Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bow Before the Emperor

"Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk"
Full-length, Candlelight Records
July 8th, 1997

Line up:
Ihsahn : Main Lead Guitars, All Vocals, Synth
Samoth : Lead and Rhythm Guitars
Alver : Bass Guitars
Trym : Drums and Percussion

Emperor's "Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk" is one of the most outstanding records in the history of Norwegian black metal. A bit of a controversial statement but I can boldly proclaim this
opinion with conviction. It seems there are two general camps, those who view this album as Emperor's downfall into over-symphonic fluff and those who view each Emperor album as near masterpieces. I feel I am in a rare minority made up of individuals who see "Anthems" as an amazing counterpart to the debut, an album shedding it's black metal skin but still containing the dark energy and magic apparent on all of Emperor's earlier material. It seems as if many detest this album based on principle. This record was widely praised upon it's release, black metal was in the process of becoming fully commercial, Emperor's egos were expanding at an alarming rate, Ihsahn's sunglasses were finding their way into photo shoots. And just think about the promotional photos accompanying the release of "Anthems!" No one looking sinister, no corpsepaint, Samoth wearing his own band's merchandise(pathetic move). Point is, I can understand what this album symbolizes in a way but let's get shoots, post-rave review ego inflation, sunglasses..none of these have anything to do with the compositions on this album so forget about all that shit. If none of this music connects with your soul then you are more than welcome to give this one a big thumbs down...but consider the music on the album. Albums outlive bands and their mistakes, titanic egos, sell out moves, conversions to Christianity and etc.

This was my first black metal album and the first metal album of any kind that really made an impact upon me. In 1997 I had but a few boring death metal cassettes. A bit of Obituary,Cannibal Corpse,Deicide's "Serpents of the Light"..basically whatever extreme looking metal cassettes they had stocked at Sam Goody. I picked up "Anthems" half as an act of rebellion and half out of curiosity. My knowledge of metal was poor and I had no real idea what I would hear upon playing this uncanny looking album. The back cover really made an impression upon me. The four members sit grim faced on wooden thrones,dark wood paneling behind them,their puzzling names in gold text beneath them.
As the cd began to play that night I laid down on my floor in the darkness and closed my eyes. "Alsvatr(The Oath)" is one killer introduction. No meandering around the keyboard,ambient droning or fake medieval battle sound effects to be open the album. Ihsahn speaks to us in croaked whisper,summoning the Nightspirit as the instruments slowly begin to enter the song..the electric guitar, the barely there bass guitar, keyboards and lastly drums. I am hesitant to spend so much time on this particular song but first songs are first impressions and even now when I listen to this album "Alsvatr" really amazes me. The main riff in this song is so fucking sinister it's a wonder it's not my favorite riff on the entire album. The plodding rhythm comes to a close as Ihsahn has completed his pact with the Nightspirit:

I am one with thee
I am the eternal power
I am the Emperor"

And it's with this proclamation that martial drums begin to beat furiously, blaring keyboard horns provide rousing fanfare and it is then that the listener gets violently sucked out of their surroundings and flung into the utter reaches of chaos.

Chaos is probably one of the best ways to describe "Anthems." Emperor is a skilled band,Samoth and Ihsahn are truly gifted songwriters and musicians and even in their earliest recordings were miles above and beyond many of their peers. However the production job on this album might leave the untrained ear in doubt at first. Recorded in the infamous Greig Hall and produced and mastered by Eirik Hundvin(along with Samoth and Ihsahn themselves) the possibilities of "what could have been" are a bit frustrating. Besides the bass guitar everything is audible. The problem lies in the fact that everything seems to be on equal levels. Sometimes it feels as if there is so much going on you need to pick out one particular instrument and listen intently to it or you will lose it amidst the cacophony. This presents a challenge but what a worthwhile challenge it is. Over a short period of time your ears might grow accustomed. The production isn't as bad as a Moonblood demo for example. You aren't going to still be in awe of the terrible production by the middle of the recording. Beautiful melodies abound alongside absolutely "evil" neoclassical bouts of thrashing madness. These opposing vibes are so well intertwined that you can't help but laugh and mock the thousands of bands that attempt to do this and miserably fail. There is no cut and paste separation. You won't find an aggressive intro riff abruptly succumbing to a twinkling electric piano and operatic vocals with putrid "gothic" undertones. All is one writhing mass,a swirling vortex of melodic distortion.

To delve into each song and pick it apart is something I will only do while driving at night on a long stretch of highway or while lying on my bed in the dark. Not only would that make for one hell of a long review,it would also be boring to read. There are far too many incredible riffs. I could name 4 parts or more to each song that really spark a sense of wonder in me and leave me feeling as if I will never truly be able to play guitar. The drumming on this album is superb as well..playful,progressive and really complimentary to the unruly music. Unlike many black metal albums the keyboards do not try and force any kind of atmosphere upon me. There is enough damn atmosphere to begin with and the keyboards only expand upon it. I do think they are a bit overbearing at times i.e. in "The Loss and Curse of Reverence" but this can be easily overlooked. The keys do play a pretty large role in "Anthems" and I would be an idiot to say that things would be just as good without them. It is nearly impossible to resist the energy and force of this album if listened to with a good set of headphones. Reason being that it just has to be played loud. Not only can you pick out details easier with headphones on but you can get lost in the experience much more quickly. Even if it seems you are running headfirst into a wall of sound I advise you to tough it out because the magic is there, the solid songwriting is there, the passionate execution is there. While departing from youthful aggression of the debut, the vision is not totally separated. I feel the vision is basically the same but a bit more confident, grown up, less entwined in the commitment to define or exclusively play "Norwegian Black Metal."

What is most important in reviewing this album is how it relates to me as a human being. The feeling that it evokes within me while I listen to it and the feeling it leaves me with afterwards. Listening to "Anthems" the first time left me bewildered. The flood gates had opened and there were so many albums I wanted to get my hands on. The listening experience is unique and truly special to me,as it's always been and always will be. I often feel a deep spiritual stirring within me and not only do I forget about my daily life and it's petty worries but all the calamities taking place within the world. It's an album set apart from many other albums which tend to make me focus on my general disenchantment with society as a whole. Standing outside of the world completely perhaps rather than struggling relentlessly against it, waist deep, obsessed with it's filth or redundantly commenting on it's filth. I hear so much beauty and pure freedom within "Anthems." It towers above the copycat hordes of "black metal" bands and records. It's more than a fist in the face of a god, more than a 43:58 minute hymn to nature or a long lost pagan past and more than a mere blasting black metal album lyrically obsessed with a Christian devil. It's my opinion that only the greatest most other worldly albums, regardless of genre, can produce such a strong feeling and transport you to a higher state of mind. Masterpiece is almost an understatement in my book because this album changed my life.

"No peace for me
No peace I seek
My quest goes far beyond..."
-Ensorcelled by Khaos


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Epic Doom Metal

Candlemass -
Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, 1986


Johan Lanquist - Vocals (of Jonah Quizz, who’s legendary 1984 demo deserves a review of it’s own)
Leif Edling - Bass
Mats “Mappe” Björkman - Rhythm Guitars
Klas Bergwall - Lead Guitars
Matz Ekström - Drums

Composed by Leif Edling

Another debut up for review: this time it’s the 1986 debut from Sweden’s Candlemass, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus. The aptly titled full-length almost single-handedly spearheaded the second major wave of Doom (the the first wave being the originators, namely Sabbath and Pentagram) in the 80s alongside Trouble, Saint Vitus, Witchfinder General, Pentagram (still). I’m talking Traditional Doom Metal here. No stoner, droning, funeral, et cetera.

Epic Doom, as Candlemass has been rightly called, is still traditional Doom containing all the elements and aesthetics: slow tempo, powerful riffing, and a sound that’s much more dense than most metal. Atmosphere is the key word when it comes to Doom. Impending dread and, well, DOOM. Without atmosphere, you’ve got nothing. Yes, there are many a traditional band lacking in atmosphere, but Candlemass is most definitely not one of them.

From the opening of EDM, you know what you’re in for. The clean guitar and keys the begin "Solitude" accompanied by Johan Lanquist’s phenomenal vocals build a wall around me each time I listen to it. Brick by brick I’m encased further as Lanquist begins the invocation:

“I'm sitting here alone in darkness
waiting to be free,
Lonely and forlorn I'm crying
I long for my time to come
death means just life
Please let me die in solitude”

As he draws out the last word, the guitar swells to mournful riff as the bricks get only heavier. The sheer power of the verse is suffocating. The riff is simple, deliberate, and utterly effective while the drums pound out a plodding rhythm. The bass isn’t extravagant and lends solid bottom support to the already thunderous rhythm. In keeping with the rest of the song, the solo is simple, but well-written, adding to the atmosphere and epic feel of the music.

Seeing how I just mentioned the lyrics to “Solitude” I should take the time to stress the importance of lyrics and vocals in Doom. Lyrics don’t have to be the same tired rehashes of Geezer Butler classics, but they'd better be pretty pessimistic in their outlook. War, greed, solitude, death, dread, religion (and more) all have a place in Doom, and lyrics are definitely one of the reasons Doom appeals to me so much. Other than the fact that the music rules.

My outlook on life is generally pessimistic, as anyone who reads my personal blog or has even a casual relationship with me is well aware. Human beings have, in thousands of years, destroyed billions of years of natural evolution. I find the large part of people I meet to be locked in a mental prison and most, if not all, people of power to be intellectually bankrupt. I tend to not spend my time dwelling on all of this, and revel in the fact that I am content with my life, for the most part, and haven’t yet been sucked into the bottomless pit of children, bills, money, things things things! I have the things and the people I like and need. But the ever-looming spectre of America’s corporate society and the “civilized” world’s “Man over Nature” attitude is always rearing it’s ugly face.

So as not to get off track...

Doom’s vocals tend to be clean and deep, at times more operatic and even theatrical. The gruffness of a lot of the crossover doom genres is noticeably absent, save for some well-placed rumblings. The lush, powerful vocals of Lanquist are one of EDM’s highlights, and I would take him over “Messiah” Marcollin without hesitation. And that’s not just the utter supremacy of the Jonah Quizz demo influencing my choice either.

Not all of the lyrics on the album are as spelled-out as in “Solitude” as many of the songs have fantasy-inspired lyrics -- in particular, “Crystal Ball.”

“I saw the rainbows end
I am raptured I cannot pretend
I have found Atlantis
The talisman of Seth”

But the foreboding element is still present:

“I have seen it all
dreamt away through
the crystal ball
Tell me more I want to know
please hear my call”

I read the lyrics not so much as a simple narrative of a character looking into a crystal ball or the reality/unreality of crystal balls themselves, but as a warning, so to speak, against mad lust for knowledge of the future/technology. Surely this is my personal philosophy reading into things, but that’s what I do.

Along the same line, lyrics that take a more narrative approach, though that don’t require so much interpretation on my part, can be found in “Under the Oak.” On any given day this track will have it out with “Solitude” for the illustrious title of “Zach’s favorite.” “Under the Oak” has excellent lyrics with clear Christian overtones, but the fact that it’s an oak strikes the truly pagan chord within me.

The song itself has much of the same elements as “Solitude” with the clean guitar and keyboard usage, but it isn’t as slow and crushing. The force “Under the Oak” hits you with isn’t so much like being buried in bricks, it’s more like being pummeled with baseball-sized stones. A much more painful and violent death, as I envision stones thrown by seething hordes of religious hypocrites.

There are surprising moments of speed on the album that I didn’t expect after hearing “Solitude”, but songs like “Black Stone Wielder” and especially “A Sorcerer’s Pledge” move at a much quicker tempo. The latter is positively rocking at points sounding more pure, unadultered heavy metal than Doom. Despite this, it still has all of the elements of Doom found throughout the album, so it doesn’t feel out of place, although I’m not sure how I like it as the closing track. I might prefer “Under the Oak”, but I’m not Candlemass and they arranged it the way they did for a reason, so that’s the way I listen to it.

Epicus Doomicus Metallicus is a prime example of another of Doom’s appeals -- it’s connection with the past. I’m constantly reading/contemplating about my past as a human being, a human of Germanic/Celtic descent, as an American citizen, and so on, and Doom is built around the past -- again, namely Black Sabbath. There are Doom lyrics about the past, but it’s more so the “worship” of the formula created by Black Sabbath and the experimentations within it that I am really drawn to.

The beauty of Doom is in the innovation and uniqueness each band brings to this formula. Candlemass’ “epic-ness”, the distant, muddy psychedelia of Dave Chandler’s guitars on the first Saint Vitus record, the extreme Christianity and crunchy dual guitars of Trouble, beautiful acoustics in Solstice, the list goes on. They are all uniquely individual, yet they are all Doom. Whereas the doom of Candlemass may be being buried by a thousand shattered pews of a crumbling stone cathedral, Saint Vitus is like running away from a knife-wielder but being held back by Chandler’s guitars, or inner/mental death from Solitude Aeturnus. I haven't even scratched the surface of the great Doom bands out there.

Whatever you may envision the impending doom as doesn’t matter, the point is that it’s there, and I feel it with this record. Lanquist’s vocals, the melodic guitar work, clean guitar, fantasy lyrics, the use of keys throughout, and the power the solos and choruses give provide the “epic” feel that goes along with the doom. The solos and choruses in particular, as they have a feeling of strength I don’t get from something like “Into the Void” or “When the Screams Come.” (Given that those are two of my favorite songs of all-time, this is by no means meant as an insult). All of these elements support the core of the record -- which is an excellently composed, monstrously heavy piece of Doom.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

I Just Want A Little Fire

Cirith Ungol - Frost and Fire, 1980

Michael Whelan painting originally for the cover of Stormbringer, book 6 in Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga.

Tim Baker - Vocals
Jerry Fogle - Guitars
Robert Garven - Drums, Vocals
Greg Lindstrom - Guitars, Synthesizer, E. Bow, Vocals
Michael "Flint" Vujea - Bass (joined after recording)

Bass written and played by Greg Lindstrom (A big thank you to Perry for clearing that up for me)

(try as I might, I couldn't find a picture of the F&F line-up and I don't have a scanner)

Frost and Fire is Cirith Ungol’s 1980 debut, but their second LP (1984’s King of the Dead) was the first I heard for a couple of reasons: 1) almost everything I read said it’s the best CU album, 2) I saw it described more than once as “more metal” than Frost and Fire. Well, maybe it isn’t as heavy as King of the Dead, but it’s certainly metal and it’s certainly heavy...both in 1980 and 2008.

A few weeks had passed by the time I got a hold of
Frost and Fire, so King of the Dead had already settled into a steady rotation when the killer intro to “Frost and Fire” pounded out of my speakers. A straightforward, yet superbly memorable riff is undercut by Greg Lindstrom’s punchy bass playing, which carries throughout the length of the album definitely adding to its 70s vibe.

After about ten seconds comes a heavy dose of Tim Baker. Baker’s vocals are a nuisance to some, and I was a bit hesitant after reading a couple of reviews, but as soon as I heard them on “Atom Smasher” (first track from
King of the Dead) I loved them. They’re scratchy, raw, distinct, and they compliment the darkness and mystery of Cirith Ungol perfectly. I probably shouldn’t have been hesitant at all because I’ve read numerous warnings/decries against Mark Shelton’s vocals and he’s been a favorite vocalist of mine for some time.

“Frost and Fire” displays a level of playing that’s so catchy, crisp, and together it gets stuck in my head multiple times a day. Normally I hate when things are stuck in my head, but I have no problem walking down the street inwardly shouting:

“I feel it burning and I feel the freeze
The frost, the fire, it burns inside of me, yeah.”

I’ve chosen these lyrics, not only because they’re the ones usually rattling around my brain, but because they also describe my relationship to the record, heavy metal, and all the music I love. Heavy metal, krautrock, Sibelius, whatever, it all flows through me as something much deeper than entertainment or escape. Music is not a passive/aggressive affair with me, it is completely aggressive. My search for new music is never-ending and when I come across a gem like
Frost and Fire, I not only feel vindicated, I feel an even stronger urge to find MORE.

It may seem ridiculous to talk or write so seriously about music, but I don’t mean it’s something I base life decisions around -- I am not who I am because of the music I listen to. I listen to that music because of who I am. I like to read, watch, and listen to things that make me think or that touch at something inside of me. Music wouldn’t have this affect on me if I formed my life around liking particular things for whatever liking that particular thing entailed. If that were the case, my love and appreciation for it would be as hollow as an empty trashcan.

Now that I’ve strayed a bit from my original intention, I’ll get back on track by saying it’s no surprise the musicianship is top-notch, as the band had been playing together for 8 years by the time F&F was released. How’s that for developing a sound.

Given that those 8 years were from 1972-1980, it’s also no surprise the album has a distinct 70s hard rock edge. Supported by
Lindstrom’s bass, the sound is further accentuated by the use of synthesizers throughout. I’m no enemy of synth, so something like that isn’t an immediate turn off to me, but I’ve come to the conclusion that synthesizers, especially in heavy metal, are either excellent (Cirith Ungol, Dawnwatcher, Hell, etc) or atrocious (pretty much anything under the “symphonic ______ metal” tag).

The keys are most prevalent in “What Does it Take” -- a song that also features my favorite bass playing on the album, and that sounds like a cross between Thin Lizzy and early Alice Cooper. Maybe being an intense Alice Cooper fan has me hearing that influence. Neither of these take away from the “metal”-ness of it, however (how could Thin Lizzy make something less metal?), but the guitars certainly do take a backseat here.

Not to worry, as the axes are back in full swing on side 2 with “Edge of a Knife”, which probably me least favorite. It’s a good sign when the weakest point is a ripper like “Edge of a Knife.” The rock and roll attitude is quite in clear in the song’s chunky chorus, lyrics, and Baker’s lower singing in some parts, which gives him more a snarl. While it’s a straightforward tune, I was never ambivalent toward it like I was to another rocker, “Better Off Dead.”

My first reaction to “Better Off Dead” was similar to my reaction when first dropping the needle of Status Quo’s
Piledriver....”Oh, shit.” Both start off in ways that immediately turn me off: groovy/boogie and utter blues rock, respectively. Luckily, “Better Off Dead” and Piledriver both progress into some choice cuts.

The track in question began to grow on me after a couple of minutes, just in time for the nice minute of metallic fury before breaking back down again into the intro/verse part. I think the grooviness of it caught on so quickly because the guitar work is great (both the licks, and the almost buried leads and bends poking through at different points), and of course the actual part I originally didn’t like is short and fits well into the song.

“Better Off Dead” isn’t the last song on the album, but it’s a fitting one to end the review with because it sort of sums up the album as a whole: it’s well written and performed, a little weird, memorable, and left me a little confused after the first listen. Not confused in a bad way, but in the best way -- I knew I liked it, but I couldn’t exactly figure out why.

Well, I know why now. It’s a superb piece of music, recording by superb musicians that appeals to so much more than my auditory senses. It’s dated in the best way, in a way that almost makes it timeless. There are things that sound dated to me in the sense that I think to myself “maybe I’d like this if it were 1984” and there are things that sound dated that make me think “this SOUNDS like the late 70s” and I can almost FEEL the late 70s when I’m listening to it.

There you have it, I love the music, I love the lyrics, I love the feel of it, and I love the cover art.


NOTE: I tend to shy away from writing “song by song” reviews because I don't particularly like reading them myself. Some reviews may have more breakdowns and analysis than others, but for the most part I’ll talk about a couple of songs and the feel of the album as a whole.