Thursday, July 26, 2012

Countess- The Book of the Heretic (1996)

If you go to the Countess website you can read Orlok’s personal memories from the recording sessions of all of the albums through 2007’s Blazing Flames of War. On a number of occasions (i.e. The Gospel of the Horned One and The Shining Swords of Hate) Orlok boasts about making albums with the most “horrible” sound quality possible. He seems to see the ultra-lo-fi production as an ideological finger at overproduced and commercial black metal and simultaneously, a horned salute to first wave legends such as Venom and Bathory. The one album whose sound Orlok actually laments is The Book of the Heretic, which he thinks “utterly sucks” (which is apparently the polar opposite of being “horrible”). I can’t help but find this highly ironic, because The Book of the Heretic is the perfect example of an album with production that is in principle terrible, but on this one special occasion fits the songs like a glove. 

The production on The Book of the Heretic is like that of no other black metal album. Black metal is notorious for producing albums on which the bass is very low in the mix, if not completely inaudible. Here, the bass is not only audible, but it by far the loudest instrument in the mix! Each rubbery note of the bass stands front and center. The guitars are much lower in the mix, with the exception of the solos, which are sharp and clear. Now on paper, that sounds awful. First of all, the bass is a rhythm instrument and unless we’re talking about Geddy Lee, Les Claypool etc., the bass should stick to that roll. Considering that Countess is a raw, minimal, old-school black metal band, it’s hard to see how a bass-centered album can work… but damn does it work! The reason it works so well is the narrative nature of songs that make up The Book of the Heretic

The Book of the Heretic is a loose concept album based around stories of warriors who have sold their soul to Satan so as to rid the world of Christianity. The lyrics have it all: battles, torture, goats, demons and strange sex rituals. These are like bedtime stories from Hell. Orlok describes the various torture chambers, battlefields and dimensions of Hell in descriptive story tale fashion, mostly from the first person perspective. He employs a wide range of vocals to add drama to the stories. Of course there is his signature blackened squall, but there are also boisterous spoken word passages and bellowing chants. 

By and large, The Book of the Heretic is composed of slow paced songs that take their time to unfold, and that’s just fine, because the melodies are excellent. The songs mostly start out soft and subtle before eventually reaching intensely violent peaks. Orlok takes his time letting every line sink in, allowing the wicked stories to vividly come to life in the listener’s imagination. The trotting bass lines set the pace for the stories to unfold, while the devious guitar leads and spooky synths provide colorful highlights throughout.

The Book of the Heretic is one of those albums where every song (save “Creation”) is excellent in its own right. It’s tempting to describe every song because each one has its own creepy story to tell and Orlok is never at a loss for a few catchy hooks and dramatic compositional twists. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only mention the simultaneously hilarious and kickass “Give me Your Soul.” Countess has always had a theatrical element to its sound, and here Orlok decides to let his inner thespian come out. Our “hero” has a woman trapped in a torture chamber where teases her while preparing to steal her soul. “It’s not just your flesh I want,” hums Orlok as if he were talking to a scared puppy, before bursting out into blood-curdling screams of “giving me your soul!” It’s so excessive and extreme that you can’t help but laugh and bang your head at once. 

The only weakness of the album is the three faster, thrashy songs; here the production does lead to awkward results. The pounding bass and minimal guitar just cannot fulfill the vicious aims of these tracks. Nevertheless, Orlok’s malicious vocals and blistering solos still make “In Hate of Christ” and “On the Wings of Azeral” worthwhile. “Creation,” on the other hand, is basically two and a half minutes of filler. Otherwise, the longer, slow tracks all sound excellent.

The Book of the Heretic is a great album in the same way that a cheap, low budget horror movie can be great. Yes, it’s silly, over the top and isn’t executed with much grace, charm or attention to detail, but it sure is a lot of fun. For those who like epic and spooky melodies, demented fairytales and lo-fi production, The Book of the Heretic is essential listening and any Countess fan who overlooked this release should remedy that immediately. 

Overall: 9.5/10

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