Sunday, March 25, 2012

Graveland- Thousand Swords (1995)

Graveland's Thousand Swords is definitely the most difficult album in the band's discography to evaluate. On one hand, it is Graveland’s most innovative and ground breaking recording. It is here that Rob Darken invents a whole new style of playing black metal by integrating folk stylings into the guitar playing. Other bands had integrated folk melodies, acoustic guitar and folk percussion, but as far as I know, Rob is the first to actually strum the guitar in a folk style while keeping the distortion on and the pitch razor sharp. Thousand Swords is also the coming out party for many of the epic themes that were hinted at on the prior songs like “Return of the Funeral Winds” and “Witches Holocaust.” However, the album suffers from very poor production, as well as a few questionable decisions on Rob’s part.

Let's get the real bad news over with. The mixing is awful; the guitars are too far in the background and the percussion is a little too loud. The guitars lack force, crippling the metallic dimension of the sound. The keys also lack power. Rob has shifted away from the massive organ sounds of prior albums and toward lusher, choir and symphony sounds. However, without some sonic muscle, the synths fail to get their profound point across; you can see what Rob is trying to do and often it’s quite amazing, but it just isn’t quite clear enough. 

On the positive side, the musicianship is brilliant and at times the composition is on par. The guitar playing is really something else. There aren’t really riffs on this album, but rather a series of roughly strummed folk melodies, making for an unusually boisterous aesthetic. Capricornus compliments the guitars with wild, uninhibited percussion that constantly pushes the band toward more and more frenzied paces. The synths are more diverse than previous albums, ranging from choirs to strings to some sort of primitive oboe. Some of the compositions are out of this world. The title track is one of the highlights of Graveland’s catalog. Polka melodies bounce about to lively percussion, creating a raucous atmosphere—it’s like pump-up music for a band of rowdy pagan soldiers prepping for battle. Then near the end of the song, the composition opens up to a series of infectious clean passages that dance about, seething with joy. For a band whose prior album was as evil as it gets, it’s amazing that Graveland were about to pull a complete 180 and compose such uplifting music!  Another highlight is “Born for War,” which is just gorgeous. The melodies are so glorious and that one feels like they are flying through the Olympian heavens. 

Despite the sometimes excellent songwriting, the poor production hangs over this album like a black cloud. Every guitar and keyboard passage feels like a solid, but overused blade: it can still make a nice cut, but it lacks some of the luster you would like it to have. Also, the album also contains a few lame ducks. In contrast to the excellent intros and outros on most Graveland albums, Thousand Swords has fairly dull bookends. These short, slightly atmospheric folk snippets just don’t set the stage or wrap up the story in the same way most of Rob’s ambient pieces do. Furthermore, there is the goofy ditty “Black Metal War.” It’s totally out of place on an album full of longer, more complex arrangements—not to mention it’s not a very well thought out song. 

There are a small number of albums in each genre that are essential even though they are not great. These are albums that managed to have a big impact on the development of the genre and contain elements of brilliance, but nonetheless are not consistent enough to be considered true masterpieces. Thousand Swords is one such album. The innovations in guitar playing and composition make this album essential listening for anyone interested in the folksier side of black metal. However, in itself, this album definitely shows Graveland trying out a style that is still a work in progress. Fortunately, all these issues would be remedied on the phenomenal follow-up, Following the Voice of Blood.  

Overall: 8.5/10

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Graveland- Carpathian Wolves (1994)

Carpathian Wolves is the third and final pure black metal release from Graveland. The album centers on the theme of wolves and sheep. The sheep are the Christianized Poles who have forgotten their pagan roots. The wolves are the pagan warriors, who are raiding the Christian villages and tearing the sheep to shreds. This theme is captured in the album art, which depicts a pagan warrior praying to the ancient gods, side by side with a wolf. OK, there is no denying that this is all a little cheesy, but Graveland make it work. While this anthropomorphic theme might sound better suited for a young adult novel than for a serious work of art, Graveland make it effective through an absolutely terrifying performance. 

Carpathian Wolves is one of the few black metal albums that is legitimately scary sounding. The music captures the spirit of the predator on the prowl and manifests it through the visceral sounds of Rob’s vicious snarls and Stygian riffs. Capricornus’s uninhibited, primitive drumming relentlessly batters the listener and provides the exclamation point.  

The songs typically consist of two parts. First, there are the more thrashing passages, which are fast and violent as all hell. Then, there are the mid-paced passages, which tend to center around massive synths that bellow like the beasts of Hades. “Barbarism Returns” has the best balance of the two, seamlessly shifting from madding spirals of tremolo and blast bears to slow, doomy riffs and monolithic organs. “In the Northern Carpathians” exemplifies the more fast-paced style through five minutes of relentless, lambasting black metal. “Witches’ Holocaust” is the outlier and has a more epic sound. Patrician melodies dance about to a trotting rhythm as Rob vacillates between growls and clean chanting. This track is the best indicator where Graveland’s sound heads on subsequent releases. 

The ambient pieces on Carpathian Wolves are world class. The intro is hands down the greatest moment of black ambient ever recorded. Gusting winds gently sway by while a pack of wolves bark, snarl and howl (both of which sound extremely authentic). Then there is the sound of a slowly palpitating war drum, which is soon accompanied by one of the darkest, most harrowing synth lines ever released on planet earth. You can envision the pack of wolves hungrily looking down from a vista onto the valley full of sheep below. The other ambient piece (the untitled third track) plays off the same theme. The synth hums a low, nightmarish tune while Rob howls like a wolf. Then there are the panicked cries of sheep, which sound like lost children crying for their mommies. Honestly, these ambient pieces are even more evil sounding than the metal tracks, which is no small feat!

While Carpathian Wolves lacks some of the dynamism of its predecessor, The Celtic Winter, it is still essential listening for fans of raw black metal. There are few albums that can touch this recording with regard to creating a truly dark atmosphere. If at times the compositions are a little predictable, that is well worth overlooking so as to experience the dark landscape Graveland express with this recording. 

Overall: 9/10

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Graveland- The Celtic Winter (1994)

The Celtic Winter is the second of Graveland's trilogy of pure black metal releases. It is also the apex of the early Graveland sound—an evil, epic and menacing record. Like its predecessor, In the Glare of Burning Churches, the production is raw, but balanced. The guitars, vocals and drums are all audible. Even the bass has presence. While newcomer Karcharoth is not an exceptional bassist, using an actual bass player does give a little more body to Graveland's sound. Percussionist Capricornus is a little more reserved than he was on the prior release, but does contribute some interesting primitive percussion techniques throughout. As usual, Rob’s vocals are sharp, snarling and full of hate. The riffs match the vocals' venom pound for pound.

Then there are the keys, which just keep improving with each recording. The sweeping synths on In the Glare of Burning Churches were a quantum leap forward from the corny four note melodies used on the prior demos. By The Celtic Winter Rob has reached a level of eloquence on the keys that is only matched by Ihsahn of Emperor. At times, the keys add a majestic element of nobility and power, while at other times they push the evil vigor over the top, dousing the listener in hellish sounds of Abandon.

While the album is sustained through the intense atmosphere, each song has a number of memorable riffs and synth lines. "The Gates to the Kingdom of Darkness" sounds like entering the bowls hell as massive organ pair with the vilest of growls. "Return of the Funeral Winds” is Graveland’s first foray into more glorious territory, consisting of some powerful pairings victorious riffs and keys. Both tracks qualify as highlights, but really every track on this album holds its own.

The two instrumental tracks are both stellar. The intro is an eerie and epic neoclassical piece that foreshadows the cinematic sounds of later works, such as Immortal Pride. The outro is absolutely exquisite. A hypnotic, folky guitar line dances about over tribal percussion in one of the most addictive and enrapturing passages in all of Graveland's cannon.

While Carpathian Wolves is the most recognizable name amongst the early Graveland albums, The Celtic Winter is really the apex of early Graveland. Though the former album is a classic in its own right, The Celtic Winter is the more consistent and dynamic recording, exploring a greater range of sounds while nonetheless staying true to the vicious core that constituted Graveland’s early identity. Though not quite on par with the classics of Burzum, Darkthrone and Emperor, The Celtic Winter is still essential listening for any true black metal fan.

Overall: 9.5/10 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Graveland- In the Glare of Burning Churches (1993)

After a quartet of lame industrial metal demos, each of which showed slightly more black metal influence than its predecessor, Rob Darken finally got his act together. What happened to Rob between February 1993 (the release date of Epilogue) and May 1993 (the release date of In the Glare of Burning Churches) is a mystery to me, but damn is the difference significant. In contrast to the plodding, repetitive songwriting of the first four demos, In the Glare of Burning Churches is full of dynamic compositions with interesting tempo shifts, a variety of progressions and intensely dark atmosphere. Perhaps most significant of all is the addition of Copernicus on drums and the abandonment of that god-awful drum machine. Now some metal musicians know how to use a drum machine effectively… Rob Darken is not one of them. The grating, repetitive drum machine used on the prior demos was sheer torture to listen to. Copernicus’s style is extremely rough and primitive, which accentuates the wild spirit of this demo.

In the Glare of Burning Churches is Graveland’s first foray into pure black metal and the outcome is wicked. This demo is extremely dark. The whole atmosphere is captured in the medieval intro: women scream as pops and crackles from a burning church sizzle in the background, all to soundtrack of some good ol’ pagan folk. This album is a declaration of war on Christianity. Graveland are not only going to kill you and burn down your church, but they’re also going to kidnap your children and convert them into pagan warriors! The album, then, is cunning, evil and violent. That spirit is encapsulated in the riffs, which are relentlessly diabolical—violent but also somewhat mysterious. Rob’s vocal are sharp and raspy. There is a lot of reverb on them, which accentuates their haunting tone. 

The highlights are the earlier tacks. The title track encapsulates the vicious attitude of this demo, fluctuating between trashing fast passages (where Copernicus beats the shit out of his drum kit) and slower passages where massive, demonic keys take over. “The Night of the Fullmoon” is an excellent mid-paced track that is blanketed in dark, glorious keys. “The Dark Dusk Abyss” is a phenomenal piece of dark ambient. Rob hisses and snarls beneath an overpowering symphony of maleficent synths. The second half of the demo is solid, though not quite as stellar. 

On the whole, In the Glare of Burning Churches is a quantum leap forward in Graveland’s development. This demo sets the stage for two classics of black metal The Celtic Winter and Carpathian Wolves. While In the Glare of Burning Churches isn’t quite up to par with those releases, it is still a high caliber demo that fans of raw, dark black metal will absolutely adore. 

Ovcerall: 8.5/10

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Graveland- Epilogue (1993)

Epilogue is the fourth and final of Graveland’s industrial tinged demos. It is also the best—though that doesn’t qualify it as a particularly great recording. Four of the six tracks are rerecordings of the songs on the prior demo, Drunemeton. In each case the track is improved—if only slightly. Generally speaking, this demo is superior to its predecessors because the production is more balanced and the drum machine doesn’t wash out every other sound. For example, on the Drunemeton version of “The Eyes of Balor,” the riff isn’t even audible behind the wall of whipping drum machine. On the Epilogue version the riff is actually audible. On the downside, it is a really bland riff. 

There is a cool intro added to “Shadow of Doom,” containing operatic female vocals and neoclassical keyboard noodlings; certainly not the most sophisticated intro, but it does add some flavor. “Forest of Nemeton,” easily the best song on the prior demo, is given a little more dynamism, by drawing the haunting synths in and out of the composition, allowing the gritty underlying riff to move in and out of concealment. The new addition, “Children of the Moon,” is a dull, plodding piece that repeats a boring tune over and over. However, it does contain a few epic synth lines that will be put to better use on In the Glare of Burning Churches.  

Like the other early Graveland demos, these are really only for diehard fans that are curious about Graveland’s origins. These are far from the masterful works we expect for Rob. The songs are redundant, the execution is substandard and the drum machines are annoying as fuck. However, slight improvements are made on each demo, giving subtly foreshadowing the quantum leap that would come with Graveland’s fifth demo, In the Glare of Burning Churches

Overall: 4/10