The debut album from Countess, The Gospel of the Horned One failed at basically every level. It was unoriginal, poorly performed and terribly produced. Countess’s sophomore release, The Return of the Horned One resolves a number of the problems of the debut, but not enough to qualify it as a success. While the distinct Countess sound begins to emerge, extremely unbalanced production results in another awkward listening experience.
A number of the signature aspects of Countess’s sound emerge on The Return of the Horned One. Orlok’s psychotic growl is front and center. The guy has one of the most distinct voices in black metal: high pitched and sharp with an almost singsong cadence. The hack drummer from the last album has been replaced with a very predictable drum machine. This isn’t the best part of the Countess sound, but it is an undeniable aspect of it.
Where the album goes wrong is in the mix, which is really uneven. With the exception of the guitar solos, the guitars are practically inaudible. I have never heard guitar so far back in the mix on a metal album before. Moreover, what can be heard is very weak and puttering. In contrast, the bass is super loud, with every single note being audible. At times it’s so loud that it almost sounds like a rubber ball bouncing about in an empty gymnasium. A lot of this probably has to do with Orlok being primarily a bassist, not a guitarist. He might have felt more comfortable with the bass performance than the guitar performance. Whatever the reason is, it sounds extremely strange. Another problem with the production is that the vocals are so loud that sometimes they wash everything else out.
The songwriting is hit and miss. Fortunately, the band is over its Bathory worship phase, and while Bathory is obviously still a major influence, Orlok is starting to do something unique with the Bathory template. “Ritual of the Seven Priests” has exciting dramatic shifts that foreshadow the excellent theatrical pieces of the next few albums. “Into Battle” is a quick, playful instrumental full of energetic and melodious keys played in a bagpipe tone. Other songs are quite ineffective. “A Cry of Hope Forever Gone” centers on a rather goofy bass line. “Bloed in de Sneeuw” is a really strange acoustic ballad with growled vocals that doesn’t quite fit together. Almost every song is damaged by the awful production.
While Return of the Horned One is a step in the right direction, the production problems impede it from being an enjoyable listen. The songwriting is brave, but clearly Orlok is still going through some major growing pains. A lot of the techniques that fail here are actually done to great effect on the next two albums. Worth a listen for a Countess diehard, but newcomers should look to the next three albums, which are all stellar.