Sacramentum - Far Away From the Sun
Even in the insular world of black metal, celebrity and sensationalism often serve to shape perception in ways that obscure the actual nature of reality. A classic case in point is illustrated by the relative notoriety of Dissection when compared with other Swedish black metal acts of the mid 1990s (most notably Sacramentum and Dawn). Despite being considerably inferior to and far more conventional than their peers, Dissection is seen as the leading light of Sweden's melodic black metal movement, largely due to the relentless self-promotion of band leader Jon Nodtveidt (who spent much of the 90s making empty threats against Burzum's Varg Vikernes), as well as Nodtveidt's much publicized arrest and conviction for the brutal (and unprovoked) murder of a homosexual. The hype propelled Dissection to a deal with metal major Nuclear Blast at a time when its contemporaries were languishing on small European labels with limited (or no) access to British and North American distribution channels.
As a result, brilliant albums like Sacramentum's Far Away From the Sun
remain quite obscure (or worse, simply dismissed as 'Dissection clones') while a mediocrity like Storm of the Light's Bane
is widely hailed as a genre-defining classic. This, of course, could not be farther from the truth. Far Away From the Sun
is no Dissection rip-off, and, indeed, not only far exceeds anything Dissection released, but must be counted among the very best metal albums ever recorded.
That isn't to say that there aren't some superficial similarities between the bands. Like Dissection, Sacramentum developed an approach that focused on the melodic possibilities of black metal, as well as bringing a level of technical precision hitherto uncommon in the genre. However, where Dissection offered a summary of several generations of metal technique through allusions to death metal (percussion), black metal (vocals and riff texture) and heavy metal (tonal consonance and Maidenesque guitar harmonies), Far Away From the Sun
finds Sacramentum firmly rooted in black metal while looking back and forward to a more classically constructed expressive form.
Technically, this album is masterful. While the playing isn't showy or athletic, it is highly complex and pulled off with absolute precision by the band. Music like this doesn't just happen, it requires great skill to play and great intelligence and passion to create. Far Away From the Sun
is like a Gothic cathedral, a towering monument to darkness and light that yields its secrets reluctantly, but rewards the patient listener with a work of ecstatic beauty (the mix is excellent, making use of a subtle layering of instruments that is both echoing and dense at the same time, while still leaving each distinctly audible). Flowing, labyrinthine melodies with a distinctly classical turn are the order of the day, and this sense is heightened by Sacramentum's frequent use of polyphony and counterpoint (both between guitar lines and between guitar and bass), giving Far Away From the Sun
a decidedly ancient
Where Far Away From the Sun
truly excels is in its ability to create and sustain a sense of unfolding unfolding drama, both internally within individual songs, and holistically, when taken as an album. A overriding tension between creation and dissolution dominates the album, played out through the clever manipulation of contrast: consonance wars with dissonance and ambiguous resolutions, long legato melodic phrases are deconstructed by frenetic bursts of blasting percussion, and the essential beauty of the music is set against the throat shredding vocal performance of singer/bassist Nisse Karlén. While none of the songs are particularly long by metal standards, Sacramentum's mastery of dynamic tension (which emerges not so much in overt variation of volume, but in the more subtle manipulation of riff textures, chord shapes and rhythmic patterns to create contrasts in intensity) renders each song a truly epic mini-opus driving toward a conclusion that is simultaneously hopeful yet ultimately tragic.