Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Negative Plane- Stained Glass Revelations (2011)

Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if Dick Dale played black metal? Me neither… that is, at least until I heard Negative Plane’s sophomore release “Stained Glass Revelations”.  Certainly, black metal has been yoked with a lot of different styles: prog, crust punk, jazz, shoegaze and folk from just about every nook of Europe. For better or worse, someone always seems to find black metal a new bride. Still, I can honestly say I never would have envisioned an album like “Stained Glass Revleations.” Negative Plane plays an avant garde brand of black metal that is accentuated through a wealth of surfer rock and psychedelic rock sensibilities.

Perhaps that sounds like a recipe for kitsch album, but Negative Plane pull it off in a tasteful way. It’s not as if they’re playing witty little two minute black n’ roll ditties; this is a serious album full of intricate musicianship and powerful aesthetic. The guitar playing is really elaborate. The album is overloaded with quick, slippery leads that race up and down the fret board, recalling 60’s surfer rock sounds. While the lead guitar fires off colorful notes like a disco ball, the rest of the band provide an entrapping backdrop.  The bass has a really cool hollow sound, as if it were some homemade wooden instrument. The eerie and quirky organs add more psyched out sensibilities, sounding inspired by Ray Manzarek of the Doors. 

“So, where’s the black metal?” you might asking.  Well, the rock elements certainly do not stop “Stained Glass Revelations” from having a very occult feeling to it. The production is vast echoic, making the record sound as if it were recorded in some old cobblestone church. NV’s husky shouts sound like some alchemist reading an ancient spell. The artwork, lyrics and horror house interludes all add to the album’s ghostly spirit. Aesthetics is where the album really succeeds. Everything comes together to make the listener feel like they’re chasing some troublesome apparition through an abandoned chapel. 

Unfortunately, the album depends on style to take it the distance. While the musicianship is stellar and the style is unique, the songs themselves are not especially notable pieces of songwriting and on the whole, the album feels fairly redundant.  After the first three tracks, the band’s whole bag of tricks has been exhausted. From there on out, the album is basically about rearranging those elements. Yet, the songwriting fails to engage. These are long tracks, ranging from seven to twelve minutes, but they feel bloated. Negative Plane fails to pull the listener to the edge of their seat, waiting for an especially enticing moment or memorable track. The songs themselves aren’t that distinct. While the clean parts, such as the clean guitar intros and magical organ passages stand out, the actual metal passages all sound pretty similar.

Without much in the way of songwriting, “Stained Glass Revelations” runs out of gas before the finish line. Though the band has a cool sound, their music comes up short on substance and range and consequently becomes innocuous by the last few tracks. Still, Negative Plane deserves praise for an imaginative take on black metal and impressive musicianship.  Definitely worth a listen for those who are interested in new and different sounds in the realm of black metal and especially for those black metal fans who are also fond of 60’s rock.

Overall: 7/10

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Burzum- Det Som Engang Var (1993)

A few months after recording the impressive but somewhat erratic but nonetheless impressive debut album “Burzum,” a more focused Varg Vikernes returned to the studios to record “Det Som Engang Var.” Taking the positives of the debut and building upon them, Burzum’s sophomore release is an absolute masterwork of black metal. 

What is interesting is that the songs for “Burzum,” “Det Som Engang Var” and “Aske” were mostly written within a year—and not in the order that they were released. So some of the material on “Det Som…” is actually older than the material on the debut. However, it does appear as if experience in the studio did Varg some good, as “Det Som…” displays much more craft in arrangement and layering than its predecessor.
The production remains raw, the riffs remain razor sharp and Varg’s screams are still the sound of unbridled madness. However, plenty of new details have been added giving “Det Som…” a much more textured sound. To begin, the production is a little deeper, meaning there is even more room for the riffs to buzz and resonate within the recording. Vocally, Varg supplements his powerful screeches with soft, gentile chants eerie spoken word passages. For a love of melody this album is a treat, as Varg churns out one imperious melody after another. 

Compositionally, “Det Som Engang Var” constantly offers the listener something new while maintaining a telos. The album starts from the darkest depths, with haunting and subdued ambient piece followed by the vicious “Key to the Gate,” which bursts onto the stage with venomous hatred.  After several waves of terrifying riffs and annihilating vocals, the song sinks down into a slow, doomy middle section. Varg builds the tension with brilliant craft, setting the scene for stunning moment when the song takes a complete 180 and bursts out an absolutely glorious guitar solo and majestic riff. 

The next 20 minutes are overloaded with magisterial sounds that summon images of pristine Nordic landscapes. On “En Ring Til Aa Herske” Varg takes his time, slowly developing a trance-inducing tunes toward its ecstatic peak. “Lost Wisdom” is the catchiest song, with a rock-like rhythm and folk leads. The album winds down with the dark, somber and eerie “Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn,” whose longer, interweaving structure recalls “My Journey to the Stars,” but is even more ominous. As if dragged down to the depths from where it came, “Det Som Engang Var” ends as disturbingly as it starts.

“Det Som Engang Var” also contains some of Varg’s first ambient pieces. The closer “Svarte Troner” is extremely disturbing, with soft, off-putting moans hiding behind spooky melodies and waves of white noise. “Han Som Reiste” consists of an excellent medieval melody—the kind of tune Summoning has made a living off of.

“Det Som Engang Var” is the closest one can get to the “other planes” of existence Varg speaks of in “Lost Wisdom.” It’s as if the listener is pulled out of his or her modern life and brought to a mystical, arcane world. Yet, like all dreams, the journey has to end and the listener is drawn back into the bleak reality of modern civilization once again. “No bear, no wolf, no troll. Breathless.” The beautiful dream of “Det Som Engang Var” comes to an end and only an ideal remains—an ideal totally disconnected from the modern world. What once was is lost.

Overall: 10/10

Burzum- Burzum (1992)

1992 is the year that the second wave of black metal began to take shape. While Quorthon had already laid the foundation with the first three Bathory albums and Mayhem had been revving up for a while, it was the trio of Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky,” Immortal’s “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” and Burzum’s self-titled debut that really kick started golden age of black metal. These albums are dark, raw, evil and chilling. Burzum’s debut is no doubt the most extreme of these albums.

Structurally and conceptually ambitious, “Burzum” already gives a peak into the complex artistic vision of Varg Vikernes. At the same time, this is an album that is as raw as they come. Varg takes Bathory’s buzzing guitar sound and sharpens it to an absolutely piercing pitch. Keen as these riffs are, they still fill a lot of space through resonation and humming feedback. The minimalist production does not stop these riffs from sounding big and full. This creates the perfect landscape for Varg’s maddening screams. Varg’s vocals on the first three albums are simply without peer. He sounds like a crow that just returned to its nest to find its eggs missing and is pissed the fuck off.

Conceptually, the album swings high, but it doesn’t always hit the mark. The album is split into two sides: “Side War” and “Side Winter.” Beyond being a fairly asymmetrical pairing, the two sides do not really fit the bill. For example, the dreamy ambient piece “Channeling the Power of Souls into a New God” appears on “Side War” while the thrashy headbanger “War” appears on “Side Winter”. More problematic, the album doesn’t have the greatest flow. Unlike some of the masterfully arranged albums that Varg would produce in the upcoming years, the debut is somewhat of a grab bag. There are three longer, emotionally complex tracks and there are three shorter, visceral tracks. While these differing types of tracks could conceivably be interwoven, Varg doesn’t actually manage to achieve that here. 

Varg really shows his brilliance as a songwriter on the two closing epics, “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit” and “My Journey to the Stars”. These two songs do feel like side winter with sweeping melodies buzzing around like gusts of ice cold wind. The tracks interweave between fast, pulsating rhythms and slow, tribal beats, constantly bringing new sounds into their web. Actually, the headbangers are damn good too. “War” is a great tribute to the Bathory song of the same name and “Spell of Destruction” is absolutely riveting. Varg’s devastated, retaliatory wails on the later track are some of the most beautiful and horrifying vocals in the history of black metal.

Still, when it’s all said and done “Burzum” mostly feels like a collection of innovative songs from an excited and inspired young artist, but it doesn’t quite feel like an album. The structure is too erratic and the songs sometimes clash. While this doesn’t make the songs themselves any less excellent, it does put Burzum’s debut a notch or two below its sequels.   

Overall: 8.5/10