Monday, April 22, 2013

Graveland- Fire Chariot of Destruction (2005)

By the mid-2000s, it appeared Graveland had run out of steam. 2003’s The Fire of Awakening lacked originality and inspiration and though 2004’s Dawn of Iron Blades offered some new ideas, it suffered from poor production and a dearth of quality riffs. 2005’s Fire Chariot of Destruction is by no means a return to Graveland’s glory days, but it is a major step in the right direction.

The first thing that stands out about Fire Chariot of Destruction is the high quality of the production. Traditionally, Graveland records have been lo-fi affairs. While Darken has often made the most of sub-par production, the previous two records were notably flat and lifeless. In contrast, Fire Chariot of Destruction is a big, full-bodied album. The bass and drums are strong and heavy (especially those thunderous war drums) and the shrill guitars have some real bite. This creates quite the groundwork for the record’s highlight—the stellar choir performances from The Atlantean Monumental Choir and Ancient Valkyrian Choir. These excellent choir performances give Fire Chariot of Destruction (and the records that follow it) a majestic quality.

At its best, the contrast between the harsh viking black metal and the divine choirs creates a brilliant duality of brutality and elegance. The album’s opener, “War Wolf” is the best example of this, ebbing between gnarly riffs that swerve and slash and divine moments of heavenly vocals. Other times, the two dimensions come together to offer hard-hitting choruses that strongly recall Bathory’s Hammerheart. Track two, “River of Tears” epitomizes this sound with a solemn set of vocal lines accompanied by massive heavy metal riffs.

While the overall sound quality is vastly improved, the songwriting on Fire Chariot of Destruction is highly inconsistent. Though “War Wolf” and “River of Tears” are nothing short of excellent, the rest of the songs bleed into one another, offering a series of decent but indistinct riffs and hooks. The remainder of the album does create an effective atmosphere, but there is a scarcity of bright ideas.

Fire Chariot of Destruction is definitely an upgrade over the previous two Graveland records. The sound quality is excellent and the atmosphere is potent. However, the album is ultimately a tease. After the imperious quality of the first two tracks it’s really disappointing to see that Rob has nothing special to offer the rest of the way out. Fortunately, Graveland’s next release, Will Stronger than Death sticks to the same formula but offers far more quality and variety.   

Overall: 7/10

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ildjarn- Ildjarn (1995)

On the whole, the black metal community—both fans and musicians—have an obsession with the idea of purity. Perhaps nobody actualizes this ideal as extremely as Ildjarn. While there is more diversity within Ildjarn’s discography than detractors would like to admit, he definitely has his own distinct sound. It’s an extremely concise, harsh and direct brand of black metal that either hooks you like lines of coke or leaves you totally cold, unimpressed and irritated.

In a discography loaded with extreme recordings, none is more difficult to endure than Ildjarn’s self-titled full-length debut. Ildjarn is a massive album, containing 27 tracks that span 75 minutes. The basic elements are the same as you will find on every Ildjarn black metal release: repetitive percussion, dense and rough riffs, pounding bass and dry growls. There is actually a good amount of variety, both in tempo and style. There are a few melodic, hypnotic pieces, such as “Som En Ensom Bong” and “Morkeheim” that are actually quite catchy. There are also some slower, doomy pieces like “Krigere” and the bass-driven “Himmelvelv.”  Still, make no doubt about it; the meat of this album is harsh, fast-paced bite-sized pieces of hateful black metal.

Ildjarn is definitely an endurance test; sitting through 75 minutes of music this intense is enough drive most people into temporary madness, which is presumably the purpose of music this vile in the first place. This record is sonically abusive and violating; it’s a form of masochism that some people will become addicted to and others will run away from in horror. While I usually am one to get addicted to Ildjarn’s thrashings, there is one element I find unbearable on Ildjarn: the drumming. There is such a ridiculous amount of hi-hat and the same basic beat is repeated so many fucking times that it feels like the tone is starting to shred apart the central nerves in your brain. To make matters worse, the drums are absurdly high in the mix. Perhaps some fans enjoy this constant rattling sound, but to these ears, the drums overshadow the other elements, resulting in an uneven record.

Of Ildjarn’s three black metal full-lengths, the self-titled is definitely the weakest. It lacks the overall cohesion of Forest Poetry or Strength and Anger and the high pitched drum tone is a sound that even many Ildjarn addicts are likely of tire of before they hit track 13. Still, there are some rather interesting and unusual gems embedded within this record, so it certainly should not be overlooked. 

Overall: 5.5/10

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ildjarn- Minnesjord (1994)

Ildjarn’s fourth demo and fifth release overall, Minnesjord, is a classic example of what this one man band is all about. The demo contains seven short jolts of buzz-saw riffage and militantly precise percussion. The songs all basically follow the same formula. A sharp riff is repeated for one to two minutes to the unchanging beat of Ildjarn’s exact percussion. There is usually a tiny bit of variation within the riff, but Ildjarn predominately sticks with one progression. The vocals are what one would expect from Ildjarn—harsh, dry and hateful. While some of the other recordings employ undistorted bass, the bass on Minnesjord has distortion, which results in a slightly less dynamic sound overall.

The riffs on Minnesjord are solid, but none of them are truly riveting in the way that the ones on Norse or Strength and Anger are. Still, the demo moves along steadily and the riffs are captivating enough to sustain the short song lengths. There is one unusual song on the demo. “Dalens äno (Avslutning)” is actually a brief acoustic piece for bass and sounds more like something one would find on a jazz recording than a black metal demo. The song doesn’t quite fit in, but it does sound good, though at 48 seconds it is too short.

While Minnesjord is not one of the highlights of Ildjarn’s discography, it provides a solid and quick fix of what Ildjarn fans of his know and love. If you’re a fan of Ildjarn’s more famous releases this demo is worth a few listens.  

Overall: 7.5/10

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Enslaved- Hordanes Land (1993)

Hordanes Land is a key stepping stone in Enslaved’s development of the viking black metal subgenre. In contrast to the fast, attacking blitz of Yggdrasill, Hordanes Land slows down the tempo, inflates the song lengths and peppers the compositions with a little more variation. The EP consists of three bulky songs, each consisting of a small number of progressions, ranging from 8-13 minutes. While in some respects Enslaved bite off more than they are ready to chew, in other respects the band has already found its stride.

One area where Enslaved really find their form is in the production department. Though the thin production of Yggdrasill captures the young band’s energetic spirit, it lacks the depth and texture needed to fully conjure the ancient, noble spirit Enslaved is aiming to recapture. Hordanes Land remedies that by producing a massive, echoic environment that lends itself to images of viking boats traversing rough, oceanic terrain. The rhythm guitars and bass are low and thick, creating a rumbling tone like rolling waves. The drums are similarly deep and thunderous. These low, heavy sounds provide a great foundation for the high pitched shrieks, symphonic keys and melodious guitar solos. While the guitar solos and vocals are strong, the keyboards often sound quite cheap. This is especially true of the dinky organ and choir samples.

Enslaved will liberally repeat a captivating hook for several minutes. Sometimes this is done to a flaw, especially on “Slaget I Skogen Bortenfor,” which tips the scale at 13 minutes. The song contains one too many repetitious sections that lack the substance to justify the duration. The next two tracks are little more concise and satisfying. “Allfadr Odinn” (a rerecording of a track of Yggdrasill) has an inspired, uplifting chorus full of shimmering choir and organ samples. It’s an early sighting of Enslaved’s psychedelic tenancies and distinctly recalls early Pink Floyd. “Balfǫr” is the strongest track; its foundation is a dark, serpentine riff and groovy rhythm, which at different points accompanied by piano, acoustic guitar and strings. The band uses the multiplicity of instruments to create exquisite harmonies. 

While Hordanes Land has its flaws, it is still a highly enjoyable recording. Enslaved’s ear for an epic melodies is evident and every song has numerous quality riffs. Furthermore, the EP contains quite a bit of variety. There are harsh and gritty passages but there are also passages that are quite elegant. While this EP is heavily (and rightfully) overshadowed by Enslaved’s first few full lengths, fans will enjoy hearing this key step in the development of Enslaved’s sound. 

Overall: 8/10

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Immortal- Sons of Northern Darkness (2002)

2000’s Damned in Black marked the beginning of the end for Immortal. It was dull, innocuous, generic and commercial. Both the production and the songwriting were subpar from start to finish. It looked as if Immortal was out of ideas and was content to cash in on their image and the increasing popularity of black metal. For the most part, that’s exactly what happened; however, Immortal still had a few more good ideas left up their sleeves, though not nearly enough to create a whole new album.  The result is 2002’s highly inconsistent Sons of Northern Darkness.

Sons of Northern Darkness fixes a few of the basic problems that plagued Damned in Black. The most notable upgrade is in the production. While Damned in Black sounded overly processed and one dimensional, Sons of Northern Darkness has a more layered sound, closer to that of At the Heart of Winter. As a result, Sons of Northern Darkness creates a much better atmosphere. The textured sound works well with the epic nature of the compositions. On the downside, Abbath’s vocals are overly modulated, making him sound like a cyborg lizard. 

Sons of Northern Darkness is a strange one. While there are three truly excellent songs on this album, the rest of the tracks are total snoozers. The title track displays excellent songwriting, shifting between the biting tremolo of the verse, an unforgettable chorus and the solemn and epic bridge. “Tyrants” is a dark, mean and groovy beast with awesome chant along lyrics. “Beyond The North Waves” is a sweeping epic that vividly depicts vikings traversing the frigid northern seas on the way to battle. All three of these tracks are lively, inspired and energetic. The drumming is sharp and solos are killer. These three songs are on par with anything on At the Heart of Winter

However, the quality of these three songs makes it all the more strange that the rest of the album is so bland. The other five songs are as flat and unimaginative as anything found on Damned in Black. Most of the songs are bloated with plodding choruses, dragged out bridges to nowhere and stale guitar solos. Three of the songs drag out to the seven minute mark, even though they have worn out their welcome within the first four minutes. 

To make matters worse, the lyrics are some of Immortal’s poorest. While Demonaz was never exactly a poet, he did provide some powerful, image-laden lyrics on the early albums. On Sons of Northern Darkness, Demonaz has been reduced to talking about coldness and darkness over and over. He could at least have used a thesaurus. The words “dark”, “cold” and “black” are used in almost every song. Seriously, did Demonaz commission the lyric writing duties to a twelve year old fan? “Antarctica” talks about how cold and icy Antarctica is, but a kindergartener could have told you that. It ends with the hilarious line, “Antarctica, its drama will unfold!” What drama happens in Antarctica? Penguins trying to keep their eggs warm? 

While there is enough quality material on Sons of Northern Darkness to create an excellent EP, it is a pretty pedestrian full length. Far too many of the songs lack quality riffs or melodies. The fact that Immortal seem content to drag out the songs well past their expiration date makes the album all the more tedious. Though this is an upgrade over Damned in Black it is still one of Immortal's weakest releases.  

Overall: 5.5/10

Immortal- Damned in Black (2000)

When news broke that Demonaz was leaving Immortal due to arthritis, it appeared the band’s days were numbered. It was hard to envision Immortal continuing to have success without its heart and soul. Surprisingly, Abbath was able to smoothly transition Immortal away from its signature fast and relentless holocaust metal sound and toward a more streamlined and epic brand of black metal. Their first release in the style, At the Heart of Winter was quite impressive. While there were a few awkward transitions and compositional choices, the quality of the riffs and melodies was top notch. It looked as if Immortal was ready to release a series of high quality epic black metal albums. Unfortunately, all such expectations were smashed with the flat and flavorless Damned in Black.

In principle, the idea behind Damned in Black is pretty good. It mostly sticks to the format of At the Heart of Winter but reintegrates a number of fast paced, back-breaking passages. While such a synthesis of the holocaust metal and epic black metal styles sounds promising, a lack of inspiration, quality and creativity keeps the album from producing anything noteworthy. 

All the riffs on Damned in Black are dull and generic. Most sound like second rate versions of what can be found on At the Heart of Winter. The riffs are “epic” but in a very cookie cutter way.  There’s a commercial gloss to all the songs. Really, other than having significantly less keyboards, the music on here isn't all that different from what one finds on Dimmu Borgir from the same time period. Often the central riffs are bulky and plodding (i.e. the main riff of “The Darkness That Embrace Me”). The faster passages are adequate, but do little more than regurgitate what one can find on Blizzard Beasts, only without the fire and venom. The closest the band gets to a good song is the title track, which contains a memorable, though not exactly good, chorus and fairly interesting guitar work during the bridge. That said, even this song sounds overly processed and uninspired. 

Like At the Heart of Winter, Damned in Black was recorded at Abyss Studios. However, whereas the previous album had a big, textured sound, the sound quality here is very one dimensional. Part of that is due to the less ambitious songwriting. Without the highs and lows that made songs like “Withstand the Fall of Time” and “Solarfall” so riveting, the production results in a plastic sound. 

Something also needs to be said about the god awful cover. Obviously, Immortal has never been known for tasteful album covers (though Diabolical Fullmoon Mystcism has a pretty cool one) but none of them have looked nearly as atrocious as the cover to Damned in Black. The cover, depicting the three members standing in front of a horribly produced CGI background of red and black smoke, looks like a WWE promo poster. Horgh, who is wearing a goofy smile, looks mentally challenged. 

Damned in Black consummated Immortal’s decent into generic, mainstream black metal. It is simultaneously innocuous, commercial and plastic. It lacks spirit and it lacks ambition. In a phrase, Damned in Black is definitively mediocre. 

Overall: 4/10

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ildjarn- Norse (1993)

While Ildjarn’s self-titled demo is where the band’s sound really begins to take form, his debut EP, a collaboration with Nidhogg, is where the sound is truly mastered. Norse is twelve minutes of fast-paced, hypnotizing black metal. In comparison to the prior release, the songs are condensed and the harmonies are upgraded. The result is one of Ildjarn’s best recordings.

Norse sets the standard for the rest of Ildjarn’s black metal releases. The songs are all composed of the same small set of elements: buzz saw power chords, taut bass, and imperiously precise and repetitive percussion. In contrast to most Ildjarn albums, where the drums are real, Norse employs a drum machine. Ostensibly, it makes no difference, since Ildjarn's drumming style is very mechanical to begin with. The elements come together to create a sound that has the directness of punk and the catchiness of techno, but an aesthetic that is undeniably black metal. These songs capture a primordial violence; the vicious fervor of the hunter for the hunted.

The production is raw, but not quite as raw as Ildjarn and Forest Poetry. As a result, the riffs are easier to grasp and stick quicker. That’s good news, because there are some really great riffs on this recording. “Morklagt Sti” seamlessly shifts back and forth between a deep and groovy verse and a bouncy chorus. There’s just enough variation between the two passages to pull the listener up and down, but the overall uniformity is totally hypnotizing. “Svarte Hjerter” is a bleaker track that creates a foreboding atmosphere. “Nattens Ledestjerne” is a solid but unspectacular song; pretty typical song from this era of Ildjarn. “Natt Og Tåke” is a phenomenal piece with an undecipherable but nonetheless obsessively good chant along chorus. The song-lengths are perfect: just long enough to lock their hooks sink into your head, but not so long as to become redundant. 

Norse is the perfect introduction to Ildjarn. Because the production is less abrasive and the album avoids the Tolstoyian length of Ildjarn and Strength and Anger, a newcomer will be less distracted by Ildjarn’s frills and can focus on the music itself. Many will be surprised by how effective this simple style of black metal can be (and those who don’t like it won’t have to waste their time sitting through an 80 minute album). Fans who have overlooked this EP should remedy that immediately as this is one of Ildjarn’s most engaging and effective records. 

Overall: 9/10