Thursday, April 25, 2013

Urgehal - Arma Christi (1997)

By 1997, the Norwegian Black Metal scene had developed into something quite far removed from its roots, in many cases. The true Mayhem was dead and gone. The quality of Darkthrone's releases had dropped significantly, and they remained silent for a few years. Gorgoroth began to experiment and to ruin their sound. Emperor had fully embraced the symphonic elements and abandoned the actual Black Metal core that they once possessed. Burzum was reduced to an ambient keyboard project and even Enslaved turned into something weak and unappealing. Countless other bands began to pop up, often ripping off those that came before, with a vast majority of them going the symphonic route. Too few in Norway remembered what Black Metal was supposed to be about. It was into this horrible musical landscape that the first Urgehal full-length, Arma Christi, was released.

On this particular album, Urgehal offered up very solid and consistent Black Metal in the northern style. Unfortunately for them, they never became as well-known as many of their Norwegian peers. A lot of it comes down to timing. Had this record come out in 1992 or 1993, it would have been seen as revolutionary. But that's just the thing; the band was clearly following the lead of those that came before. Of this there is no doubt. Still, they came along too late to even earn a place among the second-tier bands like Gorgoroth and Satyricon. They could have made up for this, to some extent, by upping the ante in a sense and doing something unique and truly memorable within the framework established by the forerunners of this style. However, the material on Arma Christi is a little too safe and predictable. That being said, this is not really a bad thing. There are several good guitar melodies, particularly in "Conjuring the Hordes of Blasphemy", and only one or two boring songs. Most of the album is fast-paced and keeps up the traditions of the Norwegian approach. One can hear a good amount of Darkthrone influence, as well as a bit of Celtic Frost. As I have said with several other albums, I am fairly certain that this element is less derived from Morbid Tales itself and more likely filtered through Darkthrone's interpretation of Tom Warrior's brainchild. That is not to say that this is purely a rip-off band or that the songwriting is bad. This is probably one of the better albums to come from Norway around this time. Still, as solid as it is, one cannot help but feel that it is missing something.

One severe problem is the production. Poor production is rarely an issue with Black Metal, as a raw and lo-fi sound has gone hand in hand with this sub-genre since the very beginning, with varying degrees of grimness. However, Urgehal's debut L.P. sounds shoddy but not in the right way. The mix is flat and kind of lifeless, rather than being raw and possessing a sharp edge. The guitars and dull, the drumming could be slightly lower and the vocals fail to stand out all that well. The occasional tremolo melody cuts through the muddy sound and begins to seep into your mind, such as in "The Night Armageddon Comes", but these moments are too rare throughout the album. All in all, I would still take this kind of production over the lousy sound of Gorgoroth's Destroyer, for example, but this comes off as kind of boring and uneventful in a similar way to Darkthrone's Total Death. Ultimately, the poor sound lessens the impact of this material and does not do the compositions justice.

Nevertheless, everything about this album is rather average and gives you the feeling that you've heard it before, and better. From the flat production to the predictable and often mundane songwriting, there is nothing about this L.P. that really grabs you and demands your attention. It has its moments, definitely, but these just are not as frequent or as strong as they should be. The mid-paced attempts at sounding old school are pretty boring, but the faster songs makes up for it. Urgehal's first effort is only praiseworthy by comparing it to the horrid filth that their peers were releasing at the time, as they were at least sticking true to the style. Arma Christi is solid and even enjoyable at times, but it is your standard, run-of-the-mill Norwegian Black Metal and comes off as a rather generic representation of this scene. It is neither great nor terrible, just kind of there. For those that are looking for a straightforward album in this style, without all of the unnecessary elements that were becoming commonplace around this time, this is certainly worth listening to.