Friday, April 6, 2012

Burzum- Dauði Baldrs (1997)

There’s an old saying that you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. After his arrest and conviction for the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Varg Vikernes attempted to continue the Burzum project from behind bars. The only instrument at his disposal was a low-end Casio keyboard. Varg valiantly—or pitifully, depending on one’s perspective—tried to create an ambitious neoclassical opus on the shoddy machine. The result is pretty torturous. Though the compositions on Dauði Baldrs are stellar, the sound quality is comically bad, resulting in an unforgettable low point in Burzum’s career. 

First of all, it should be emphasized that the compositions themselves range from good to great. Dauði Baldrs allows the classical influence on Varg’s compositional techniques to stand front and center. His use of repetition and counterpoints has classical roots, though it’s usually easy to overlook behind the wall of fuzz and maddened screams. Dauði Baldrs gives a fair nod to those roots and can help elucidate the classical influences on other Burzum albums. The arc of the album is also impressive. Dauði Baldrs tells a mythical story and the movement of the album from start of finish succeeds in expressing numerous dramatic shifts. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that regardless of how good these compositions are, the execution is for the most part awful. One can only go so far with Casio. Even Beethoven’s 9th sounds cheesy when played on a Casio, so Dauði Baldrs doesn’t stand much of a chance. Some of the samples are just excruciating to listen to. The oboe sample sounds like a cartoon quacking goose, the cello sample is really nasal and grating and the xylophone sample will pierce your brain. The piano sample is the least offense; sure, it sounds cheap, but at least it is an adequate simulacrum of a real piano. The “string section” sample is also tolerable.
Thus, the relative tolerability of the tracks correlates to their avoidance of the more annoying samples. The final two tracks rely predominately on the piano and string section samples and consequently, are fairly moving. “Illa Tiðandi” is a slow, somber piano dirge that expresses a deep spirit of melancholy. “Móti Ragnarokum” is another somber piece that centers on piano and strings, cultivating a tragic sense of resignation. Though the nasal cello sample pops up a few times, there is enough quality here to overcome it.

However, the first four tracks are damaged beyond repair. The title track opens the album with a series of laughable cello, war drum and oboe samples that raze all semblances of taste and standard to shreds. “Í Heimr Heljar,” with its goofy percussion and bombastic strings, would work well as the background music for a commercial for the local renaissance fair. The other two tracks don’t fare much better.

Dauði Baldrs is a waste; beneath the corny Casio samples are very impressive compositions. Varg affirmed this when he rerecorded the title track—the most unbearable track on Dauði Baldrs—on Belus. Expressed through the power of blazing guitars, bass and drum, the piece took on brilliant new life. Recently Varg rerecorded tracks from the self-titled debut, Det Som Engang Var and Aske. Doing so was a waste of time, since the songs on those albums are already excellent. However, a rerecording of Dauði Baldrs would be a worthy project.  If Varg ever decides to complete such a project, the result will be something special. Until that happens, Dauði Baldrs will remain a sad reminder of what could have been.

Overall: 4/10

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Graveland- Following the Voice of Blood (1997)


Over the years, Graveland has explored a number of distinct styles. There is the ultra-dark black metal of the early years, the blackened folk of Thousand Swords and the symphonic pagan metal of the past decade. Each era is something special in its own right, but there is only one time in Graveland’s discography that all the elements come together to create an album that is truly extraordinary: that would be Following the Voice of Blood. The album marks the perfect middle point in Graveland’s development; the folk metal is still in full force but at the same time the symphonic dimension has truly blossomed. The result is a true classic of extreme metal. 

On the previous album, Thousand Swords, Rob Darken began playing guitar in a new and innovative way that involved strumming jangly folk tunes while maintaining the buzzing distortion of black metal. While the melodies were for the most part superb, weak production blunted the power of the composition and performance. Fortunately, on Following the Voice of Blood, Graveland tweaked both the production and arrangements, allowing this excellent style of guitar playing to show off its fangs. The production is crisp yet raw, allowing the strummed melodies to strike the inner ear like a whip. On the other end of the sound spectrum lie thick synths, which emit glorious, heroic melodies. It feels like traveling on an 11th century Viking ship, sailing off on some epic and dangerous journey. The drums sound large and sweeping, like waves splashing back and forth, beating against the bow of the ship. 

Compositionally, this is most intelligent Graveland recording. The metal tracks are long, ranging from 9-12 minutes and the songwriting is quite elaborate. Most of the tracks are epics that travel through numerous tempos, melodies and emotions. Yet, the songs never meander; the various passages weave in and out of one another with focus and vision. In the same way that a great story-teller knows how to keep the audience clinging to his every word, Rob makes the listener hold on for every dramatic twist and turn. Even when Rob goes for a simpler composition the outcome is impressive. “Thurisaz” consists of just two deep, mournful melodies that repeat like ancient mantras, creating an enrapturing mystique.
The synth pieces are also stellar. The neoclassical melodies are big, glorious and full. Their most innovative employment is on “And the Horn was Sounding Far Away,” which travels through five minutes of slowly developing strings, horns and ambient sounds before breaking out into a swirling frenzy of vicious black metal. One can already see some of the massive, bombastic tenancies that will dominate Graveland’s next album, Immortal Pride, but yet we are still close enough to Carpathian Wolves that Rob can still whip out some annihilating moments of raw, hateful black metal. 

This is the final Graveland album that can qualify as black metal and Rob certainly saved the best for last. The brilliant compositions, the breadth of emotions, phenomenal atmosphere and the imaginative musicianship come together to create a truly top tier black metal album. While Norwegian acts such as Ulver and Emperor had already integrated folk and neoclassical into black metal, Graveland did so in a distinctly Eastern European manner. In turn, that approach has had a massive impact on the continued development of the genre—especially in Eastern Europe, but elsewhere as well. On Following the Voice of Blood all the aspects that make Graveland such a quintessential black metal band are at play with one another. The outcome is the epoch of Graveland’s discography and an album that belongs in the top tier of the black metal pantheon. 

Overall: 10/10