Monday, May 28, 2012

Countess- Return of the Horned One (1994)

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. 

Overall: 4/10

Graveland- Memory and Destiny (2002)

In the early 90s Graveland were one of the darkest black metal bands on the planet. Albums like The Celtic Winter and Carpathian Wolves conjure the most evil and violent feelings. At the time, no one would have imagined there would be a Graveland album that could be described as “beautiful.” However, that is exactly what Memory and Destiny is; an absolutely gorgeous and majestic piece of symphonic metal. 

Memory and Destiny is Graveland’s 3rd full length in the symphonic metal style. While the prior two albums focus on the blood and glory of the battlefield, Memory and Destiny is themed around the seafaring, tales of the Lost City of Atlantes and other nautical mythology. The entire album has a fluid feel to it, as if the music were ascending from the heart of the sea. All the instruments have a somewhat muted tone, which softens the edge of everything, causing the instruments to bleed into each other. Yet, if you look closer, there is a wealth of keyboard tones in play. There are heavenly choirs, deep string instruments, bright horns and an authentic hurdy-gurdy sound. Once again, Rob opts to use a deep oboe tone for bass as opposed to an actual bass guitar, which adds a lot of girth to the music. Epic riffs provide a foundation around which the synths ebb and flow. The drums play big, thunderous pasterns that mimic the steady rhythm of waves.

The compositions are big, epic pieces that center on two or three ravishing melodies. While there are a few aggressive passages, by and large Memory and Destiny is focused on creating the most divine sounds fathomable. The quality of the melodies is of the highest caliber. The execution is perfect, with all the layers of synths and guitars creating a massive orchestral force. All five tracks are quite excellent, but “Legion of Giants” is a cut above the others. Deep riffs and sturdy drums create a steady foundation while female choirs chant ambrosial tones. The pace builds in such a way that it feels as if you’re being lifted out of the ocean and into the heavens. 

Memory and Destiny is an album that is often overlooked in the Graveland discography; however it is one of Rob’s most intelligent works. The compositions possess great depth and layering that gives the lustrous melodies borderline overwhelming power. The production can make the music seem a little nebulous at first.  A lot of the layers are hard to distinguish during the first few listens. However, Memory and Density is definitely a creeper. The more you listen to it, the more you gain from it. In time it shows itself to be one of the most pretty extreme metal albums you’ll ever find. 

Overall: 9.5/10

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Immortal- Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism (1992)

The cover art to early Norwegian black metal albums say so much about the music within. Immortal’s debut Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism is perfect example of this; the cover is obscure and esoteric. There is a voyeuristic aura, as if we’re spying in on some dark, secretive ritual. The figures are kept anonymous through the brightness of the flame and the darkness of the shadows. What a contrast to the next three Immortal albums, all of which contain straight-forward mugshots of the band members as they make the grimmest and most macho faces possible! 

The difference in the album covers encapsulates what distinguishes Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism from the three records that follow it. In contrast to the dominating, chaotic, full frontal attack of the next three recordings, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism is an unsettling and mysterious experience. Despite the difference in mood, Immortal’s capacity to create an environment is already evident. In the same way that albums like Battles in the North make you feel like you’re stuck on the tundra in the middle of a blizzard, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism feels like being lost deep in the woods late at night. 

This is a much more low-fi manifestation of Immortal. This recording is fairly raw, with the guitars having a somewhat muddy tone; while they could use a little more edge, they still have sufficient clarity. The riffs express haunting inflections of sorrow, depression and fear. The bass is solid, clear and bouncy. The vocals are wild and uninhibited, leading to Abbath’s best vocal performance. In contrast to the somewhat mechanical tone he has on most albums, here he sounds like a wild mountain lion hissing and snarling at its prey. There are also numerous moments of watery acoustic guitar, whose gentle melodies are pretty, yet devious, as if some dark secret lies behind the soft tones.

The songwriting is quite varied, with most of the songs traveling through a variety of riffs and tempos. “Cryptic Winterstorms” does an excellent job of interweaving plucked acoustic guitar into a harsh black metal landscape. “A Perfect Vision of the Rising Northland” is one of the most riveting songs in the entire Immortal discography. After beginning with somber acoustics, it travels through long stretches of strained and anxious riffs, all building toward an absolutely spine-tingling keyboard crescendo, which combined with Abbath’s tortured cries is simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. It’s as if the ritual has reached its climax; you stand there in awe as a portal to an alternate dimension opens before you. Simply brilliant. 

Though Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism the only album Immortal released in this darker, rawer style, it still managed to leave quite an impact. Numerous stylistic dimensions of this album were picked up by other bands in the Norwegian scene (most notably Satyricon, whose debut is quite similar): the gentile acoustic passages, the cathedrals of synths and the woodsy aesthetic. Furthermore, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism is the best showcase for Immortal’s songwriting skills. The next few albums are focused more on purity of concept and expression and thus employ relatively uniform song structures. Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism demonstrates that Immortal’s skills are more diverse and dynamic than many might expect. Ultimately, this is one of the better and more unique moments in Immortal’s discography. 

Overall: 9/10

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Countess- The Gospel of the Horned One (1993)

Between Orlok’s maniacal cackle, playful guitar melodies, bouncy bass and ghetto drum machine, Countess is a band that can never be mistaken for another. For better or worse, Countess always has its own unique sound. That makes listening to the first Countess album quite a strange experience. This is Countess before Countess, so to speak. Countess has been a one man band since 1995, but on the debut release, The Gospel of the Horned One, Countess is actually a three piece band and frankly, quite a bad one. Little more than poorly performed and terribly produced Bathory worship, The Gospel of the Horned One is a rough start to the Countess project. 

There are tons of problems with this recording. First, this is straight forward Bathory worship with absolutely no original contributions. There are faster, thrashier tracks that replicate Bathory’s faster, thrashier tracks and there are slower, doomier tracks that replicate Bathory’s slower, doomier tracks. That’s the entire musical spectrum of the album. “Fullmoon Baptism,” the most offensive culprit, boarders on plagiarism of “Enter the Eternal Flame.” 

What really makes this album so bad is the production. It’s quite amazing how bad the mix is on this album. The guitars are really loud and sharp. Sometimes in raw black metal, such in-your-face guitars can create an extremely vicious tone (i.e. Mütiilation). Here it just sounds cheap. On the faster tracks there’s so much feedback that its impossible to distinguish any tune whatsoever. The bass is extremely flat but almost as loud as the guitar; it’s like watching a fish out of water aimlessly flopping about on the inevitable path toward death. The drums are almost all cymbal and high hat. The toms and bass are mostly inaudible. The vocals are drowned deep, deep within the mix as if Orlok was screaming a few rooms away. 

The performance is also pretty bad. There are some really awkward moments where it sounds like the band forgets how the song goes but just lets the tape keep on recording. For example, at one point on “Fullmoon Baptism,” the guitar stops playing and the Orlok does some horrendous bass solo (or perhaps he is tuning) that is totally out of rhythm with the drums, which are playing at twice the speed. When the band isn’t falling into complete and utter disarray, they still sound out synch.

A certain amount of cheapness and sloppiness has always been a part of Countess’s free-spirited charm, but The Gospel of the Horned One takes that way too far. The production is about as bad as it gets and there’s no retrieving it through appeals to “raw” or “cult” aesthetic because this album fails to create an atmosphere. The only thing that saves this album from being a complete an utter disaster is that there are some good melodies on some of the slower songs and some of the keyboard intros aren’t half bad. Still, nothing can save The Gospel of the Horned One from bargain bin status. 

Overall: 2/10

Monday, May 21, 2012

Darkthrone- Soulside Journey (1991)

Before Darkthrone became one of the most important bands in the history of black metal, it released a single atmospheric death metal album—Soulside Journey. While the album does create an intensely alienating atmosphere, the disinterested pathos seems to infest the band’s performance. While the music is fairly interesting, the performance is lethargic and plodding. The result is a technically efficient but emotionally stale recording. 

Musically, Soulside Journey is fairly standard Scandinavian death metal circa 1991. There is lots of muddy tremolo picking, a fair share of slow, harmonious passages and a few brisk solos. The vocals are husky, but not excessively deep. They are heavily reverbed, which gives them a supernatural sensibility. It’s as if some massive apparition were speaking to you from another realm. The elements that manage to distinguish Soulside Journey are the production and keyboards. In spite of the thick riffs, this album feels very open. Perhaps it’s all the echo and reverb, but this album creates immense space not unlike the landscape on the album cover. This is accentuated by the keyboards, which from time to time cloak the music in alien tones and ghostly choirs. The lyrics, which constantly reference vast landscapes, further help Soulside Journey create a distinct atmosphere.

Where the album falls short is in song-structure and energy. Many Darkthrone songs have unconventional song structures and on albums like A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon they provide quite a few thrills. However, here the songs often feel directionless and unorganized. Songs often seem to end out of the blue. A number of songs end on guitar or bass solos (i.e. “Neptune Towers” and “Sempiternal Sepulchrality”), which are played at a notably faster pace than the rest of the song. It is an unnatural and unsatisfying way to end a song. Considering these songs are all fairly short (3-5 minutes) Darkthrone should have taken the time to provide more fluid outros. 

However, the biggest problem is that the album is just so low on energy. None of the musicians sound inspired. The riffs are dry and the though the vocals are atmospherically effective, they lack emotion. Similarly, the keyboards often feel exhausted. Furthermore, the tempo shifts are high in quantity but low in intensity. Most the album is played in a slow tempo, so it would be nice if when the band shifted into a faster tempo the music received a jolt of life. Unfortunately that never happens, and consequently, the tempo shifts are fairly unmoving. 

Soulside Journey is a sedating album. The atmosphere is interesting and the musicianship is stellar, but when combined with the tired performance and emotional emptiness, Soulside Journey can be a somewhat dull listen. This is all quite shocking when one considers that Darkthrone would release one of the most cathartic and energetic albums in the history of extreme metal only a year later. Odds are that the bland flavor of Soulside Journey is a product of a band playing a style of music that is not their strong suit. That said, there are enough interesting riffs that it is worth listening to a song or two every now and then. Not a bad album, but by far the weakest of the band's early releases. 

Overall: 5.5/ 10

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Beherit- Drawing Down the Moon (1993)

1993 was arguably the greatest year in the history of black metal: Darkthrone’s Under a Funeral Moon, Enslaved’s Víkínglígr Veldí, Immortal’s Pure Holocaust, Burzum’s Det Som Engang Var… Beherit’s Drawing Down the Moon? Many have suggested that Beherit’s full length debut belongs on this list. How the album came to have such a reputation is a true mystery. The album fails at virtually every level, combining an exceptionally dull performance with poor songwriting and minimal aesthetic sensibility. 

Drawing Down the Moon is typically described as a black metal album, and this is primarily a consequence of the Satanic lyrical themes. Musically, there is not much here that qualifies as black metal: no tremolo, blast beats or screeched vocals. At times this sounds a little like Celtic Frost circa To Mega Therion (though that album isn’t black metal, strictly speaking) but by and large this is closer to death metal than black. The riffs are meaty, the vocals are guttural and the tempo is slow. Whatever the album is classified as, it fails.  
The musicians are very low caliber. The riffs are all fairly similar: slow to mid tempo, primitive, vapid in melody or hooks and void of power. It sounds like there is only one guitar playing, which makes the riffs lack the force they are presumably aiming for. The percussion is no better. The patterns are plodding and monotonous. Thus, by default, the vocals are what stand out. Mr. Nuclear Holocausto Vengeance’s vocals are fairly standard guttural death growls, though they tend to be electronically modified and overproduced. There are also some really poor spoken word passages where Mr. Vengeance wails Satanic poetry in an effeminate tone. 

The compositions are painfully simple and unimaginative. Though the songs are only 3-4 minutes apiece, the lack of variety or depth makes them feel much longer. Aesthetically, this album is pretty weak. While it does create a humid and dirty atmosphere, it doesn’t do so in a very powerful way. There are countless death metal bands that achieve the same aesthetic with much more force. A band like Incantation, for example, will literally make you feel as if you’re smothering to death in a filthy, inescapable chasm. In contrast, Drawing Down the Moon is more like being in a dirty apartment with the heater on. The trash hasn’t been taken out in weeks, the dishes are piled up and there’s a flea ridden dog sleeping on the couch. You’re not exactly itching to look in the fridge, but you’re not exactly scared or overwhelmed. Mostly you just feel like you’re wasting your time.

There are also some completely out of place ambient passages. These sound like the soundtrack to some movie about explorers hunting for a lost tribe in the Amazon. For example, “Summerland” consists of synthesized tribal drumming and pan flute over a bed of late night ambient noises. These passages are actually decent, but completely contrast with the hot, stuffy atmosphere of the metal tracks. Add incoherence and lack of vision to Beherit’s flaws. 

A bad album by any standard, Drawing Down the Moon is totally undeserving of the hype it has received over the years. There are literally thousands of black and death metal albums that are better than this. Spend your time listening to something else and leave this one for the hype-mongers. 

Overall: 2/10

Monday, May 14, 2012

Graveland- Creed of Iron (2000)

Immortal Pride saw Graveland fully embrace its symphonic tenancies in a venerable ode to warriors of times past. Creed of Iron continues in the same vein, making only minor adjustments. Once again Rob creates an intense and visceral blend of sounds that places the listener right in the midst of the battle. The primary elements remain the same: deep, thumping, warlike drums, imperious synths and big, heavy riffs. 

However, there are a few notable changes. whereas the synths took the lead on Immortal Pride, the riffs are the stars of Creed of Iron. Tracks like “Tyrants of Cruelty” and “White Beasts of Woton” center around huge, crunchy riffs that stick in your head like any good battle anthem should. (This also makes Creed of Iron Graveland’s most headbangable album.) The synths still get their moments in the sun, mostly during the opening passages of the songs, where they do an excellent job of setting the tone. The solemn intro to “Ancient Blood” is especially praiseworthy.

There are several aspects of the musicianship that stand out. First, it does not sound like there is any bass guitar on this album. It seems like Rob has opted to let the low end of the synths—which create a deep oboe tone—fill in the low end. This makes an already big sound even bigger. Second, the percussion is the driving spirit behind the whole recording. The percussion is sharp and militant, giving an attacking, focused character to the music. As far as the compositions, the song lengths aren't quite as long as they were on Immortal Pride, but these are still fairly massive compositions. The songs travel through numerous ups and downs, all of which have a narrative sensibility to them conjuring vivid images of medieval battle.

While Creed of Iron lacks some of the originality that made Immortal Pride such a landmark album, it is in most definitely a worthy predecessor. This album is epic, dramatic and extremely catchy. Rob fills elaborate compositions with unforgettable riffs and melodies to create an album that will hook you on first listen, but that still sounds fresh every time you listen to it. 

A footnote of the different editions of this recording: if you’re in the market for buying a copy of this album, get the original edition. It’s heavier, sharper and more vivid. The remixed version just feels flat. The riffs lack a bit of the edge, the tempo has been turned down a notch and the percussion—which is such a highlight on the original—feels weak. Also, Rob’s vocals are not well integrated into the mix. It’s surprising that Rob managed to butcher his own album so severely. As for the Polish version versus the English version, I don’t think it really makes a difference. It’s the exact same album other than the language. Even though the language is different, the vocal delivery is basically the same. Whether Polish or English, just make sure you get the 2000 version and not the 2011 remix.

Overall: 9/10

Graveland- Immortal Pride (1998)

From the knee-buckling organs on Carpathian Wolves to the regal interludes on Following the Voice of Blood, Rob Darken’s synth work has always been one of the highlights of Graveland’s sound. While many black metal acts whip out some solid horror show melodies, very few have the symphonic sensibility of Darken. Rob’s synth work has a big, full orchestral sound that is full of texture and depth. 

With that in mind it might have just been a matter of time until the synths took center stage in Graveland’s sound. Immortal Pride is the first time in Graveland’s discography where that really occurs. While this album has massive riffs, they play second fiddle to the bombastic synths. The final result is one of the best symphonic extreme metal albums of all time.

Immortal Pride takes inspiration from Bathory’s Viking metal releases Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods. Like those albums, Immortal Pride is meshes epic heavy metal riffs with orchestral layering. Naturally, Rob infuses the style with a distinctly Eastern European flavoring. Unlike Bathory, Rob opts to maintain his dry black metal croak, limiting the singing and chanting to the background. Another major influence is Basil Poledouris’s grandiose soundtrack to the Conan the Barbarian film. That soundtrack infused symphonic arrangements with a distinctly tribal flair that fits right into the Graveland sound. 

While its easy to point to Bathory and Poledouris, Immortal Pride is truly its own work of art. The sound is fresh and vivid. The production is excellent: All the instruments are sharp but have lots of depth. The primitive drumming hits deep and the synths have abundant texture, sounding more like the product of a real orchestra than a keyboard. The vitalism created by the production allows the cinematic tenancies of the music to flourish. This is music of battle, and the way the music surrounds the listener puts you right in the midst of the fight. Rob switches between more attacking, guitar driven passages and overwhelmingly emotional symphonic passages, creating tension between feelings of power, fury, pride and horror.

The songs here are massive. There are only four tracks, including an intro and outro, yet the album is fifty minutes long. The 24 minute “Sons of Fire and Steel” is a little more glorious and epic, while the 16 minute “Sacrifice for Honor” is a bit darker and more aggressive. All the synth and ambient passages are excellent. At the end of “Sons of Fire and Steel” there is a poetic epitaph (read a woman with a thick Polish accent) for fallen warriors, which is quite moving. The outro is another highlight. It is a symphonic rendition of one of Graveland’s greatest pieces, “Thurisaz” from the Following the Voice of Blood album. What was previously a deep and solemn piece is here transformed into a light, playful and glorious tune that dances about with triumphant glee. 

Immortal Pride is one of Graveland’s greatest accomplishments. Rob takes the format laid down by Quorthon and ups the ante by pushing the symphonic dimensions to the next level. The result is a beautiful and inspired album that is without peer in the realm of extreme symphonic metal. 

Overall: 10/10