Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mercyful Fate - In the Shadows (1993)

In the Shadows was the first studio album from Mercyful Fate, since 1984's Don't Break the Oath. Nine years had passed since this influential band parted ways and the prospect of the original line-up coming together to write music once again was something remarkable. It's quite interesting in that this album, released in June 1993, presented a very unique situation. Surely, Mercyful Fate wasn't the first band to reunite after several years. And, like many others, it would be natural to compare In the Shadows to the old albums, or to analyze how well it picked up from where the last record left off. The trouble was that a few members had already continued what they began, as King Diamond's Fatal Portrait was the true successor to Don't Break the Oath. The legacy of Mercyful Fate had already evolved into something else, with The Eye representing the final chapter in the classic period of King Diamond (the band) . Of course, In the Shadows, as fascinating of an album as it is, can't even be thought of as a follow-up to that record; the direction taken on the King Diamond albums was but one direction that this could travel, while In the Shadows represents sort of an alternate reality of what could have been, had the band remained together.

So how does one really analyze this record? It's impossible to look at it, completely, on its own. There's simply too much history involved to do such a thing. The best method is to approach the album and determine whether or not it remains true to the spirit of the band's previous output. Amazingly, the songwriting is very much in line with the style of the Mercyful Fate E.P., Melissa and Don't Break the Oath. Considering some of the projects that Hank Shermann had been involved with, since the mid-80s, that is very impressive. It's so good to hear Denner and Shermann together again, as they really compliment one another.

The production is clear and decent enough, though not overdone like some albums from this era. For example, if they had a similar sound to Metallica's black album, it would have ruined everything. While not as raw as the early stuff, this record never comes off as being too slick or polished. The best way to describe it would be that it really does sound like an updated version of Mercyful Fate. It's not a direct continuation of the sound, but it possesses all of the primary elements and it manages to stay faithful to the spirit of the old albums, while not sounding dated. It's strange how it doesn't come off as some retro album, though it contains music that, easily, could have been released several years earlier.

Looking at the tracklist, it's clear that even songs that don't particularly appeal to me, entirely, obviously fit in. The ones that really stand out include "Egypt", "Shadows" and, naturally, "Is That You, Melissa?". Ironically, King wrote all three of these, so it would appear that the former guitarists weren't all that necessary to create some very memorable tunes, once more. These songs, alone, would be worth the cost of the CD. In "Egypt", the part from 2:33 to 2:54 is probably what really puts it over, as the song might have seemed a little average until then. Of course, "Shadows" is very memorable from beginning to end. And the real highlight has to be "Is That You, Melissa?", as it really embodies the atmosphere of the original, while being quite different. The use of the main melody from "Melissa" was very well done and added to the epic feeling conveyed by this song. The re-recorded version of "Return of the Vampire" isn't bad, but I still find myself preferring the original. I hate to support the general consensus, but the drumming of Lars Ulrich is quite detrimental to the flow of the song, when compared to the demo version.

Prior to hearing this, I remember having very low expectations for it. I even avoided the album for some time, not wanting to tarnish the mental image that I had of Mercyful Fate. However, in time, I had to give it a listen. For better or worse, my ears hungered for more from this band, so I took the chance. In the end, I would say that it was very much worth the risk, proving to be a very good reunion album. The music kept to the roots of their old classics, and even provided a few more essential tracks. Unfortunately, the band didn't know when to call it a day, and they went on to release four more albums, none of which managed to maintain the successful formula found on In the Shadows.

Bathory - Hammerheart (1990)

Hammerheart is the fifth Bathory record, though only because the Blood On Ice double L.P. was shelved and deemed too much of a difference in style, compared to Blood Fire Death. In retrospect, it may have been a wise move, as Hammerheart seems to be a more direct extension of what was accomplished with some of the most notable songs on Blood Fire Death, such as "A Fine Day to Die" and the title track. Recorded in Heavenshore Studio in June 1989, Bathory's fifth album was finally released in April 1990.

This album represents the true beginning of the band's Viking era. Whereas its predecessor began and ended with this style, the rest of the material was a mixed bag. In the end, as good as all of those songs are, the album doesn't flow very well and it had a detrimental effect on the overall presentation. Hammerheart features a much more cohesive structure and the songs compliment each other, for the most part. Right from the start, "Shores in Flames" and "Valhalla" pick up from where "Blood Fire Death" left off. The epic structure really goes back to songs like "Enter the Eternal Fire", and this sound dominates the album. There are a good number of choir effects which add to the atmosphere, greatly. Unlike the previous album, there is a common theme present throughout the whole record. The primary difference that one would notice, upon first listen, would be the difference in the vocal performance.

On Blood Fire Death, Quorthon allowed a bit more of his true voice to come through, creating somewhat of a strained and raspy sound that was unlike that found on earlier albums. In the end, it was still enough to be considered harsh. On Hammerheart, he uses a cleaner sound, though it's hard to really call it clean singing, in its purest sense. The clean vocals are more dominant on the album, especially on "Song To Hall Up High". On tracks like "Valhalla" and "Baptised in Fire and Ice", his voice has more of a rough edge, reminiscent of Blood Fire Death.

The production is very close to that of the previous record which, of course, was recorded in the same studio. The sound is powerful and heavy, mostly due to the songwriting, and everything is just clear enough while still retaining a raw edge and a good amount of fuzz in the guitar sound. Considering the limited number of tracks available to record, it's amazing that so much was able to fit onto the record; all of the various sound effects and backing choirs, as well as clean guitar parts.

Of course, the album isn't entirely flawless, though it pains me to say such a thing. In particular, "Baptised in Fire and Ice" and and "Father To Son" represent the real low point of the album. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your view), they are lumped together in the middle of the record and only create one interruption in the flow of this masterpiece. It's not that these songs are completely terrible, but they just don't seem to fit. Some riffs are decent, but they're mixed in with other riffs that simply don't fit this style. It's a shame, since there are some decent riffs found in both songs. At any rate, this is the only real complaint about Hammerheart.

Regarding the highlights of the album, more or less, look to every other song aside from those two. "Shores in Flames" and "Valhalla" get the album off to a great start, featuring twenty minutes of epic, mid-paced Viking Metal. The latter probably edges out the former in terms of quality. While "Baptised in Fire and Ice" has some annoyingly out of place riffs, it's passable. Only "Father To Son" manages to slow the momentum of the album, but it's short enough to be negligible. The next song, "Song To Hall Up High", adds yet another element to the evolving Bathory sound. It is a great interlude, featuring clean vocals and acoustic guitar, adding so much to the atmosphere of the album and serving as an excellent way to lead into "Home of Once Brave". This one then returns to the same high standard set by the opening tracks, possibly surpassing them. Near the end of the song, a riff is stolen from Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", but it's done quite well and suits the feeling of the piece. However, nothing on this entire record could possibly match up to what would come next.

"One Rode to Asa Bay" may very well be one of the most powerful and epic pieces of music that I have ever heard. After a minute or so intro, an acoustic guitar begins to set the stage. The crushingly heavy guitar and drums continue with this melody as this monster of a song unfolds. As with the majority of the other songs, this one is mid-paced and rather slow. Quorthon's vocals lean more to the clean side of things, though still a little raspy. And for anyone that has criticized him for not having a great singing voice, I think this is a perfect example of passion and heart making up for any possible lack of talent (though I got used to his style fairly quickly and actually appreciate it for what it is). The lyrics tell the tale of Christians bringing their alien religion and forcing it upon the people of the North, so long ago. It's actually very depressing, particularly for those who have studied history and seen how this foreign mythology has slowly destroyed the true European culture for centuries. The song is filled with good riffs and great solos that convey a lot of feeling; however, the most poignant moment of the entire song comes near the end.

"Now this house of a foreign god does stand
Now must they leave us alone
Still he heard from somewhere in the woods
Old crow of wisdom say
...people of Asa land, it's only just begun..."

And with that final line, each and every time that I have listened to this song, regardless of the setting, a chill runs up my spine and I get goosebumps all over. For years and years, this same thing happens, whether I anticipate it or not. I think it's a combination of the lyrics (and knowing the deeper, historical, significance of this), as well as the vocal delivery and the structure of the song. The solo that follows is absolutely perfect and the whole thing is the epitome of the word epic. "One Rode to Asa Bay" is an incredible and memorable way to end and album and to leave the fans eager for the next album. It's songs like this one that prove the musical genius of Quorthon and cement his place among the Metal elite. As many times as he has been ripped off, no one has ever come close to replicating the feeling that he was capable of conveying.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Emperor - Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)

Emperor' s second full-length (third, if you count Wrath of the Tyrant) was recorded in Grieghallen, as was its predecessor. It was produced by Pytten, along with the members of the band who, obviously, had a major hand in the sound. It was a drastic departure from In the Nightside Eclipse, in many ways. In late 1996, the Reverence E.P. was released in an effort to prepare listeners for this shift in sound, serving as a transition piece. However, lt is quite probable that many were still shocked, in the summer of 1997, when Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk saw the light of day.

By this point, the popularity of Black Metal had been rising, in the states. With this album, it seemed that Emperor cemented themselves as the reigning kings of Norwegian Black Metal, in the eyes of the American press and fans. The true Mayhem was gone. Varg Vikernes was in prison, rendering Burzum lifeless. Darkthrone had lost their creative fire, sinking into mediocrity. Even Immortal deteriorated, releasing their worst album a few months earlier. And, unfortunately, Gorgoroth seemed to be under the radar for most. So, in this dark age, bands like Emperor and Satyricon (among others) seemed to inherit the throne. Had Emperor released another In the Nightside Eclipse, this may have been warranted. But, in fact, they had chosen to go down a different path; one that would lead them farther and farther away from what Black Metal truly was. While Anthems... still possesses sufficient qualities of the sub-genre to be included, their efforts on this album were in no way adequate enough to justify the level of praise that was received and, try as they might, they certainly were not the heirs of Mayhem.

It was in the wake of the Reverence E.P. that I became fully aware of this band. Going back to late 1996, Black Metal was still defined (for me) by Venom, old Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, etc. I was still being introduced to the early material from bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone, both of which seemed incredibly dark and obscure at the time. In an age when the internet was still in its infancy (and still several years before I had regular access anyway), discovering such music was no easy task. However, it was already becoming clear that Emperor was one of the most popular of these Norwegian bands, and that rubbed me the wrong way. In most cases, whatever path the herd chooses, I usually go the other way. The more Emperor t-shirts I saw at school, the less I wanted to give them a chance. Finally, around the release of Anthems..., I heard "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" and something about it appealed to me. However, not long after getting this album, the decision was made to seek out their earlier material and, there, I found the true quality recordings by this band. In retrospect, I can't say that this was a worthless album, as it served the purpose of leading me to Wrath of the Tyrants and In the Nightside Eclipse.

Getting into the music, the negative aspects shall first be addressed. The production is horrendous. The band must have been quite proud of their new drummer, Trym, as his instrument is way too high in the mix. To make matters worse, his style is too... busy. Fast drumming is fine and it suits the pace of the music, yet he seems to be doing too much and it distracts from, what should be, the true focal point: the guitars. However, the drumming is not the only obstacle, as an even more diabolical culprit is standing between the riffs and the ears of the listener. The synth is overpowering, throughout this record. For a good deal of the time, it really feels as if the guitar riffs are in the role of some background effect, only there to take up space. It's the drums, synth and vocals that drive a large portion of this album.

The first problem with this is that synth should never be the focus of a Black Metal song, period. If it is used at all, it must be done tastefully, only being used to accentuate the atmosphere already being created by the conventional instruments. When a band relies on synth as the be-all, end-all of their aura, then there is a fundamental problem with their songwriting, at its core. The thing about Emperor is that they actually have a decent amount of riffs on this album. Of course, there are a lot of pointless riffs as well, quite possibly because the guitars are put in a subservient role to the rest of the instruments. The most confusing thing of all is that, at least 50% of the time, the synth actually works to undermine the atmosphere that (one would assume) that band is going for. More often than not, it serves only to lighten the mood or to create a general sense of confusion, as there is simply too much going on. The production makes this even worse, as it possesses a very claustrophobic quality. While being very clear (and overproduced), there isn't enough room to accommodate everything that is going on. Of course, this leads back to the songwriting, itself, as well as the choice to place the drumming and synth so high in the mix.

Vocally, Ihsahn attempts quite a bit of clean singing on here, and it's done well enough. Thankfully, it is buried in the mix, to an extent, creating a nice effect. One can tell that he's not entirely comfortable doing it, so it possesses just enough sincerity and effort to be appreciated. Later on, his growing confidence only increased the obnoxious nature of his clean vocals. Outside of this new element, the vocal performance is similar to that of In the Nightside Eclipse, while being a bit more controlled. It would be considered detrimental; however, the style of this album dictated that everything be more tight and precise, for better or for worse.

As for the songwriting, there are moments where the band really shines. The slow section of "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" is very well done and captures the right atmosphere. Similarly, there are brief glimpses of skill in "Ensorcelled by Khaos", before the 'happy' synth drowns everything out and ruins the feeling. "The Loss and Curse of Reverence" appears to have the most in common with the material of the previous album, containing some of the best riffs. Again, the synth kills much of its momentum and one gets the feeling that it would have benefited from the production of In the Nightside Eclipse. Eliminating the keyboards and the middle section of the song would have been a major improvement. "The Acclamation of Bonds" has a handful of strong riffs as well, though the most notable one has to be the part lifted from Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls". It wouldn't be a bad tribute, except for the fact that Ihsahn later claimed that they came up with the riff all on their own and pretended not to notice the incredible similarity with the original (even despite the decision to add in the sound of a funeral bell).

All in all, the songwriting is pretty weak. For every good riff to be found here, there are half a dozen useless riffs. And even during the brief moments of would-be brilliance, there are usually a number of factors that prevent the total enjoyment of those as well. Good riffs, often drowned out by bad synth, tied together by intrusive drumming and a multitude of background guitar that never asserts its dominance in the mix. And, perhaps the saddest thing about this album is that the very best riff of the entire thing was written by someone else and ripped off.

When I first got the album, my impression of this was a little better. Because of the handful of decent riffs, I managed to block out much of the rest. As well, 90% of the intro can be ignored as it goes from setting a proper mood to being nothing short of comical. But the one thing that really sticks out is the opening riff of "Ye Entrancemperium". It lasts all of 20 seconds, but Emperor does their best to use that momentum to carry them through the rest of this half-baked attempt of creating a Black Metal album. And who is responsible for that riff? Euronymous. I didn't notice his name in the credits until after several listens and, back then, I simply assumed that he had written it and given it to them for later use. In truth, it was stolen. They merely heard it on some old Mayhem rehearsal and used it for themselves. At least they gave credit where it was due. Sadly, this single riff (that never even made it onto a proper Mayhem release) is the most intense and pure half minute of Black Metal on the whole album. The members of Emperor are very capable musicians. They play with a high level of skill and, any time they record a cover song, it's done incredibly well; i.e. "A Fine Day to Die", "Funeral Fog", "Cromlech", etc. But the inclusion of this Euronymous riff is further evidence that they are much better at recording the material of others than writing their own.

In the end, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is not the masterpiece that many hailed it as. On the contrary, it is a monumental failure. The highlight of the record is a stolen riff from a band whose rehearsal recordings are more enjoyable than this. The brilliance of In the Nightside Eclipse had faded, and only a few remnants were left to hearken back to those days. And even still, most of those were so enshrouded in synth nonsense as to leave them difficult to fully appreciate. As is often the case, the integrity of the band was traded for popularity and wider acceptance.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Black Funeral - Empire of Blood (1997)

American Black Metal is something that, in general, I have little or no interest in. In particular, as it relates to the Second Wave. Too many had been consuming a diet of pure Death Metal for many years, by the time the sounds of the Second Wave reached these damned shores. Sure, there were some that were knowledgeable about the European underground scene, but the majority didn't learn of this until the media hype and the 1993 Kerrang article, in particular. Between this, the church burnings and the murder of Euronymous, people in the US began to take notice and to start investigating these new bands. If one pays attention, it's easy to see that most of the best-known American Black Metal bands didn't come into existence until the mid-to-late 90s, at the earliest. That is, with the exception of those that really had no influence from the Second Wave to begin with.

Either way, what you find is that there is a strong Death Metal mentality to the music, and it persists to this day. The sound is, often, bereft of melody and maintains a 'brutal' approach. The imagery and, maybe, even the overall production will be altered, but the core remains firmly rooted in Death Metal. Some don't even bother to use higher-pitched vocals, sticking to the guttural style. But this is only one example.

The other side goes to the opposite end of the spectrum, stealing some elements from Burzum and Strid, creating the so-called Depressive Black Metal. Usually, this is created by a single person that was, previously, deep into Goth music. They possess just enough guitar skill to get by, and add a drum program and effects for the vocals and the end result is yet another steaming pile of feces, masquerading as Black Metal.

Needless to say, when it comes to American bands, my expectations are low. When I was exposed to Black Funeral, I still didn't have much hope, despite the year of the recordings. Would it be a poor man's attempt at ripping off Darkthrone and Burzum, mixed with Death Metal breakdowns (like Judas Iscariot), or something that opted to mimic Burzum and Strid (like I Shalt Become)? Surprisingly, what I found was something that maintained a raw and dark feeling. And while the influences were fairly obvious, it was still done in an interesting manner. Instead of ripping off Norway's finest and mixing it with Death Metal, Black Funeral sounds much more influenced by the likes of Moonblood and the LLN. And, yes, all of those were influenced by Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum, in some way, they also added their own elements into the sound.

Empire of Blood is the second full-length album by the American Black Metal band, Black Funeral, released in 1997 on Full Moon Productions. The music has been described, by the main figure behind the band, as "Grim Medieval Vampiric Black Metal". Honestly, this sums things up, pretty well. The feeling is dark and evil, while possessing the right amounts of gloom. It's primitive, yet the structures are a little more involved than one might expect. The songs consist of more than two riffs, for example, so it's not quite as minimalist as Transilvanian Hunger. The guitars stand out pretty well, despite the rough production. The melodies are easy to follow and are quite memorable. There may be another reason for that, in some cases, but I'll address that later.

Compared to Vampyr - Throne of the Beast, this album seems a little tighter and the feeling is slightly colder. The bass isn't as present as on the first record, eliminating some of the warmth. The vocals are shrieked and the mic is atrocious, which works for this style. If anything, the vocals certainly remind of some of the LLN bands, or even the demos from Emperor and Enslaved, being nearly impossible to decipher and seeming like possessed howls and shrieks. At certain points, there are bits of chanting/moaning added, for effect. The drumming is just as it should be; an afterthought. The drums are there to keep time, not to take away from the guitar melodies, and sometimes they get a little lost in the mix. No complaints, here.

Of course, there is a serious reason to complain about Empire of Blood. I'm not an expert on this band, but all of my research has led me to believe that Vampyr - Throne of the Beast is the first official album of Black Funeral, as opposed to being a demo. That said, I must wonder about the motivation to re-record so much of the first album, changing song titles, and then passing it off as a new effort. Only two of the songs weren't re-recorded for Empire of Blood, both of those being intro/ambient pieces. "Ex Sanguini Draculae" became "Opferblut". "The Floating Blue Witchlight" became "The Land of Phantoms". "Spectral Agony of Pain and Loneliness" was transformed into "Bathory Incarnate (Goddess of Death Arises)". The same for "Of Dark and Crimson Spheres" being labeled "Leviathan - The Black Oceans Roar" and "Vampyr - Throne of the Beast" morphing into "Empire of Blood" (though clever that the title track of the first album is altered, slightly, and becomes the title track of the second album as well).

It's one thing to be strongly influenced by other bands, and for that to be evident in your music. As long as you are competent in what you're doing, few will raise an eyebrow at such a common occurrence. But to re-record 95% of an album and release the same material again seems a bit lazy. The songs are, generally faster and the playing is improved to a small degree. Also, the vocals are more in the Black Metal style, as they were a bit deeper on the original versions. However, there were no serious flaws with the recordings on the debut album. At least, none that warranted that everything was in need of being re-recorded and passed off as a new album.

Empire of Blood is a good album, being much better than any of their American counterparts in the Black Metal scene of the era. It doesn't quite hold up to anything that was happening in Europe at the time, but that's a matter of opinion. While this is recommended, it's best that you choose between the first and second albums, as only one is really necessary. It all depends on the preferences of the listener.