We all know that black metal essentially pulled an Amber Heard back in 1994, and that death metal had died the previous year, having said all that they wanted to say and now resting while the world took the next thirty years to assimilate the meaning. However, some standouts bucked the trend.
Troll – Drep de kristne (1996)
Troll latches on to the style of Arcturus or early Emperor, but sounds also like Kvist sans more complex developments and interactions between riffs. The prominence of the keyboards is a gimmic used by many so called symphonic black metal bands as a cheap mean to create notions of beauty and depth, while underneath is the most basic norsecore, if there ever was any.
With Troll all qualities are at least one step higher than that. The keyboards are simply designated to be a focal point, taking the leading role in presenting the main themes and successions and they sufficiently fulfill their task of defining the songs, while the guitars, if only they don’t play in unision with keyboards, descent into a sort of a blurry backdrop. It’s certainly listenable, but still, it was only as much as was absolutely needed for it to somewhat work and the real achievement here is to be Norwegian at the time and already create such a stifled, lukewarm black metal.
After excluding pointless intros and two non-metal instrumentals, we are left with about 25 minutes of music which is by all means proper, but very clearly lacking ambition and energy. Actually the whole attitude presented here, the band’s name, overall aesthetics, token antichristianity, which doesn’t really fit the style, and finally the music itself, signalizes taking very easy way to acquire some of the genre’s characteristics, almost as if it was following recipe for populist black metal noted by someone cynically looking at it from the outside.
Diabolical Masquerade – Ravendusk in my heart (1996)
Due to overall aesthetics and accumulation of diverse ideas and styles, despite not introducing some really unorthodox elements, it is music as carnival as it possibly can be and still remain identifiable, technically, as traditional Swedish black metal. At the core however, it’s more like heavy metal.
Songs are cheesy, melodramatic and full of borrowings to the point of pastiche, which acts here as a musical equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. It presents this very obvious pose and aping of themes and methods of Emperor and Immortal in a somewhat deliberate, semi-ironic way. Some solid content is there, in the riffs, and potentially the listener can at times be carried away by them on some journey, courtesy of sheer musicanship and prowess in genre’s lexicon; or rather on a short trip, because the mastermind behind Diabolical Masquerade, Blackheim of Katatonia fame, doesn’t know or simply doesn’t care when he catches on something worthy of introducing, developing or resolving in a more respectful way.
Overall, it’s either a sort of mockery or exercise. As such it really cannot pass as an invitation into what would be someone’s, perhaps a bit eccentric, but otherwise perfectly genuine creations and times. Some consolation comes from the fact, that what is actually salvageable here was already heard elsewhere in a more serious manner and in a more coherent context.
In Battle – In Battle (1997)
At its craziest it is like a different, alternative kind of war metal, a battle metal, as if created as a result of seeking one of the possible consequence of Immortal instead of Blasphemy. Proportionally subtler, it is though as excessive for its own good as its more rhythm based counterpart. In fact, succeeding in such intense styles remain extremely rare.
Thus, even if we swap grinding chromaticism with furious delivery of more melodic content, but fragmented and served haphazardly at breakneck speed which doesn’t provide enough time or space to evoke much meaning, it merely leaves listener in awe of a monstrous sonic feat. Just not one which is truly felt. Songs are indiscriminately mimicking shortcomings of Blizzard Beasts, so they sound disorganized and underdeveloped, despite having a lot of intricacies packed into them. As to their potential, emerging motifs themselves are at times great (not so much connecting of these), but just as often they feel underutilized and dropped too early in those brief pieces, which are trying to escape monotony of intensity through complexity.
While all of that isn’t particularily hard to follow, it perhaps presents itself most favorably when it’s listened like a technical death metal, where the music is a stream of violent code. Spacier atmospheres of black metal are more often suggested here than conveyed by the actual music. It certainly borrows from death metal and while not giving itself entirely to its logic, it is automatically left with very little of that poetry which once made the music of mad Norwegian scalds so enticing and powerful.
Although it occasionally comes into clarity as the album progress and opens up a bit in the second half, where also some of the more accomplished clashes of riffs occur, overall it remains suffocated by the chosen framework. As such, In Battle is destined to end with a slew of death/black metal alongside bands like Marduk, despite coming from a different angle and with perfectly reasonable idea, which in theory looked like the most right thing to do, nay, a logic.
Ancient Wisdom – The Calling (1997)
Simple music is often just a flimsy pretext to simply sing the story, but this calm, meditiative experience seems to be deliberately crafted in such way. It’s a bit like a play, an act presented in a form, where music is designated to be a backdrop for words or some imaginary scene to which it only sets the tone and as such it can afford to be less dominant and expressive.
Because of that it is perhaps mostly “intellectual” experience, one which prompts listener to carefully follow its sparse means and provides interesting study of its choices, its choreography, scenography etc., but it’s also an unfulfilling one. The Calling sounds like an attempt of a style, where Greek elegance is merged with some of the ambience of Burzum. The former is present in theatric, doomy riffs and slowly served mediterranean-sounding melodies, while the latter in wintery, arpeggiated chords, but this synthesis isn’t seamless and for the most part Ancient Wisdom returns to more generalised metal structures.
The album culminates in the first half of its length with “Spiritual Forces of Evil in the Heavenly Realms,” where it nails its desired method and starts to narrate very nicely through it, with all of the sparingly, yet well placed subtleties becoming important for the whole. Alas, its immedietely noticeable weaknesses persists to the end. Despite “baroque” decorations it feels bare, too meandering and inconclusive or simply hollow due to lack of substance, especially given the length of the songs. After proving that it’s capable to create grand and tense pieces using its idiosyncratic method, Ancient Wisdom looses clarity in the second part of the album and towards the end completely falls apart.
Helheim – Av norrøn ætt (1997)
Viking metal in the proper, black metal sense instead of usual generic heavy/progressive mix. Within those long and circular sequences Helheim provides very broad and comprehensive experience disciplined by metal framework, solidifying both extremities of the genre and its less canonical fringes. Not as much through the guitar as by other instruments and vocals.
Prominent and busy bass gives it a prog edge, for which affinity was present from the very inception of this subgenre, but Hellheim have managed to avoid obvious “musicanship” of later acts, which often results in hearing the band, instruments, or just the sounds instead of the meaning. Here, at its most organic moments, bass is realised in a way, in which there is still potential almost untapped in black metal to this day. Pathos normally expected from music with such premises is suppressed. It is not as much dark as infinitely colorless, depicting bleak, severe landscape, where rare triumphs are brief and easily goes unnoticed amidst joyless toils. It is contrasted with some adornments used to evoke folkish airs, with some parts apparently even build around them. Those are easy to tell and can be considered extraneous, but again, whenever they seemlessly grow into songs it is for their benefit.
There are some surprisingly modern fragments, few Strid-like riffs are already getting close to the point beyond which there is only droning formlessness, a prefiguration of that apathy which at some point permeated almost the whole genre. It captures perfectly what is rooted in Scandinavian psyche, certain imprint of its landscape, which like its myths is so sad, so cruel yet so beautifull, but at the same time it captures also what is perhaps its inherent fracture, as in those vast spaces painted by too broad strokes of blank expressions, something foreign is already creeping into the picture; a potentiality of a very different, compromised emotionality. What supposed to be bold and undaunted reveals cracks of uncertainty. Still, Helheim also manage to touch few hard-coded archetypes, and the ones of a more developed variety at that, and the power to channel some of that otherwordly quality which transcend musical piece really should’t be neglected.
Overall, Av norrøn ætt is strong and memorable, despite not possessing all of the components which have made greats so enduring. It is very accesible, which in juxtaposition with its intensity and propensity to traverse boundaries, betrays character of structures beneath. It’s exoteric nature diminish its longetivity. On the other hand Helheim have this kind of “maturity,” a certain level of musicanship and production values, which more mainstream listener is simply expecting from the product, and because of that it can and should be advanced as a replacement for much lesser takes universally considered a peak of Viking metal.
Odium – The Sad Realm of the Stars (1998)
The music is constantly moving forward, switching and hard to ascertain as for its intentions. Fairly standard (good) black metal guitarwork sound like it was made already with strong presence of keyboard in mind, and though many of the riffs aren’t memorable per se, nothing is lost yet at this point.
Less distinctive riffs can acquire significance at their very junctions with others in a more immediate way, or because they have a strong function on the scale of a song and one would assume at first, that Odium aims mostly for this latter type of songwriting. However, it will soon turn out that these pieces are in disregard to dialogue between their divergent parts or to a meta-theme, which would explain them by their more or less removed in time consequence. The revelation is postponed indefinitely, with music opting instead to upheld and continue its momentum, makeng leaps for as long as it can.
It keeps music exciting and interesting, but also strangely meaningless, as along the way it loses somwhere energy accumulated by all its movement. This leaves the pieces levelled and the riffs ultimately unmeaningfull outside of their own timespan and, at best, their most direct succesion. Their recurrence is more out of a convention than a way to permeate piece with a theme. They could be switched and it wouldn’t matter all that much. Finally, hard synth lines ended up sounding like an afterthought, neither really building nor accentuating and providing little besides the cold nightsky association, all the time.
By assessing rationally premises on display here, for which alone one wish to be able to praise it far beyond its sphere of recognition – the underground spirit, sublime cosmos oriented theme suggested by style and aesthetics, and basically enough competence to pull it off – it should be more lasting and effective and amount to more than occasional striking moment. But really isn’t. It is a neat package which prepares for something grander, but leaves us forever waiting for some point, at first in the songs, then on the scale of whole album.