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Keyword: ‘1.5th wave’

Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

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Under the Sign of the Black Mark precedes Bathory’s turn towards “Viking” lyrical/musical themes, and arguably represents Quorthon’s first experiments with the sort of songwriting that would later define the band. It’s also a filthy mess of early black metal played at then-unprecedented velocities that, as far as I can tell, was created in at least two recording sessions. At the very least, it’s an interesting predecessor to Blood Fire Death. It’s definitely still part of Bathory’s long run of genre-defining albums, and for very good reasons.

If there ever was such a thing as a “1.5th wave” of black metal (and I seem to think there was), Under the Sign of the Black Mark is where it all began. In its faster and more intense moments, you could easily confuse some of these tracks for the works they would inspire, in their general minimalism and feral extremity. If it means anything, the average 21st century lo-fi trve kvlt black metal band seems to prefer a treble heavier mix and shriller vocals than Quorthon’s mere rasp, but that stereotype at least makes sense as an exaggeration of the techniques on display here.

Since fast, aggressive, and raw sounding black metal is a dime a dozen these days (and was already relatively common by 1987, even if the newfangled “death metal” was taking hold more rapidly), Under the Sign of the Black Mark earns most of its points in my book through its other half. Accompanying the blasts of violence are a couple of slower, more drawn out songs with better, cleaner production and the aforementioned first glimmers of the ‘epic’ styles of future Bathory albums. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a style that meshes very well with the black metal side of Bathory. Making these sort of extended songs is admittedly just a matter of adding extra content, but even at this phase of their career, the band already had a grasp of how to extend their songs. You could argue that they got better at it on later albums, but even something like “Call From The Grave” establishes a strong musical narrative throughout its duration. The focus and overall ambience building shows itself in all the tracks, even to some extent in the aggressive half, and that (amongst other things) is a sign of songwriting expertise.

Another talking point to take home from Invisible Blog – the most influential and successful of extreme metal bands went beyond mere skin bashing and frantic fretwork, even if their recordings still sounded raw. Bathory’s increased expertise on Under the Sign of the Black Mark brings them to my attention and renders this a potent recording.

Highlights: “Equimanthorn”, “Enter the Eternal Fire”, “13 Candles”

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Merciless – The Awakening (1990)

folder.jpgI suppose we have Mayhem to blame for this one. Deathlike Silence Productions only released a few albums in its lifetime,  but their releases tended towards the influential and musically successful, so that has to count for something, right? Interesting, then, that the label’s first release was this mile a minute death-thrash-black-ambiguous brief blast of extremity. It’s not clear which pile this one fits in – the subtle use of consonant melody and fast yet deemphasized production summon forth the “1.5th wave black metal” buzzword demons, but Merciless almost certainly osmosed (pun possibly intended?) the nascent death metal of their native Sweden as well. The end result is kind of like the spiritual successor to Reign in Blood.

In contrast to some of the albums I’ve been writing about recently, The Awakening‘s recipe is simple – compact, aggressive songs with writing that’s basic, but not so rudimentary as to be uninteresting. The band doesn’t exactly deviate from this, but The Awakening clocks in at an infinitesimal 27 minutes, so there isn’t really much need for divergence. Luckily, the songs here vary enough in overall structure (even though they share an aesthetic) to keep your interest. I feel like I say that a lot when discussing this sort of album, but in my defense, music that falls below my complexity preferences doesn’t tend to get featured much on Invisible Blog. There should be plenty of it on the radio if you’re into that sort of thing.

Snark aside, what distinguishes The Awakening from many of the earlier extreme metal albums of the 1980s is its level of polish. This is hardly unprecedented – Merciless may be performing similar types of songs to their predecessors, but the recordings are still faster and more precisely performed than much of what followed. It’s not a push towards a more technically accomplished style, though. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of the early proto-underground acts would’ve put out similar recordings if they’d been given extra budget and studio time while continuing to write and perform in their previous style. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of many recordings that are like this, since a lot of the more prominent extreme metal bands of the mid-80s (like Celtic Frost, Sepultura, Sodom, Bathory, etc.) changed up their styles significantly when they secured access to recording studios. Perhaps the record label circumstances had something to do with Merciless ending up conceptually rawer?

Dwelling on how Merciless made The Awakening may be a futile gesture were I not to go interview and document hunting. On the other hand, The Awakening is a compelling enough document on its own, at least for fans of this substyle. Plus, it basically has Euronymous’s stamp of approval on it, so that has to count for something, right?

Highlights: “Pure Hate”, “Dreadful Fate”, “Denied Birth”

Tormentor – Anno Domini (1995)

folderNote: Anno Domini was originally released in 1989 on cassette, and Metal Archives calls it a “demo”. A more official looking release came out in 1995, hence the date.

I once defined the concept of “1.5th wave black metal” because I thought I heard something qualitatively different from the movement’s earliest members despite being well timed to exert some influence on later movements (Norway, etc), or at least being isolated enough to remain obscure. Tormentor is a textbook example, being the spawning ground of Atilla Csihar (who went on to join Mayhem) and a Hungarian band that formed before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Their music has clear links to the primitive, deconstructive tendencies of the earliest contributors to the genre, but is noticeably more atmospheric and elaborate, if still fairly crude in application.

I don’t know why Anno Domini turned out the way it did, but it seems to capture the band quickly boosting the intensity and aggression of their work. The first real track (“Tormentor I”) for instance, is played faster than the musicians can really handle, and this sloppiness permeates many of the quicker tracks here. The push towards musical elaboration, though, means that even these often incorporate some degree of consonant melody that would often be deemphasized or entirely absent in contemporary American or European death metal. This isn’t a consistent reality even in more elaborate tracks, like “Elizabeth Bathory”, but this is definitely an early benchmark of how to add conventional musicality back into the evolving extreme metal formula without sacrificing the latter.

Tormentor’s ‘career arc’ (at least as gauged from this album and what little I’ve heard of their other work) surprisingly reminds me of that of Mayhem, albeit with less murder and offstage depravity. It’s most likely because Atilla Csihar was directly involved with both bands. While their earliest works share little of the initial sound, Tormentor’s move towards complexity and development is similar to the one that eventually lead to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Actually gauging direct influence is beyond what I can research firsthand, but the level of contact between the bands does make me wonder. If the band hadn’t broken up in 1991, it probably would’ve continued to develop in this direction, and hypothetical albums in this vein could possibly resemble later black metal.

From a historical stance, this is absolutely essential to anyone who’s interested in charting the evolution of the black metal movement. The push towards complexity on Anno Domini is admittedly held back by the musicians’ inexperience at times, but it’s still a refreshing change from some of its more intentionally simplistic comrades.

Highlights: “Elizabeth Bathory”, “Damned Grave”, “In Gate of Hell”, “Beyond”

Master’s Hammer – The Jilemnice Occultist (1992)

This is a perfect example of what I usually call “1.5th wave black metal”, for whatever reason. Basically, such includes extreme metal recordings from the late ’80s and early ’90s that were clearly influenced by previous important underground metal, but aren’t as clearly defined as, for example, the seminal Norwegian or Greek scenes. Examples include “Anno Domini” by Tormentor, “INRI” by Sarcofago, “Morbid Visions” by Sepultura, “The Awakening” by Merciless,  etc. Even Mayhem arguably went through this, as Euronymous’s musical interests changed and for some time, early death metal cavorted with more refined, sinister songs in the band’s live sets.  On the whole, things are rarely as refined, but you can often see later ideas in development, or find concepts that went by the wayside.

Master’s Hammer’s second album here fits this very nicely, except for having an unusually high degree of polish and musicality considering its origins (the tumultuous period where Czechoslovakia threw off Communist rule, followed by its fracture). As far as I know, this band, along with Root have been the Czech Republic’s most successful metal exports, although Root quickly morphed into an accessible ‘epic’ metal band, while this band imploded upon itself shortly after this album’s release (although they reformed recently and have put out Mantras, which is apparently quite good). This is apparently a concept album, but no official English translation of the lyrics exist (but fans have attempted it), so my ability to appraise this, as usual, relies primarily on other aspects of the music.

Enough talk about this recording’s background and nature; I postulate that this is the soundtrack to the literary works of E.T.A. Hoffmann. That’s a pretty odd claim to make, and it was assuredly influenced by the fact I first listened to this album during a class requiring me to read the guy’s stories, but they both share a great deal of what people studying horror and suspense literature call the ‘uncanny’ – in short, what horrifies us humans most deeply are things similar to us, but lacking in some important aspect of humanity – a typical example being the undead. This is nothing new in the metal world, but Hoffmann and Master’s Hammer have also both tapped into a great well of surrealism, fantasy, romanticism, etc. Things might seem realistic and mundane, but even on the surface, things are subtly, intentionally amiss, getting more so with time. On this album, it manifests as a gradual transition from songs driven by slightly primitive riffing straddling the line between typical heavy/thrash metal and black metal towards those driven by more dissonant riffs and greater orchestral presence. This is mostly in the form of keyboards, but Master’s Hammer also added a full-time timpani player for this album, strengthening the percussion beyond what metal beats would get you.

Franta Štorm, the vocalist and composer behind these songs clearly had a lot of ambition in him, and judging from the rather odd (and not very popular) character of the band’s next album (Slagry), this is about the level he was capable of producing around 1992. Most of these songs have well defined verses and choruses, but the band wrote a good deal of transition material between the riffs to extend their length. The vocals are generally ‘horrid screeches’ – not as abrasive as Wolf’s Lair Abyss era Mayhem, but with the phrasing used and lower harmonics, they end up adding to the atmosphere. Probably the most ambitious song on here is “My Captain”, which almost morphs into a completely different song by the end, but for the presence of a few earlier riffs as callbacks. This is in the middle of the album, where things are seriously starting to get screwed up, as the symphonic presence escalates and Franta adds some operatics to his regular vocals. The exception here is the final track (“Sucharda’s House”), which isn’t directly related to the story, and returns to some of the ideas introduced in earlier songs. The music is a *partial* return to the more anthemic, primitive works at the beginning of the album, and it suggests that after the resolution, the protagonists have learned something.

Overall, whether it’s historically important to metal is up for debate. I’m sure a lot of Czech bands have taken influence from it, but in English speaking circles (you know, the type that I actually can read), they don’t get a great deal of mention, even in internet influenced days like this. On the other hand, Master’s Hammer has a member who goes by the name “Necrocock”. That’s another reason to look into this, if not necessarily a rational one.

Highlights: “I Don’t Want, Sirs, to Pester”, “A Dark Forest Spreads All Around”, “Sucharda’s House”