does not manage to match that of the later version. "The Cold Winds of Funeral Frost" has a bit more of an old school feeling, thanks in part to the percussion and the overall vibe of the songwriting. Like the previous song, it moves along at a rather relaxed pace, with some hints of a Bathory influence. Also, like the first track, it builds up to a more intense speed with blasting drums, near the end.

The production is not so much raw as it is kind of muddy. The guitar tone lacks the cold feel of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism. As a result, the guitar riffs are not as sharp and tend to blend in with the rest of the instruments. In particular, the bass is too high in the mix and, combined with the lack of sharpness in the guitar tone, gives the music more of a warm feeling. As for the vocals, they also seem to blend in to the rest, to an extent. It could be due to the levels, just as much as the fact that Abbath's voice doesn't have the exact same edge to it that he would later develop. Little things like this, along with the more subtle nuances in execution on the full-length, make a big difference in the type of atmosphere that is present.

Immortal is definitely an interesting E.P. and is recommended for hardcore Immortal fans, though it is hardly essential for anyone else. Other than the intro, superior versions of these songs can be found on the band's debut full-length, so there is no real reason to go to any trouble in seeking this out. As a matter of fact, within the context of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, these aren't even the strongest songs on the record. This is the sort of record that was far more important when it was new, though losing its significance once they released their first L.P.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Satyricon - The Forest Is My Throne (1993)

Satyricon was never what I would consider to be one of the better Black Metal bands to come from Norway. When compared to the core bands like Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal, Emperor, Gorgoroth and Enslaved, Satyricon ranks beneath every single one of them. While so many of the aforementioned bands seemed to be carrying the torch of old school Black Metal, while adding their own vision, Satyr, Lemarchand and Frost came off as having really no connection to the First Wave bands. In fact, rather than taking inspiration from the '80s, they seemed to be among the first that were influenced directly by their countrymen, instead. The Forest Is My Throne, released in 1993, is a prime example of this.

Musically, the first thing that comes into mind is Darkthrone. Of course, the songwriting is nowhere near as talented and fails to conjure up the same kind of dark atmosphere, but there does appear to be some attempt to follow in the footsteps of Nocturno Culto, Fenriz and Zephyrous. From the fast-paced tremolo riffs of "Black Winds" to the old school rhythms of the title track, this sounds heavily inspired by A Blaze in the Northern Sky. While one can say that Darkthrone were merely carrying on what bands like Bathory and Hellhammer started, no one can deny that they also added their own ideas to it and made something special. Satyricon just seems generic and unoriginal. There is hardly any point in mentioning the instrumental track, as its presence here adds absolutely nothing. There guys were not very creative and the music is clearly directionless. Outside of imitating their fellow Norwegians, it is obvious that they had nothing to say with this release.

The production is fairly raw and that is about the only positive thing that one can say about this. At least the guitar has a razor-sharp sound, which suits the first track more than the others. This sounds rather decent for a demo, certainly lacking the necro qualities found on releases like Wrath of the Tyrant or Under A Funeral Moon. The guitar tone is not too far off from that which would later be featured on the band's debut album, but the drums are much less clear and low enough in the mix to refrain from being annoying.

The Forest Is My Throne is certainly not essential. Its best selling point is that it includes at least one fairly decent song (by Satyricon's standards) that isn't drowned in synth nonsense, which gives a good idea of what the band could have sounded like. If you truly feel that you must have this, go for the reissue that also includes Enslaved's Yggdrasill demo. At least, that way, you'll get your money's worth.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Darkthrone - A Night of Unholy Black Metal (1996)

For a band with the longevity of Darkthrone, and such ties to the '80s, it would only be appropriate that their material has been the subject of various bootlegs over the years. As is the case with their countrymen, Mayhem, just about any random recording done by Darkthrone has been subsequently bootlegged a dozen or so times. This particular bootleg, A Night of Unholy Black Metal, seems to have turned up in the mid-to-late '90s, with dates ranging from late 1996 to some point in 1998. Whatever the case may be, it appears to have emerged during the band's downtime, between Total Death and Ravishing Grimness. This is an interesting collection, as it features material from a few distinct periods in the band's history.

The first chapter consists of five songs that were taken from a live performance from 6 April 1996, in Oslo, Norway. This was from a gig that also featured Dissection and Satyricon, with Satyr actually playing bass for Darkthrone. It would seem that, from early on, he was playing a supporting role for the band. For such a brief set, the band still managed to cover most of their albums, though they played nothing from Panzerfaust. Maybe, they were eager to play something newer, which is why they included "Blackwinged", but "Quintessence" would have been a better choice. Nocturno Culto and Fenriz were certainly more into the dark atmosphere of their Black Metal days, as the set begins with the chiming of a funeral bell and video of the gig shows that they had torches on the stage. This may have been a few years too late to possess the same cult feeling of the old Mayhem shows with Dead, but the atmosphere is similar. The sound quality is not the greatest, with some hissing and a lack of clarity, but it suits the music in a way. The bass is surely loud enough, sometimes coming through a little too well. For anyone that is familiar with these songs, this recording is not difficult to follow, at all. One might even say that "Under A Funeral Moon" and "Transilvanian Hunger" are not too far below the studio versions, in terms of quality, though that would probably be going too far. "Blackwinged" is a little hard to get into, as the bass blocks out the guitar, and you can even hear a couple guys in the crowd talking, fairly clearly. All in all, the set does well to capture the old Black Metal feeling. A shame that is was so short.

The next part features a live recording taken from a gig in Finland, back in 1991. The sound is pretty terrible, with the drums overpowering the rest and being a bit of a pain on the ear. The songs are hardly formed, as well, making the show feel kind of awkward. Apparently, Nocturno Culto wasn't feeling too well, so the songs practically became instrumentals, though one has to wonder how fully developed they were anyway. "Paragon Belial" and "A Blaze in the Northern Sky" were far from the versions that would appear on A Blaze in the Northern Sky, with more of a Death/Doom feeling, as a matter of fact. The other two songs were works in progress for the then-upcoming Goatlord record. They sound rather directionless, with far too much activity behind the drum kit and not enough atmosphere. The bad recording doesn't help matters, either. The most interesting thing about this part of the collection is likely Fenriz's stage banter.

The final chapter of A Night of Unholy Black Metal actually takes the listener back to the sort of atmosphere that was present at the beginning, with a handful of rehearsal tracks from 1992. Nocturno Culto has made no secret that this period of the band's existence holds special memories for him and has often cited Darkthrone's time as a three-piece as passing far too quickly. Back then, they were uninterested in playing live and even recording albums was less important than gathering and rehearsing the material, over and over, in what amounted to primitive Black Metal rituals. The sound quality is not the best, but it is not terribly inferior to the studio versions of these songs as heard on Under A Funeral Moon. The playing is very tight and one can tell that these guys knew the songs well, inside and out. The vocals are difficult to hear, at times, but this is remedied for the last two songs, as they are instrumentals. While not sounding as good as the band's third full-length, the same morbid atmosphere is definitely present.

A Night of Unholy Black Metal is certainly worth getting, if you ever run across it. While the tracks from the '91 gig are rather useless, the '96 Oslo show and the '92 rehearsal are rather meaningful pieces of Darkthrone's history and of the early Norwegian Black Metal scene, itself. Though this style and atmosphere is still seen as being very important to Fenriz and Nocturno Culto, they have long since moved on, making albums like this all the more valuable to those that have an appreciation for this music.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dissection - Night's Blood (1994)

From the band's earliest days, Dissection was known as being quite the force to be reckoned with, as it related live performances. This is but one of the many reasons that they managed to build such a strong following, over the years. While a lot of bands avoided playing live at all costs, this is where Dissection truly thrived and they did an excellent job of bringing their songs to life. The Night's Blood bootleg features a live show from 4 May 1994, just some months after the release of the band's debut L.P. This recording was taken from a four-day Black Metal festival, in Oslo, Norway, that also included the first live gig of Gorgoroth. Released on vinyl by Headache Records, Night's Blood serves as one more piece of Dissection's legendary existence.

Regarding the performance, itself, the band executes every song with precision and accuracy. Naturally, the bulk of the material comes from The Somberlain, though they also play an instrumental version of "Where Dead Angels Lie", which seems to have already been fully developed, musically. For the most part, the songs are the same as the studio versions, though often at a faster pace. Songs like "Frozen" and "Heaven's Damnation" are sped up quite a bit, as if the band was feeling much too energetic. This happens in a few other places, such as the middle of "In the Cold Winds of Nowhere", as the level of intensity increases. Thankfully, "The Somberlain" is more faithful to the original, as speeding it up unnecessarily would have ruined the atmosphere, in this case. It is too bad that they did not choose to play "Black Horizons", as well, a song that frequently appeared to be ignored when playing live.

The sound quality is pretty rotten, with an ever-present hissing that is similar to some of the old Moonblood rehearsals. If you can manage to tune that out and turn the volume all the way up, it is not too difficult to hear everything that is going on and to enjoy it. Because of the unprofessional recording, there are times when things seem to run together and moments where the drumming (and even the bass) crush the main guitar riffs into oblivion and those less familiar with the songs might lose track of what is going on. For those that appreciate shoddy production, this is for you, as it is the most necro that Dissection has ever sounded.

Night's Blood is not essential, but is certainly something that hardcore Dissection fans should seek out, in one form or another. This bootleg has its problems, with the hissing and the occasional drops in sound, yet it sort of adds to the charm. It does not come close to the quality heard on Live Legacy, for example, but it still worth hearing, nonetheless. The vinyl may be hard to come by, but it has been bootlegged by various labels, on CD.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Emperor - s/t (1993)

The Emperor E.P. was recorded in December 1992 and released in May 1993, by Candlelight Records. While it may seem like an appealing thing to acquire, upon first glance, it is not. Don't be fooled by the fact that it was spawned during the creative peak of the Norwegian Black Metal scene. This material is entirely sickening and hardly worth checking out, even based on curiosity.

Many years ago, after getting into Emperor, I was going back and checking out the older recordings and connecting with those far more than with Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, which was their latest album at the time. For me, In the Nightside Eclipse was far superior, even if it did fail to match up to other records that were released that same year, like Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, De Mysteris Dom Sathanas, Transilvanian Hunger and Pentagram. Nonetheless, it proved to be a high quality album and also served to lead me to discover Wrath of the Tyrant, which I approved of even more. Thinking that the early Emperor recordings were relatively safe, I next moved on to the band's first E.P. This was soon realized to be a mistake.

Emperor features only four songs and clocks in around twenty minutes in length. Despite being so brief, it is time that would be better spent doing just about anything else, other than listening to this. The material consists of two new songs and two re-recorded songs, from Wrath of the Tyrant. Though the necro production of that release happened to be one of its main charms, there was still a bit of curiosity to hear a couple of those tracks in a somewhat cleaned-up form. In particular, the choice to include "Night of the Graveless Souls" seemed like something positive. However, upon actual hearing it, the true horror of this E.P. was revealed.

To be honest, there is not much wrong with the original version of "I Am the Black Wizards". It features a more primitive production and sounds a little nastier, which is a good thing. It would have been even better, had the keyboards been absent, giving us a more straightforward approach to this classic track. At times, there are odd vocal effects used, to give the impression of some sort of demonic voice, but it does not really fit well with this song. The other track that would later appear on In the Nightside Eclipse, "Cosmic Keys to my Creations and Times", is quite similar though clearly inferior. It includes even more synth and appears to rely on it a little more heavily. Neither one is atrocious, by any means, but they simply don't match up to the later versions and are not different enough to really warrant much attention.

The truly hideous part of this release comes in the form of the two re-recorded songs from Wrath of the Tyrant, "Night of the Graveless Souls" and "Wrath of the Tyrant". In their original form, these two tracks represented Emperor's take on primitive, old school Black Metal with a dark and evil feeling that was emphasized by the necro production. They were perfect, more or less, despite sounding a little messy. Giving the songs another try, one might expect a slightly clearer performance, thus allowing the listener to enjoy the sinister guitar riffs even more. This was not the case, at all. Emperor managed to completely butcher these songs, by adding in synth that was never meant to be present, killing the atmosphere and ruining these tracks and this release, in general. Without the idiotic keyboard use, these songs would sound great. Unfortunately, instead of maintaining their integrity, the band decided to try to modernize the songs by adding the synth nonsense that they had developed such a liking for, since recording the originals. It is somewhat tolerable on "Wrath of the Tyrant", as they at least tried to be somewhat tasteful and to match the synth up with the music.

However, in the case of "Night of the Graveless Souls", it was as if they were listening to something else, entirely. It sounds like they were actually attempting to ruin the song, as the synth is so goofy and cartoonish, not even remotely suiting the atmosphere of the song. This is exactly why the rest of the band should have taken Ihsahn outside and beaten him to a bloody pulp, the first time he showed up to rehearsal with his Casio in hand. Listening to this rape job makes me want to stab my ears with an ice pick, or take a hammer to the misguided hands that did this foul evil.

Emperor truly struck out with this release. While three of the four songs are mildly tolerable, none of them are as good as other versions. As for "Night of the Graveless Souls", this may be the true beginnings of Suicidal Black Metal, as listening to this will make you want to kill yourself. Garbage like this somewhat foreshadowed future lame decisions that the band would make, taking the path toward mediocrity and utter putrid filth. Avoid this E.P. and stick to the other releases, pretending that this never happened.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Edge of Sanity - The Spectral Sorrows (1993)

Dan Swanö has created quite a musical legacy in the underground, over the past couple of decades, and it all goes back to Edge of Sanity. While not as well-known as some other Swedish Death Metal bands, such as Entombed, Dismember and Grave, Edge of Sanity still released some quality material in the early-'90s, before fading into mediocrity and then obscurity. The band's third studio effort, The Spectral Sorrows, was released in November 1993 and may be the true highlight of their discography.

This album eluded me for quite some time, not that I put that much effort into finding it. I had obtained the first Edge of Sanity album, Nothing But Death Remains, back in high school but it failed to make a great impression on me. It was a solid offering of old school Death Metal, yet it did not seem to draw me well enough to warrant seeking out more. Some years later, during my first visit to Sweden, I ran across Unorthodox and The Spectral Sorrows in a Stockholm record shop. The latter was, by far, the more impressive of the two and managed to spend a lot of time in my stereo, alongside Necrophobic's The Nocturnal Silence.

Recorded in Unisound / Hellspawn Studios, this was produced by Dan Swanö and shows that his skills are much more appropriate for Death Metal. Rather than the flimsy jobs given to Marduk and Dark Funeral, among others, this album has a strong production that suits the music quite well. It is odd to think that only two years separate this from the first record, as the sound quality has vastly improved. There are no random drops in volume and the instruments are quite clear and easy to follow, without being overdone and sterile. The guitar tone is fairly thick and heavy, capable of crushing your skull right in. The drums are a little lower in the mix than one might expect, at times, but this is a good thing and only serves to place more emphasis on the guitar riffs. The production also worked well to connect each song, remaining consistent enough for the varying material to be tied together, so to speak.

As for the songwriting, itself, there is a lot of variation present on The Spectral Sorrows. There is a solid foundation of old school Death Metal; however, Dan had worked with so many different bands that he was clearly becoming bored and it shows on this record. Though the core remains the same, this album is much more melodic than its predecessors, which can be heard in nearly every song. In most cases, this has to do with the guitar melodies, such as the tremolo riffs in "Darkday" and "The Masque". Even songs that seem more traditional and primitive progress to become more introspective and involved, such as the way "Livin' Hell" slows down and features riffs that are more akin to Doom than Death Metal. This continues on tracks like "Lost" and "Across the Fields of Forever", which are more slow-paced and expand on the sombre atmosphere touched on by other songs. "On the Other Side" takes this a step further with the inclusion of truly despondent clean vocals, near the end. Even the intro and outro carry a rather melancholy feeling. "Waiting to Die" feels a little generic, compared to the rest, but is still decent enough to earn its place among the rest. For the most part, this album does really well to mix all of these elements together in creating the band's masterpiece.

Unfortunately, there are some things that do not seem to fit in quite as well as the rest. They don't exactly drag the album down, all that much, but they may be a little difficult for some listeners to digest. The Manowar cover, "Blood of My Enemies", is done really well and is far more listenable than the original. Dan uses clean vocals for this song, which was probably the right choice once deciding to record it. Other than that, the song sort of fits in where it is, and doesn't possess an atmosphere that is really at odds with the surrounding songs. The song that is most shocking has to be "Sacrificed", which is a complete departure from Death Metal of any kind. This song sounds like Dan's tribute to Goth Rock like Sisters of Mercy or The Cure, and that is exactly what it sounds like. As crazy as it may sound, he pulls it off about as well as possible and it is atmospherically consistent with the rest of the album, as it maintains somewhat of a depressive feeling. "Feedin' the Charlatan" is probably the one tune that fits in the least, strangely enough, with terrible vocals by Andreas Axelsson (which is odd, considering that he did such a great job on Marduk's Dark Endless).

In the end, The Spectral Sorrows is a very solid album and is likely the best that Edge of Sanity ever recorded. There is a bit of experimentation, to be sure, but it is more than countered by the large amount of high quality material that is found here. It features a good balance, while not getting overly progressive as the band would later do. This is likely to appeal to fans of old school Swedish Death Metal just as much as to those that prefer a bit of a melodic edge to things. The dark and mournful atmosphere may even make this attractive to fans of Black and Doom Metal, and the multitude of memorable riffs will have you returning for countless repeat plays. This has easily stood the test of time and is far superior to most that have tried to follow suit with a similar style.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Graveland - Thousand Swords (1995)

Graveland's second full-length album, Thousand Swords, was released by Lethal Records in late 1995. The band's sophomore effort follows down the same path begun by Carpathian Wolves, which is not meant as a compliment. Rob Darken was in a position to ensure that Polish Black Metal was taken seriously, yet through various Graveland releases and other bands that he had taken part in, he seemed only to do a lot of damage to the scene.

The first thing that must be addressed here is the horrific production. There is no way that anyone with a fully functioning brain could possibly have thought that this sounded good enough to be released to the public, and yet it was. This is not bad in an under-produced, necro demo sort of way; it is just weak as hell, in every imaginable way. From the opening moments of "Blood of Christians on my Sword", one is appalled by the weak and ineffectual tone of the guitar. It is so thin and harmless that one is sickened by the choice that was made here. Black Metal was never defined by its heaviness and a thin, sharp guitar tone is to be expected in many cases, but this is taking it to a new extreme. The guitars sound about as menacing as the fluttering of a butterfly's wings. Compared to Carpathian Wolves, even the drums sound softer and more tame. Black Metal is supposed to sound dark, evil and threatening; instead, this comes off as rather timid and frightened of its own shadow.

As for the compositions, themselves, Thousand Swords offers more of the same mediocre songwriting as was heard on the previous album. Somehow, whatever spark of brilliance that illuminated Darken's mind as he was creating The Celtic Winter never returned and he found himself struggling to put together even the most basic Black Metal songs. For the most part, this sounds like rehash of past glories, only done in less convincing fashion. Many of the tracks sound as if they were cut and pasted together from random riffs, with odd transitions that make little sense to the overall flow of the songs. The utter inconsistency of the songwriting is most clear on "Born for War", which randomly shifts from fast tremolo melodies to slower sections and then back to mid-paced riffs that don't quite fit with the rest. It jumps around, from one to the other, with a total absence of logic. The fast-paced sections seem to be tossed in there in an obligatory manner, serving no real purpose to the overall structure of the song. For the most part, the faster melodies are totally devoid of any real atmosphere. The few times that one does get a sense of the epic atmosphere that Graveland is going for here, it results from the overbearing keyboards rather than the actual instruments, which is another problem that this band always seemed to suffer from. Even at times when the guitar riffs seem to build a little momentum, the synth and percussion work together to crush them back into the dirt and they are rendered useless.

The most unfortunate part of Thousand Swords is that is had potential. It didn't have to end as the weak, shoddy disappointment that it is. Graveland was a decent band that should have done so much more. With a recording like The Celtic Winter to their credit, it is an utter shame that they were never able to follow up and fulfill the promise that it showed. While Thousand Swords is not the most horrid piece of trash ever recorded and might actually be palatable to those less-critical listeners, it is a complete mess when compared to the aforementioned demo. Listen at your own risk.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Enslaved - Vikingligr Veldi (1994)

Vikinligr Veldi is the first full-length album from Norway's Enslaved. It was released in February 1994, by Deathlike Silence Productions. This was one of the last records to be released by DSP, as Euronymous has been murdered some months earlier. It may have been a good thing that he was gone before this emerged, as one might imagine he would not have been completely thrilled with the finished product. What is found here on Enslaved's debut record is something that is not exactly in line with the darker and more evil atmosphere that characterized most of the other DSP releases.

The material is not that far removed from what can be heard on the Yggdrasill demo. However, the raw recording of that tape may have disguised the band's music a bit, making it seem more aggressive that it really was. Once Enslaved was able to clean their sound up a little, one can see that it is really quite different from what most of the other Norwegian bands were doing, on a fundamental level. Of course, the main themes of songs like “Vetrarnótt” and “Heimdallr” are built around the same sort of fast tremolo melodies that were common in Norwegian Black Metal. Even the heavy use of synth was already done by the likes of Emperor and Satyricon, so this was nothing new, either. However, the basic atmosphere is much lighter than that of their peers. There is nothing dark or evil about this, whatsoever, which really sort of sets Enslaved apart from the rest (though one could say that Immortal focused more on a cold feeling than anything particularly evil, at least, from Pure Holocaust on). One could say that there is still a rather harsh feeling that is conveyed through Grutle's feral vocals and the more intense moments, such as the high-speed battery of “Heimdallr”. From this it would seem that Trym's timing has improved, greatly. The sense of grimness shifts from candlelight rituals to something more reflecting the ruggedness of the Norwegian landscape and the Viking period which serves as such an inspiration for the band. Nonetheless, what this lacks by not possessing a morbid and occult feeling it more than makes up for with the majestic and epic nature of the many memorable guitar melodies that fill its fifty-minute running time.

Compared to the previous demo, Vikingligr Veldi shows a final realization of the ambitious approach that was found on that cassette. Whereas many of the ideas were incomplete and seemed stitched together, at times, things seem to flow much better here. That is not to say that the songwriting is without any flaws. There are times when it would appear the certain songs go on longer than they should. In the case of “Midgards Eldar”, things take a little too long to really get underway. The build-up is somewhat weak and drags on, while also feeling a little disjointed from the main riff that is introduced thereafter. With four of the album's five tracks clocking in around eleven minute in length, this can be a bit of a tedious listen. Thankfully, the quality of the material demands that you put in the effort, regardless. Even “Norvegr” manages to grow on you, despite its slow and plodding pace. The absolutely gloomy feeling that it creates is difficult to ignore. It is placed well, as the epic journey that the album takes you on is likely to leave you battered and weary, by this point.

The production is really strong and rather clean for a Black Metal album. The guitar riffs are much clearer than on In the Nightside Eclipse or Dark Medieval Times, for example. The sound is overall heavier as well, with more focus on the riffs than the aforementioned records, despite the similar tendency to use synth a bit more than needed. In the case of Enslaved, it is done far more sparingly, though maybe not as tastefully. The 'horns', or whatever, are really out of place and do not help the atmosphere of the songs. Still, the keyboards are not so high in the mix as to overpower the rest, like in the case of Emperor. As well, the vocals are at just the right balance to be heard well and for the intensity of Grutle's voice to be felt, but not so much that it becomes abrasive and distracting. The few lead guitar solos are also done well, in that they are not buried in the mix and impossible to hear, like with many other underground releases of the time.

All in all, Vikingligr Veldi is the best album that Enslaved ever recorded and earned them the right to stand at the same level as their Norwegian peers. The only negatives here, such as the lengthy compositions and synth use, are easily forgotten when one realizes the full brilliance on display. While Frost may be somewhat easier to digest, Vikingligr Veldi provides a far more rewarding experience and is much more worth the time invested. This is an essential record for fans of cold and epic Black / Viking Metal.