Thursday, June 28, 2012

Enslaved- Nema (1992)

Nema is the debut demo from viking black metal pioneers Enslaved. Bassist and vocalist Grutle Kjellson and guitarist Ivar Bjørnson had already demonstrated their compositional skills on the impressive Phobia demo Feverish Convulsions. Certainly, one wouldn’t have guessed that the demo was recorded by a bunch of teenagers (Ivar was 14 at the time of the recording!). That little demo revealed lots of compositional creativity and organization; and that is one of the reasons that the horrid quality of Nema is such a surprise. On Nema Enslaved sound like lost and clueless teenagers who somehow stumbled upon some recording equipment and with nothing better to do, decided to record a demo. The compositions are disorganized, the mix is awful and the execution is subpar. 

First of all, the production is really poor. Everything is very far back in the mix except the keys which are quite loud. The vocals are quiet and the guitars are weak and puttering. The performance fails to compensate. Here Enslaved are mostly playing a sort of death-doom similar to the Phobia demo. A few black metal elements have been added to the equation. Grutle’s vocals are a little more shrieked and high pitched then they were on the Phobia demo, though he still opts for a death growl now and then. Also, the keys have the sort of icy tone that is synonymous with black metal. 

There are two metal tracks on Nema and in both instances the songwriting is really poor. Whereas the Phobia demo was full of unpredictable shifts that kept a listener on his or her toes, here the twists and turns sound more like disorganization than vision. On far too many occasions the music comes to a halt mid-song as a means of creating a transition. Drummer Trym Torson doesn’t help. While Trym would go on to give some stellar performances for Enslaved and then Emperor, Nema is his first recording experience and he seems in over his head. The drums are often trailing a step behind or leaping a step ahead the rest of the band. 

There are also two keyboard pieces. The intro is overly long and tedious. The melody is terribly dull and one dimensional. Gurtle’s gurgled growls do little to add the ambiance. The outro is much better. The lead melody has the sort of mystical aura and crystalline tone that one finds scattered throughout early Enslaved recordings. 

However, if a two minute outro is the best thing about a demo, then you know things aren’t going well. For whatever reason, Enslaved really blew this first demo. Fortunately, Enslaved would step up their act on Yggdrasill and never look back. 

Overall: 3/10

Phobia- Feverish Convulsions (1991)

Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved are but yet two more black metal legends that started out their careers playing death metal. Their original band, Phobia played a dark, dingy brand of doom-death metal, similar in style to very early My Dying Bride. The band also contained drummer Hein Frode Hansen, who would go on to have success with the gothic doom metal band Theatre of Tragedy. The only relic from Phobia is the demo Feverish Convulsions. Though brief—three songs totaling fifteen minutes—it is a fairly effective piece of doom-death. (All the more amazing when you consider the age of the musicians. Ivar was merely 14 years old at the time of the recording!) 

The mix is not ideal, but it is adequate. The guitars are a little far back in the mix and don’t have as strong of a punch as they should. Grutle’s deep, burly death growl is more forward in the mix, but is also somewhat muddled. Only the keys which fade in and out of the compositions possess much clarity. Still, everything is audible and it is not a struggle to make out what is going on. 

The riffs are of two kinds: there are slower, murky riffs and tight, punching tremolo passages. The band does a good job of shifting between ominous stretches of doom and more out and out attacking portions. The slower passages have good horror movie style riffs that deviously creep toward the listener like a hungry snake. The songwriting is unpredictable, with each song containing a lot of transitions and shifts in tempo, mood and intensity. Consequently, these actually have some staying power and reward multiple listens.

Feverish Convulsions is a solid piece of doom-death that demonstrates that Grutle and Ivar had some solid songwriting skills even at a young age. Had Phobia continued, they could have been an original addition to the doom-death movement of the early 90s. However, Grutle, Ivar and Hein all went on to accomplish bigger and better things in other groups. Still, if compared to first demos of other black metal legends, Feverish Convulsions is a respectable effort.

Overall: 7/10

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Immortal- Battles in the North (1995)

Immortal’s sophomore release, Pure Holocaust is a quintessential black metal recording. It is a pure manifestation of one of the extreme possibilities of black metal: blast beats, tremolo and speed, speed, speed. However, what makes the recording so brilliant is not the quantity but the quality of the compositions; the subtle changes in chord progressions, the dramatic ebbs and flows of the rhythms and the fluidity of the guitar work. Immortal’s third release, Battles in the North pushes the sound of Pure Holocaust into even greater degrees of intensity. It is faster, heavier and even more chaotic. However, it is not better. Though Battles in the North is quantitatively more extreme, it is qualitatively more conservative, relying on more predictable extreme metal techniques to create a demanding atmosphere. The result is an album that lacks the compositional brilliance of its predecessor.

Make no mistake about it, this album is heavy. The opening notes hit your eardrum like a Mack Truck and with the exception of the closing track, Immortal never let up. Battles in the North is a loud, heavy and fast barrage of frigid tremolo picking and hammering percussion. Based on these measurable factors, Battles in the North blows Immortal’s other albums out the water. However, the quality of the performance is by no means brilliant. The riffs are nowhere near as imaginative or powerful as those on Pure Holocaust or for that matter, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism. All the melodic textures of the prior releases are gone and what is left is a bunch of heavy, one-dimensional bone crunching riffs. Now this is not intrinsically bad, and indeed this album is quite powerful. One feels as if they are trapped in a blizzard with the heavens emitting endless waves of snowfall onto the listener.

There are also a few unforgettable hooks hidden amidst the deluge of bone-crushers. “Cursed Realms of the Winterdemons” centers on a glorious, watery riff that provides a hypnotic intermission at the midway point of the album. It’s as if for a moment the snow has let up and one can see the majestic white landscape in which he or she is surrounded. Then of course, there is the closer, “Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)”. The track is slower in tempo, more epic in spirit and contains more compositional shifts. “Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)” foreshadows the epic style that Immortal will take up on At the Heart of Winter. Though the song contains some killer riffs, it lacks flow. The stop and start nature of the song structure results in a somewhat awkward listen. One last issue with this recording (as well as every Immortal album to follow) is Abbath’s vocals, which have lost the organic, predatory tone of the early recordings and have transitioned into a choppy and overly mechanical tone.

It is fair to conclude that Battles in the North effectively achieves its goal. It creates a smothering and dominating atmosphere that will freeze you to the bone, even during an equatorial summer. Considered in itself Battles in the North is a very good album. However, after seeing what Immortal achieved on Pure Holocaust, it is a little disappointing. It’s like getting a PhD from Harvard and then teaching at a community college. You’re still doing well, but everyone knows you can do better. As fun as Battles in the North is, everyone knows that this not Immortal at its best.

Overall: 8/10

Monday, June 25, 2012

Immortal- Immortal EP (1991)

Immortal’s self-titled EP is the band’s first black metal recording. While it clearly displays Immortal’s promise, it also shows the groups greenness. Released about a year before Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, it contains two early versions of songs from that album: “The Cold Wind of Funeral Frost” and “Unholy Forces of Evil”. (There's also a forgettable 40 second dark ambient intro). The songs are exactly the same in structure and arrangement, but here the production and atmosphere is far inferior. 

While both songs sound good on the debut, here they sound a little cluttered and without edge. The recording lacks dynamism. For example, “Unholy Forces of Evil” is a composition full of interesting shifts in tempo and vacillations in intensity. Here, those shifts are understated. For example, the slow, dark bridge around the 1:45 mark is a startling moment on the full-length version. However, here it is barely sounds different from the passage that precedes it. 

“The Cold Wind of Funeral Frost” is the weakest track on Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism. It involves the fewest number of twists and turns and its lead riff isn’t particularly memorable. Having an even weaker version of the track is something most Immortal followers can live without. 

This EP was rendered irrelevant the moment Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism was released. The superior production and atmosphere on the full length make the second editions far more enjoyable. Furthermore, these two tracks, which are solid but unspectacular songs, accomplish more within the context of the full length album than they do standing on their own. There, they work as pivot points between larger, more epic tracks. Here they have trouble holding their own.

Overall: 5.5/10

Immortal- Immortal Demo (1991)

Like many of the second wave black metal bands, Immortal began as a death metal act. The only remnant remaining from that early incarnation of Immortal is their rough and gritty self-titled demo. The demo is brief; only three songs totaling twelve minutes. Still, it is enough time to demonstrate that Immortal were actually capable of creating some pretty dark and dirty death metal. 

The mix on this demo is pretty uneven. The vocals are predominating, while everything else is kind of a blur. The guitars are pretty low and sometimes it requires some straining to make out the riffs. The drums are the most difficult aspect of the music to make out. One can hear the steady blast beats of the bass drum, but the high end is almost nonexistent. Furthermore, the recording is kind of hissy, which adds to the muddled tone. 

These songs aren’t very distinct and lack memorable riffs. There are numerous quick, sputtering solos, which are somewhat excessive and obligatory. However, even if the riffs aren’t stellar, they do create a monstrous and ugly atmosphere while also providing good headbanging fodder. Furthermore, Abbath's unexpected skill at producing deep, nasty death growls gives the recording plenty of force.

Still, this demo is nothing special. Other than the fact that this was recorded by Immortal, there isn’t anything that makes this demo stand out. It’s just one of the hundreds of early 90s death metal demos that were created. However, at least it is heavy and groovy enough to qualify it as a novel and worthwhile history lesson for Immortal fans.
Overall: 6.5/10

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Countess- Ad Maiorem Sathanae Gloriam (1995)

Ad Maiorem Sathanae Gloriam marks the turning point in the development of Countess. After releasing a pair of terribly produced and poorly performed albums, Orlok finally got his act together. For the first time, Orlok plays all the instruments and records in an actual studio. The difference is significant; in contrast to the sloppy and aimless early releases, Ad Maiorem Sathanae Gloriam is a clean, focused and highly entertaining recording. 

The production is exponentially superior to its predecessors. All the instruments are well balanced and easily audible. Orlok’s vicious caw is sharp and biting. The guitars are raw while the bass is sturdy and dense.  Synth is used sparingly but effectively to add bits of ambiance. They are put to excellent use on the epic and catchy intro and outro, which revels in bright and bombastic orchestral melodies. The only aspect of the recording that sounds poor is the drum machine; beyond the fact that it sounds super cheap, Orlok also employs some really corny tambourine and maraca tones that are quite out of place on a black metal album. 

Ad Maiorem Sathanae Gloriam blends both the doom and thrash roots of black metal, interweaving faster, thrashing passages with big, ugly doom riffs. These shifts give a dramatic, theatrical character to the album. Orlok’s over the top lyrics, which are almost exclusively about Satan or Countess Bathory (surprise, surprise) further accentuates the theatrical dimension.  

This is a solid album from start to finish. There aren’t a lot of standout tracks, but rather just one gritty piece of black metal after another. The one track that really stands out is “Blood on my Lips,” which is probably one of the few love ballads in the history of black metal. The song consists of classical acoustic guitar, drum machine and Orlok’s relentless screams, which are just as harsh as they would be on a straight forward metal track. Distortion eventually arrives and there is even a short metallic passage in the middle of the song, but by and large this is an acoustic ballad with black metal vocals. The lyrics describe a vampire’s lament for a lost love that he recalls every time he drinks someone’s blood. Quite heartwarming. There’s also a cool cover of St. Vitus’s “Born too Late,” which fits well with the dingy, doomy atmosphere of the album.  

While Ad Maiorem Sathanae Gloriam lacks the brilliant moments that are present on some of Countess’s other albums, it is full of solid old school riffs compiled into strangely effective story tale format. This is one of the cleanest examples of what Countess is all about is a great starting point for newcomers to Countess’s sizable discography. 

Overall: 8/10

Monday, June 18, 2012

ColdWorld- Melancholie² (2008)

Georg Börner, the man behind ColdWorld, displayed a good deal of confidence in the emotive power of his full length debut when he decided to title it Melancholie2. Unfortunately, he seems to have miscalculated. While on the surface, the album displays lots of sorrow, angst and moodiness, it all feels contrived and unconvincing. Melancholie2 feels like having a funeral when no one has died; you’re going through the motions but you’re not sure what for.

Categorically, ColdWorld is best described as depressive post-black metal. The music displays a decent amount of Norwegian influence (especially Burzum), but there are a number of dissonant, dreary passages that recall Xasthur. From post-rock, there are many of moments of icy dreaminess that hint at Sigur Ros and clean guitar leads similar to those of Explosions in the Sky. A number of soundtrack style ambient passages round out ColdWorld’s sound.  

These elements are employed in the pursuit of a sorrowful, reflective atmosphere. However, poor execution means that the affect is only achieved at the surface level. While the musicianship is technically sound, it is too austere. The cleanliness of the performance stands in stark contrast to the deep emotions Georg is trying to draw out. The performance has no soul. No energy bursts forth from the guitar, the drums are flat and the synths are especially inundating. Georg is infatuated with these female vocal samples that sound like they were lifted from an Enya album. Only the violin—which is a creative touch on Georg’s part—really draws out any fervor. Another problem is that the vocals are quite poor. Georg has a weak and crackly growl. He tries to shelter it with distortion and reverb, but lipstick can only do so much for a pig.

The closer to metal ColdWorld remains, the better it sounds. “Tortured by Solitude,” which blends post-rock leads, mournful violin and metallic fuzz is actually quite beautiful. “Red Snow” is also fairly effective; it starts in a doomy dirge before peaking in a skyscraping post-rock lead. On the other hand, the more rock or ambient tracks are tortuously dull. “Escape” is the worst culprit, employing disjointed electronic percussion and lulling lead guitar over for eight excruciating minutes. Unfortunately, this sort of sleep-inducing drivel makes up about one-third of the album. 

At its best, Melancholie2 is like a good Hollywood drama. Even though it’s synthetic and follows a predictable storyline, it still manages to pull at your heart strings, albeit in a mechanical fashion. At its worst, Melancholie2 is like a daytime soap opera; it’s full of unbelievable melodrama, unconvincing emotions and plastic execution. In both cases, ColdWorld fails to stir anything beyond the most shallow of emotions. 

Overall: 4.5/10

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Immortal- Pure Holocaust (1993)

Immortal’s debut album Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism ends with the stunning track “A Perfect Vision of the Rising Northland”. The song concludes with the unforgettable description of the heavens opening up and sucking the narrator into a portal leading to a bleak alternate planet. It is unclear if there is actually any thematic link between Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism and its follow up Pure Holocaust, but musically, Pure Holocaust certainly sounds like the alternate world where “the sun freezes to dust.” The depressive, woodsy black metal of the debut has been replaced by a relentless exhibition of controlled chaos. Pure Holocaust is an unyielding assault of thundering percussion and whipping tremolo, which together convey the feeling of being trapped on the tundra during an inexorable snowstorm. 

Pure Holocaust is certainly a pure recording. The production is clean, but without any gloss. The instruments are sharp, crisp and perfectly audible. The music is straight forward: tremolo picking, bass, blast beats and Abbath’s reptilian growls. No frills. The acoustic guitars and keys from the debut are dropped (other than a brief cameo by the synths on “As the Eternity Opens”). The compositions are tight and focused. While the songs initially appear to be run of the mill “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” fare, subtle shifts and twists within the chord progressions make these seemingly simple compositions deceptively nuanced. The story is similar with the drums. While the drums mostly churn out steadfast blast beats that swirl about like dominating winds, a diverse array of well-timed fills provide colorful intermissions. 

The driving force behind Pure Holocaust is Demonaz’s brilliant guitar work. The riffs are simply phenomenal. While all the riffs are played with the same razor sharp precision and breakneck speed, the moods they express are extremely varied. Riffs such as the lead on “The Sun No Longer Rises” depict a tragic beauty while the riffs on the title track revel in a tyrannical evil. The variation in the lead melodies allows for a ton of diversity throughout the recording while the consistent execution provides the record with excellent cohesion. The speed and focus with which the band plays gives the riffs a fluid quality, as if the compositions were meant for the string section of an orchestra. The melodies flow up and down the scales with elegance and ease. 

One place where the quality of the songwriting really shines is in the way in which the guitars paint sonic images of the lyrical themes. On “Unsilent Storms in the North Abyss” the lyrics and guitars simultaneously descend into darkness. Every time the lead progression hits the darkest point, Abbath describes a “shadowed face,” a “wintercoffin” or the “dawnless realms.” Then, when the song peaks, with Abbath croaking “unslient storms in the north abyss,” the guitars open into a tortuously beautiful bridge that is so vivid that one can almost see the abyss consuming the horizon in sheer blackness. On “A Sign for the Norse Hordes to Ride” the rapid ascent and descent of the progressions sounds like horsemen riding through a rough and uneven terrain as they swiftly head toward battle. This sort of detailed, expressive interplay between the guitars and lyrics is prevalent throughout Pure Holocaust and is one of the factors that make it such a special album. 

Pure Holocaust pushes black metal to toward one of its limits. It simplifies black metal down to a few basic elements—blast beats, tremolo and speed—and then bombards the listener with those elements for the entire album. Typically, these sorts of “pushing genre X to its extreme” albums have at best an enjoyable novelty but little substance. However, the quality of riffs the detail of the compositions makes Pure Holocaust a phenomenal work in itself, regardless of its envelope-pushing. The fact that this album pushed black metal in even more extreme and intense directions is just icing on the frostbitten cake. Both historically integral and intrinsically brilliant, Pure Holocaust is essential listening for all fans of black metal. 

Overall: 10/10