Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nachtmystium - Reign of the Malicious (2002)

Nachtmystium is an American Black Metal band, formed in 2000 by Azentrius and helped along by a revolving line-up. Though not one of the most interesting bands of the modern era, they began as many others in paying tribute to the early '90s sound. Their 2002 demo, Reign of the Malicious, is one of the better works to come from Nachtmystium. Note that I refer to this as a demo, because that is exactly what it was considered when I first had contact with Azentrius and was provided with a copy of this recording. Only some time later was this retconned and considered as the band's debut full-length.

The production and overall recording style backs this up, as well. The sound is really poor, almost as if they were playing in the basement while the tape recorder was running upstairs. The way some of the songs begin with feedback and whatnot also seems to lend an air of informality to the whole thing. That is not necessarily negative, as the primitive approach really suits the musical style and overall presentation. There is sort of an LLN vibe on display here. Despite the fuzzy and distant quality, the guitars are able to stand out amongst the rest, rather than being buried by the percussion. Even the vocals are just high enough to play a role in creating a grim and ugly atmosphere.

Musically, Reign of the Malicious is completely derivative of bands like Darkthrone, Mütiilation and Burzum. There are a lot of cold and mournful tremolo riffs throughout the demo and they are actually rather memorable. Being unoriginal is not always a bad thing, so long as the music maintains some decent level of quality. Three of the five studio tracks on here are rather enjoyable, if you are a fan of the aforementioned bands. Listening to songs like the title track and "Hateful Descent", one is taken back in time about ten years, when this style was being spawned. The guitars possess a sharp edge that cuts you like a knife and the drumming is fast but primitive and even a little sloppy. Nonetheless, it all works. The songs are fast-paced, for the most part, but there are slower sections that come along and add to the melancholic atmosphere. "May Darkness Consume the Earth" is another example of this, beginning in the pure northern style of fast tremolo melodies and then slowing down to unleash pure misery. Azentrius does a good job with the vocals, sounding like a being in pure torment, occasionally venturing into Count Grishnackh territory with the tortured shrieks, especially during some of the more sombre moments when the music slows down to a morbid crawl. Thanks to the poor sound quality, he doesn't come across as being too over-the-top with this. His sound is hardly decipherable at all and, without lyrics, it's pretty much impossible to tell what he is saying. Judging by the song titles and the nature of the music, it's all likely got something to do with dark and misanthropic themes. At least there is no pretentious, pseudo-intellectual theistic Satanism going on, largely because this recording predates that trend by some years. Unfortunately, Reign of the Malicious is hindered by some rather bland and mediocre tracks, such as "Call of the Ancient" and "Ritual Sacrifice". Worse yet is the cover of Burzum's "Lost Wisdom". This is one of those bands that no one should ever attempt to cover, as there is absolutely no way to do justice to the originals and the only outcome is disappointment. This version falls flat, as expected, and exposes Nachtmystium's weaknesses even more. The addition of a live track, at the end, is rather pointless as well.

In the end, this demo is a mixed bag. Three exceptional, though unoriginal, songs and a bunch of filler. For those into the early '90s Black Metal sound, this is worth checking out. Nachtmystium, at their best, managed to come closer to honouring the spirit of the Second Wave better than their American peers Judas Iscariot ever could, for example. Problem is, Azentrius was rather inconsistent and failed to put the proper amount of time and effort into making sure all of the songs were strong and worthwhile. This is not essential, by any definition of the word. However, if you like grim and primitive Black Metal influenced by Darkthrone, Burzum and the LLN, you may want to give this a listen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Morrigan - Enter the Sea of Flames (2002)

Morrigan rose from the ashes of Mayhemic Truth, a band that anyone in the German underground should be familiar with. With their second full-length, Enter the Sea of Flames, the band put forth a solid effort to continue carrying on the spirit of Bathory, as their music is a mix of the various styles that band implemented. Released in 2002, this was hardly very necessary as Quorthon, himself, had returned with Nordland I and did a much better job of resurrecting his vision of Viking Metal than any pretenders could ever hope to do.

Enter the Sea of Flames can be compared to Blood Fire Death in a way. Just like the fourth Bathory album, this features faster Black / Thrash songs mixed in with some mid-paced tracks with more of a Viking Metal feel. Of course, given that the album came so late, any impact that most of this would have had is totally destroyed right out of the gate. The faster songs are rather obsolete and somewhat boring. The song title "Come on Bitch, Be My Victim" is a bit of a turn-off as well. I may be a little biased, since the first track I heard was "Anam Cara", which is mid-paced and possesses a very epic and doom-like atmosphere. This was right after the album came out and, for four years, I'd imagined the rest of the music to be similar. When I finally found it, I was quite disappointed. Nonetheless, there are some good tunes, here. The aforementioned epic makes good use of clean vocals, for over half the song, adding a very sombre feeling. His voice sounds like someone who is nearly drained of life, calling out from the woeful darkness, one final time. "Beyond the Green Hills" is very similar to "Anam Cara", with mournful clean vocals accentuating the melancholic guitar melodies. "To Honour the Brave" is yet another slower track, though completely ripping off "Valhalla" from Hammerheart. Morrigan must not have been aware that Quorthon was about to release two of the most monumental albums of his career, thus their efforts to continue on in his place were unnecessary. "Thy Ravens Lay" is an odd track, seeming like a mixture between "Blood and Iron" from Twilight of the Gods and (oddly enough) "Dreams of Blood and Iron" from Marduk's Nightwing. It definitely could have been better.

The production is not very good. By that, I don't mean that it is not professional enough. Rather, it doesn't suit the music as well as it could. The differing styles of songwriting may have something to do with this. They had to remain consistent throughout the whole album, as far as the sound is concerned, so they were not able to perfectly accommodate either approach. It's pretty raw and gritty, though there is some slightly modern feel that can't be shaken from the faster songs. There is no way to hide that these primitive tracks were recorded fifteen or twenty years too late. The sound does more justice to the slower songs, as such a style does not really necessitate such a grim production. It is clear enough that the various elements can all be appreciated; i.e. acoustic bits and clean backing vocals. Thankfully, the clean vocals are kept just low enough to melt into the rest, without soaring overtop everything and overshadowing the music. This way, they serve to accentuate whatever atmosphere the instruments are creating.

All in all, this is a rather decent album. The good songs definitely outweigh the bad and make it worth the time to investigate this L.P. Enter the Sea of Flames is not perfect, but it shows a band that is quite capable of achieving most of their intended goals. There is nothing all that original here, though they do lend a bit of their own identity to the overt worship of Quorthon's musical style. A little more time and effort could have made this a much stronger album. As it is, this doesn't even match up to fellow German members of the Bathory Hordes, Nachtfalke. Either way, for those into Viking-era Bathory, this is something that you will certainly want to check out, even if but for a few songs.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Necrophobic - Bloodfreezing (1994)

Necrophobic's Bloodfreezing demo was recorded in early 1994 yet only shared with people close with the band, not receiving an official release until much later. This was the first recording with Tobias Sidegård handling vocals duties, and also features new member Martin Halfdan, on guitar. This is an interesting piece of the band's history, as it shows them transitioning from the Satanic Death Metal of The Nocturnal Silence toward the colder Black Metal feeling that would dominate their second album, Darkside.

Musically, it is very clear that main songwriter David Parland was becoming a bit bored with the Death Metal scene and was delving deeper into Black Metal territory, also recording the first Dark Funeral E.P. around this time. Though Necrophobic's sound was already darker than that of the average Swedish Death Metal band, the material on Bloodfreezing shows that they were distancing themselves ever more from their peers. There is a definite Dissection influence, here, with a similar cold and melodic sound. Even the vocals sound a bit like Jon's work on the demo for The Somberlain, possessing almost a hollow quality. "Black Moon Rising" is a fast-paced track, which is really satisfying compared to some of the material on The Nocturnal Silence, just for the fact that there were more mid-paced parts on that album that felt like they were holding something back, at times. "The Call" is much the same, starting with a sombre bass line before unleashing the freezing cold of Nifelhel. The songs sound, more or less, arranged and finished, not showing much deviation from the versions that would appear on Darkside, though still very interesting to hear how they sounded with Parland's playing.

The overall sound is kind of rough, as it is a demo recording, but still of high enough quality to hear everything that's going on. As a matter of fact, even in this condition, it sounds better than some full-length albums that were being released at the time. The guitar tone is not quite as cold as what would be heard on Darkside, or The Secrets of the Black Arts for that matter, still retaining kind of a Death Metal sound despite the actual songwriting being different than before.

It is too bad that Necrophobic did not manage to record their second album a year or two earlier. I have no idea if the material was even prepared, but if Darkside had been released in 1995, with David Parland still involved, it might have gained more recognition than it did. This was certainly a band that deserved more attention and should have gained a wider following in their earlier years, especially compared to many of their contemporaries. The Bloodfreezing demo is further proof of this. If you're looking for these tracks, pick up the Spawned by Evil re-release.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Entombed - Left Hand Path (1990)

After the dissolution of Morbid, with Dead leaving for Norway to join Mayhem, L.G. Petrov and Uffe Cederlund formed Nihilist, joined by two more Swedes and some sort of mixed primate. After releasing a few demos, there seemed to be some trouble in the band and it was officially split up, mainly as a way to get rid of Johnny Dordevic, with the remaining members then going on to regroup as Entombed. Their first full-length album was recorded in December 1989, in Sunlight Studio, and released in June 1990. Titled Left Hand Path, this record is probably the most influential Swedish Death Metal album to ever be recorded, setting the stage for countless others to try to follow in the band's footsteps. While so many of them tried to attain the same level of success merely from imitating the guitar tone, they usually fell short when it came to songwriting.

Left Hand Path is often thought of as the best representation of the 'true' Entombed, though if one looks closely at their history it is clear that this was but a passing phase in their career. The Nihilist days showed signs of less-than-brutal influences, with some rather mild riffs and a strong punk influence. Some of this carried over as they wrote and recorded their first full-length, though this is certainly a pure Death Metal album that deserves to be placed alongside the likes of Scream Bloody Gore, Severed Survival, Slowly We Rot and so on. One of the most important things about this record is that Entombed realized that an atmosphere of horror and death was absolutely essential for this style of music. Rather than just being fast and intense and having no real point, there are a variety of tempo changes with slower sections that are designed to add a sense of gloom to everything. The title track is a great example of this, despite the fact that the best part of the song is built around the Phantasm theme. It might seem cheesy to some, but it was pulled off really well and served as a perfect fusion between horror movies and Death Metal. The vocals really suit the music as well, as L.G. almost sounds like some sort of creature that just crawled out of a grave. Unlike so many other vocalists that were just trying to go as deep as they could, adding nothing to the music, this guy really seemed to understand how to use his voice to best compliment the song. This is really clear during the slower parts, as he takes on more of a morbid tone. These sections do well to add a sense of doom and darkness to the album, something that was already being lost on most American Death Metal bands, while also showing these guys to be quite dynamic. Those bands weren't even able to keep up with Entombed in terms of speed either, as most of their fast riffs were bland and interchangeable. On Left Hand Path, the faster moments are truly hellish and chaotic, yet played with precision. The lead solos are well executed and actually help the songs along, rather than being meaningless noise thrown in almost out of obligation. The drumming has almost a rabid quality, at times, going from the punk beats to all-out blast beats when needed. And, of course, the thundering percussion during the slower parts is done just right, with no unnecessary fills or showing off. From the morose riffs of "Left Hand Path" and "Drowned" to the vicious approach of "Revel in Flesh" and "Bitter Loss", this album is all over the place and yet everything is neatly tied together with the skull-splitting percussion and the crushingly heavy guitar riffs, occasionally accompanied by razor sharp melodies that tear you to pieces. The songwriting is solid and memorable, with no weaknesses regarding arrangement or even song placement. Aside from the title track, "But Life Goes On" may be the most memorable song on here, though each one is equally as strong.

Tomas Skogsberg and Sunlight Studios became quite popular after the release of this album and for good reason. It was too bad that so many bands were intent on trying to get a similar sound without putting the same kind of effort into the actual music. Left Hand Path features the debut of the well-known buzzsaw guitar tone that is associated with Swedish Death Metal and it was hardly ever done any better than on Entombed's debut album. The guitars really have a great balance of rawness and polish, being rough enough to really add some emphasis to the frenzied guitar riffs yet not being too abrasive. This works well so that, even when things slow down, the guitars sound just right and add a real sense of doom. The solos are mixed at a good level, standing out above the rest but not so much that they pierce your ears. All in all, this represents the absolute perfect sound for this type of music. It's just clear enough for everything to be heard well, while still retaining kind of a savage feeling.

Left Hand Path
is worth every bit of praise that it has received over the years and is an essential album for anyone into Swedish Death Metal. Despite the hundreds of bands that tried, no one ever quite captured this same kind of sound and feeling. This goes along with the debut albums from Carnage and Dismember as the best to ever come out of this scene. If you don't yet own this, that is an oversight that you should correct with haste. This L.P. is from the days when Death Metal was still meant to invoke a sense of dread and horror, keeping in mind that a dark atmosphere of death was the most important thing. The music is played with passion and this is something that can be heard from the first listen. Unlike the work of many that followed them, there is no filler here. Everything from the flesh-tearing guitar riffs to the pounding drums and the corpse-like vocals comes together, perfectly, to create one of the true classics in Death Metal history.

Dismember - Like an Ever Flowing Stream (1991)

Released in May 1991, Like an Ever Flowing Stream is the debut full-length album from Sweden's Dismember. However, this was by no means the first L.P. that these guys put out, as three of the five band members participated in Carnage's Dark Recollections, just one year earlier. Along with that record, this stands as one of the true classics of the Swedish Death Metal scene and is absolutely essential for anyone into this style.

From the opening moments of "Override of the Overture", it is clear that the former Carnage members retained the crushing power and devastating heaviness of Dark Recollections, while also infusing it with an even more violent sensibility and a razor-sharp edge that slices right through you. The somewhat sombre tremolo melodies give way to intense and barbaric riffs that split your skull in two and leave nothing but scattered remains in their wake. This album takes a similar approach to that of Carnage or Entombed's Left Hand Path, yet this is far more forceful and really showcases the total brutality (in the proper sense, not the technical Death Metal garbage that misused this word later on) that these Swedes had to offer. There are some good lead solos featured here, mostly played by Nicke Andersson of Entombed, though they take a completely different direction than Mike Amott's work on the Carnage L.P. The eerie melodies are replaced with something quite abrasive and powerful. Matti's vocals are more venomous and hateful here, being a bit less guttural and using more of his throat. This adds to the more urgent and, sometimes, maniacal feeling of the songs. The drumming still utilizes a lot of the punk-inspired beats, though there appears to be a bit more variation than before. The only song on here from the band's demo days is "Dismembered", which still includes the melodic intro. Most of the other high-quality demo tunes had been used for Dark Recollections. While this and the intro to "In Death's Sleep" adds another dynamic to the band's sound, it would have been nice to see them work these parts into the songs better, rather than just serving as intros that really could have been tacked onto the beginning of any track. As compared to some of the other albums that were being released around this period, such as Left Hand Path, Into the Grave, Nothing But Death Remains, Where No Life Dwells, etc. Like an Ever Flowing Stream is by far the most violent and intense of the bunch, though sacrificing much of the doom influence that many of the other bands shared, as well as being present on the Carnage debut. Regardless of this, Dismember managed to stand out from the rest, proving to be superior to their peers and approaching Death Metal with a bit of a different perspective.

The production is still as heavy as the other albums that were coming out of Sunlight Studio at the time, if not more so. The one thing that Like an Ever Flowing Stream has over them is that, while still utilizing the same kind of buzzsaw guitar tone, there is something more raw and primal about the sound that they achieved with this record. The drums are mixed in such a manner as to really help drive things forward and to obliterate everything in their path. Meanwhile, the guitars act as rusty chainsaws, carving through everything and leaving utter destruction behind them. This is not an album to put on in the background and, from the songwriting to the production, it demands your attention from beginning to end. This album is the total antithesis of the typical Death Metal album of this time period, many of those having somewhat of a soft sound, with a pathetically non-threatening guitar tone and the warm bass that almost makes it seem cartoonish, to go along with generic vocals and uninspired songwriting.

Like an Everflowing Stream is one of the cornerstones of Swedish Death Metal, filled with memorable riffs. Far from being among the legions of Entombed clones, despite some of the similarities, Dismember was one of the most violent and bloodthirsty bands out there at the time. If you're new to this style of music, skip all of the retro gimmick bands and seek out the originators. This is a classic of the Swedish scene and of old school Death Metal in general.

Carnage - Dark Recollections (1990)

Dark Recollections is the first and only full-length album to be released by the legendary Swedish Death Metal band, Carnage. For those not familiar with this band, first of all, you should be flogged and tortured in a variety of manners, as this album is one of the true classics of this musical style. After beginning with a different approach, the band shifted its sound and took on members from the then-defunct band known as Dismember, prior to recording their first L.P. Released in early 1990 as a split with Cadaver's Hallucinating Anxiety (but also as a stand-alone album), this record actually beat out Entombed's Left Hand Path by some months.

Musically, Dark Recollections is the epitome of Swedish Death Metal. Recorded at Sunlight Studio, this is one of the earliest albums to feature the famous buzsaw guitar tone that many bands soon opted to utilize. This sound dates back to the old Nihilist recordings, so it is not a surprise that people identify this more with Entombed rather than Carnage. At this point, Carnage was basically Dismember, even including a handful of that band's demo tunes on the L.P. Matti's vocals are a bit deeper here, more in the style that L.G. was using and with a bit less of a throaty quality to it. The drumming, as with many of the old Swedish bands, showed a punk rock influence that really differentiated this scene from the Death Metal that was being spawned elsewhere. Every now and then, blast beats are thrown in, but these are rather infrequent. The vibe of the old Death and Autopsy albums was present, here and there, but Carnage really set about doing something unique here that went beyond much of what had existed before. The riffs are intense and show flashes of brilliance, from time to time. The speed of many of the songs takes what was being done in Thrash to the next level, with a violent edge that many of those bands lacked. Yet there is a great dynamic range on display here, with many mid-paced riffs thrown in, creating an ominous feeling. This tendency to incorporate doom riffs was one of the trademarks of the scene, back then. The lead solos accentuate this atmosphere, really adding an eerie quality to the music. This does well to generate somewhat of a horror vibe, which is important in all classic Death Metal and something that seems to have been lost over the years. In fact, when comparing Dark Recollections with Like an Ever Flowing Stream, the lack of haunting melodies may be one of the more noticeable differences. Occasionally, a cold-sounding tremolo riff will emerge from the darkness, though the band rarely capitalized on these. A good example is the opening guitar melody of "Deranged from Blood".

The production is rather flawless for this type of music. The guitars are heavy, though not quite possessing the same sharp edge as found on Dismember's debut, which may have added a little something. Everything comes together to create a bludgeoning sound that leaves your skull in pieces, very similar to Left Hand Path and Sumerian Cry from Tiamat. The drumming sounds rather natural and is at a good level in the mix, never overpowering the guitars. This is the type of intense percussion that is needed in Death Metal, just straight-forward and barbaric and doing well to push along the thick and crushing guitar riffs.

With so many retro bands out there, in recent years, it is important that people take notice and go back to explore the original albums. More times than not, the real quality is to be found in the past, not the present. An album like Dark Recollections is infinitely more inspired and significant than most anything being released these days, regardless of the praise and hype received by certain bands. If you want old school Swedish Death Metal in the same vein as early Entombed and Dismember, then your best bet is to spend your time and money seeking this out. Carnage doesn't seem to be as remembered as some of the other bands of that era, which is a shame since this material is stronger than a large majority of the rest. If you haven't heard this yet, do something about that, immediately.