Article Contributed by Salustiano Ferdinand
tl;dr: Despite controversy surrounding the indie pedigree of Weakling’s musicians and their musical descendants, Dead as Dreams remains, as described by none other than Fenriz, an “odd masterpiece” on its musical merits and should be a part of any serious underground metal fan’s collection. The album, for a number of reasons, is currently something of a locus of blame for whatever particular sins people ascribe to west coast black metal. Some people point to Weakling as the origin point of indie creep into US black metal due to the supposed indie credibility of its members in particular as well as to a lesser extent the trend of questionable publicity stunts engaged in by mediocre bands from Velvet Cocoon to Ghost Bath (although in Weakling’s case this should be blamed on the label, not the band). As a result of these complaints, Dead As Dreams has over time become something of an Emmanuel Goldstein for black metal fans, and the album some people are critiquing when they say “Dead as Dreams” (such as the time DMU’s most alpha editor described it as “shoegaze black metal”) bears little resemblance to the actual album Dead As Dreams.
It is only possible that the album most often critiqued bears no resemblance to the actual album because the aforementioned criticisms have nothing to do with the music itself. Diving into it, Dead as Dreams is a musically inspired album that puts the instrumental talents and pedigree of its musicians (who also play and played in a variety of bands, metal, punk, and in Josh Smith’s case, the instrumental 90% metal/10% math rock band The Fucking Champs) on full display. The album contains a wide variety of moods and ideas but remains focused for most of its length, which is impressive given the epic structure and length of its tracks (none are under 10 minutes, and the longest is over 20). Unlike a lot of other bands that explore tracks this long, the compositions are for the most part rooted in variations of sonata or sonata-rondo form which allows the quality of the individual musical themes and ideas to shine. Additionally, the black metal genre focus and intent of the album serves as a unifying factor that glues together the musicians (who might otherwise meander off too far in mood and cause the album to become blatantly confused in intent) into a sum of more than its parts. Like many classic metal albums, Dead As Dreams is an album to listen to for the strength of its instrumental imagination. The production is clear but not overtly hi-fidelity, all musical parts are clearly audible and the mix is balanced. The vocals are appropriately somewhat quiet, as the main focus is the instrumentation. The overall feeling of the album inhabits a psychedelic space rather than any rural, urban, or fantastical space, and reminds me more of other epic and abstract musical explorations such as Esoteric’s The Pernicious Enigma rather than its direct musical descendants which tend towards hyper-urban or hyper-rural, more worldly aesthetics. Due to the scale of its structures and its length, this album in particular requires full attention with no distraction to fully appreciate; de-immersion will disrupt your perspective of the album’s flow. Therefore, though I recommend this for most serious listening, I recommend listening to this album in particular at night in darkness or appropriately dim lighting if you can get away with it.
The opening track, “Cut Their Grain And Place Fire Therein,” is very strong. It contains both the most straightforward sonata-rondo structure and the most straightforward themes and riffs on the album, contributing well to its function as opener. However, in the case of this album, “the most straightforward” is still rather epic in length and structure, and even this “most straightforward” track journeys through several themes and mood developments before concluding on a slower adagietto variation of the initial theme.
By now you should be fully immersed in the album’s soundscape and “Dead As Dreams,” the title track, beginning on a slow yet vivid instrumental buildup (perhaps the source of some claims that this is a post-rock/black metal album, however I will not comment further on this as it is irrelevant) blossoms into a potent and varied exploration of the album’s abstract and psychedelic mood before concluding on perhaps the most abstract and dreamlike riff on the album, which then becomes a drone. It is worth noting that “Cut Their Grain And Place Fire Therein” and this track function similarly to the Det som en gang var/Hvis lyset tar oss combo on Burzum’s Hvis lyset tar oss, helping the flow of the album greatly. This is all the more important due to the length of the album and its tracks.
“This Entire Fucking Battlefield” feels more like a continuation of the title track than its own track when listening to the album as a whole, however, this is not an issue as its musical scenes are just as memorable and it does not disrupt the flow of the album as long as you have remained immersed throughout the title track. This track again proceeds through a variety of mood exploration, though this time in a more explicit sonata structure, before concluding on a more extensively explored sequence of dreamlike riffs than in the title track, and a restatement of its initial theme.
“No One Can Be Called A Man As He Dies” is when the epic length and structures of the album begin to take their toll. This track, while still relatively dreamlike, makes the mistake of disrupting the immersion gained over the previous tracks with more traditionally violent metal rhythms. This is probably the album’s weakest track, and while one theme in particular (later to be blatantly ripped off by Wolves In The Throne Room on “Queen of the Borrowed Light” on Diadem of 12 Stars) is especially memorable, it descends into a section of dissonance that comes dangerously close to feeling nonsensical.
“Desasters In The Sun” returns to the dreamlike psychedelia of “Dead As Dreams” and “This Entire Fucking Battlefield”, though with significantly increased intensity and darkness in the themes after the initial buildup that thereafter is only interrupted once until it concludes with a slow, dissonant and melancholic theme that decays into dissonance and a synth drone.
Overall, the strength and quality of Dead As Dreams’ music establishes it as a second-tier classic. It does go on a little too long and the last two tracks are of lesser quality to the first three and do not appreciably contribute to the album’s flow. However, in a time where the metal underground is littered with worldly concerns such as political ideology, musically uninspired rehashes with glossy, plastic sound and basic, uninspired structures attempting to make the most of mediocre composition, it is worth remembering that metal’s greatest chapter began with Varg Vikernes’ escapist fantasy of “stimulating the fantasy of mortals.” Dead As Dreams accomplishes this while coming about as close to the ideal of a fully instrumental metal album standing on the merit of its composition (despite possessing vocals, which are de-emphasized) as has yet been seen in the metal underground.