Monday, March 18, 2013

Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance (2013)

Since the release of The Cult Is Alive, each new effort from Darkthrone has been greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. One is never fully sure what Nocturno Culto and Fenriz might have up their sleeves, given their total willingness to take chances and to give a middle finger to their critics. That is not to say that their albums have become random or nonsensical, for this is not the case. Each one picks up from its predecessor in a rather logical way, yet still there are odd surprises to be found. After Circle the Wagons, the band took a bit of a break, making this the longest that fans have had to wait for a proper full-length since the time period between Total Death and Ravishing Grimness. So, once news came of its impending release in February 2013, many were eagerly looking forward to the emergence of The Underground Resistance. The title is obviously a nod to all of those keeping the old school spirit alive in this modern age of filth and disgust, and the music follows suit.

From the opening moments of "Dead Early", one is bathed in dirty, '80s-inspired riffs that possess the same sort of nasty edge that was found on Dark Thrones and Black Flags. This tune is rather fast-paced and energetic, while also being quite dynamic. The songwriting features a mixture of Thrash and Speed Metal, along with the d-beat drumming, joined by Nocturno Culto's old school vocal approach. This style took some getting used to, years ago, but the truth is that his approach almost had to regress just as the music did for it all to flow well together. Late in the song, there is a section where the main riff stands alone for a few moments, sort of reminiscent of "The Death of All Oaths". This is a good song to open the album, doing a good job of setting the tone and letting you know what to expect.

Of course, "Valkyrie" shatters those expectations, throughout its intro. The acoustic guitar and slow Doom riff sound like something from a Viking-era Bathory album. It is also here that one notices that the production is a little cleaner and thicker than on the previous album. This mournful dirge leads into the most shocking part of the record, a full-on Speed Metal song with Fenriz utilizing clean vocals throughout its entirety. As with some of his other forays into melodic singing on recent Darkthrone albums, this is incredibly awkward and off-putting upon first listen. And yet, somehow, it is so catchy and memorable that one cannot help but warm up to it. Say what you will about his voice, but he certainly sounds impassioned and genuine and manages to fit to the music more than adequately. There's somewhat of a sombre feeling to this track, not just during the slower sections, but in Fenriz's voice itself. The haunting melody at the end of the song really emphasizes this dark sentiment.

"Lesser Men" has the unenviable task of following up its epic predecessor, but the foreboding riffs conjure up an evil and primitive feeling from the beginning. There is a noticeable Celtic Frost influence to some of the riffs, with nice solos from Nocturno Culto. Even though they have moved on from pure Black Metal, his riffs still maintain a sort of darkness that most bands trying this style are simply incapable of matching. That is often the difference between bands that were there when this type of music was in its heyday and those that came along long after, just trying to recreate the sound without a full understanding of it. Clearly, Darkthrone's old school roots enable them to better tap into that primordial evil.

Next is "The Ones You Left Behind", which is another song penned by Fenriz and features a mixture of clean and harsh vocals. The overall atmosphere is less dark than on Nocturno Culto's songs, with the d-beat drumming, less serious vocal approach and the more light-hearted guitar melodies. This one is rather simplistic and straightforward, but enjoyable nonetheless.

"Come Warfare, the Entire Doom" immediately takes you to a darker place, with the slow Doom riffs and wailing lead guitar screaming out from the shadows. As the song moves forward, the pace picks up a bit, but never really becomes fast, until very late. The riffs have sort of a sombre tone and Nocturno Culto's voice has a grim snarl that seems more and more disgusted with this world, taking on a rather morbid feeling at certain points. There are brief tremolo passages that lead to more solos, which makes one wonder what could have been if the band had embraced the use of solos years earlier. This song is rather lengthy, clocking in around eight and a half minutes, though it could have been shortened a bit.

The album ends with "Leave No Cross Unturned", another Fenriz track that extends past the thirteen-minute mark. The riffing is far more intense and dark than on his other two songs, making this one fit in with Nocturno Culto's tracks a little better. This was the first song that many of us heard from this record and it is still quite a lot to digest. The clean vocals and lead solos are memorable and the riffs are drenched in mid-'80s Thrash glory, mixed in with some of the prerequisite Celtic Frost influence. This includes some eerie moaning in the distance, giving somewhat of a ghoulish feeling. It is almost humourous to think of the fact that Darkthrone has written more songs with this typical Tom Warrior style of guitar playing than Mr. Warrior himself. No matter how much the band changes, their number-one inspiration remains ever-present in their songwriting. One of the chief complaints regarding this track is that its content does not warrant such a lengthy running time. This criticism is somewhat justified, as despite the good riffs and solos, this could have easily been cut down by a minimum of five minutes. The Morbid Tales worship in the middle becomes slightly monotonous after a while. Once things pick back up, Fenriz gets a little more wild in his vocal delivery, including some unexpected shrieks. The song then ends with another mid-paced riff and lead section that sounds somehow familiar, though I can't place it.

So, in the end, The Underground Resistance fully lives up to its name. This record is dominated by a pure, old school feeling throughout and sounds like something that could have been released in the mid-'80s. Like the last album, this one may take a little time to grow on some listeners. My immediate impression is that this fails to fully live up to the quality that I hoped for, since the release of Dark Thrones and Black Flags, but it seems to be a step up from Circle the Wagons. Everything is very solid and the riffs are all good, but the one weakness is that there are hardly any of the truly great riffs that characterized their '06-'08 output. After such a long layoff, one would have imagined something a little more monumental regarding the actual content rather than song length. Either way, Nocturno Culto and Fenriz are still doing their part to contribute to the struggle for maintaining the old school, pure Metal feeling as they wage war against the trendy, plastic drones of modernity. Hopefully, more aspiring musicians look to them for direction rather than the legions of the false path.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Burzum - Umskiptar (2012)

Released in May 2012, Umskiptar is the ninth full-length album from Burzum. This record is somewhat unique within the discography of Varg Vikernes, and it is something that may take a little time for some to fully digest. Surely, this has very little connection to the realm of Black Metal that initially gave birth to this musical project. With that said, there is a clear line of evolution from the old to the new, as Umskiptar picks up from where Fallen left off and continues to develop further away from the old sound. All the while, the everything contained on this album is unquestionably identifiable as Burzum.

This album has been described by its creator as "Skaldic Metal", and the lyrics were taken from the Völuspá. Due to the nature of the lyrical content, it would be easy to assume that this represents sort of a loss of the personal touch that previously existed, but of course that discounts that it was still Varg who chose what elements of this poem to focus on. Musically, what we have here is a rather stripped-down record of down-tempo pieces that imbue the listener with feelings of sorrow and loss. There has always been a melancholic element found on Burzum albums and Umskiptar is no exception, though the approach is rather different. Though there are a handful of fast-picked riffs, that actual tempo as dictated by the percussion goes from mid-paced to a doom-like crawl. "Jóln" is probably the most active and dynamic track on here, despite being rather subdued by most standards. There is nothing in the vein of "Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown", "Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn" or even "Keliohesten" on this record. In fact, as the album goes along, it seems to get slower and slower, with the guitar playing a less prominent role and fading into the background. The trio of "Alfadanz", "Hit helga Tré" and "Æra" represents the strongest and most conventional segment of the album and are comprised of moody and sombre guitar melodies that would not have been out of place on the last couple of releases. "Hit helga Tré", in particular, is built on primitive riffs with strong doom tendencies, featuring a haunting tremolo melody that flows throughout as Varg's almost corpse-like voice is infiltrated by moments of humanity. This may be the most memorable song on here. The experimentation continues, as later songs feature no harsh vocals at all, for the first time ever. Some of these are hit-and-miss. The vocals, especially, seem somewhat disconnected from the music. At some points, it feels like the music is just background noise for some spoken-word pieces."Heiðr" is a good example of this. That is not to say that all of the clean vocals are done in this manner. "Galgviðr" actually utilizes clean singing, not just speaking, throughout its entirety. Still, there are moments when one may wish for one of the trademark instrumental tracks from Burzum's past. "Surtr Sunnan", for one, sounds very reminiscent of the older material and would have been more enjoyable without any lyrics. Regardless of whatever complaints I may have with some elements of the album, everything still flows together very well and Umskiptar is rather cohesive and solid. The whole thing comes together, very well, in dragging the listener into another world. By the time "Gullaldr" arrives, you get the feeling that the life is slowly draining out of you. Unlike in the past, there is hardly any sense of suffering or anguish here. It almost puts you in a dreamlike state and the main feeling is one of relief, as the cold winds of death carry you away.

The production suits the music. Nothing about this sounds modern, really. The guitar is rather dominant in the mix, at least during the tracks that really highlight it as the most important instrument. Later in the album, it seems to fade a bit, though this is likely due to the nature of the compositions. Everything is rather clear, allowing for the various melodies to stand out and to be easily recognizable. The sound is certainly cleaner that even the previous album, which was not all that harsh by any stretch. One complaint would be that the vocals are a little too clear, at times, as even the moisture on Varg's tongue can be heard. This is quite distracting.

Umskiptar is certainly a unique album and it is one that many, myself included, may not immediately be able to wrap their head around. That would seem to directly contradict the claims of some that Varg only resurrected Burzum to cash in on its name value (if so, why would he stray from the tried and true formula of past albums to experiment so much, if not for artistic purposes?). For those that are interested in music on a deeper level, rather than seeking only instant gratification, this is surely worth the time to explore. Whether you want to consider this some sort of Black, Folk or Skaldic Metal (or something outside of Metal, completely), one cannot argue that this is very genuine and atmospheric music that speaks to something inside of us in a way that words often fail to do. Though I would say "Hit helga Tré" and "Gullaldr" are the best songs on here, it is best for you to just immerse yourself into the whole album and see where it takes you.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Horna - Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa (2013)

Since the release of Sanojesi Äärelle, Horna had been unusually silent. There have been a handful of releases, including a live album and a collection of songs recorded some years earlier, as well as an anniversary E.P. that featured the band's original line-up. Shatraug also took time to work on side projects, such as Sargeist and Mortualia. In the meantime, Corvus left the band to focus on other things. Fans were given their first taste of new vocalist Spellgoth on the Adventus Satanae mini-album. After some delays, in March 2013, Horna finally returned with a new full-length, Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa.

The production is pretty grimy and primitive, which is usually a good thing. In this case, the drums are far too loud in the mix and the guitar melodies are somewhat difficult to follow. The more active the percussion becomes, the less one is able to discern one riff from another. Horna has been going for a rather lo-fi and raw approach for the last decade or so, but this is sometimes hit-and-miss. The sound here isn't on the level of an old Moonblood rehearsal, but it could have been tweaked a bit.

Stylistically, there are no surprises to be found. The band's roots in the early '90s Black Metal scene are on display, as usual. However, this record does seem to be lacking the eerily haunting riffs that characterized Envaatnags Eflos Solf Esgantaavne and Sanojesi Äärelle. The songwriting is solid and maintains a consistent feeling throughout, never straying from the pure Black Metal sound that Horna is known for. Unfortunately, the album comes off as a little too safe and predictable. This can be a good thing in some cases. For any other band, this would be a rather good album. Released under the banner of Horna, it seems to be missing something. Spellgoth's vocals don't help, either. He isn't bad at his job, but he relies a bit too much on the random shouts that Nazgul was known for, years earlier. For the most part, he is a capable vocalist, but he doesn't really command your attention in the way that Corvus did. Still, he suits the music well enough. The songwriting is rather straightforward, with a few less meaningful tempo changes than before. There are also less of the catchy riffs that Shatraug is known for, though a few are present. Over the course of the album, the quality of the music seems to improve a bit. Songs like "Ei Aikaa Kyyneleille" and "Kärsimyksin Vuoltu Hänen Valittuna Äänenään" feature some of the first really memorable riffs on the whole record. During the faster parts of the latter track, the tremolo melodies are almost hypnotic and epic, with the drumming seeming to fade into the background like a heavy rain on a metal roof that you gradually come to disregard. "Aamutähden Pyhimys" features a slower section, near the end, that somewhat captures the mournful feeling conveyed by much of the band's output.

All in all, Horna fans have no reason to dislike this, though some may have been expecting a little more monumental after such a long wait. Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa is a solid album, better than any of the full-lengths from the Nazgul era. Judging by the songwriting and production, this sounds like it could have been released in 1993 and is recommended for anyone that is looking for old school Black Metal with no traces of modern filth. While it is not the type of album that will floor most people on the first listen, it will likely grow on you over time.