Posts Tagged ‘ambience’

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


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”


Blut Aus Nord – Ultima Thulée (1995)

Ultima_Thulee-Cover_front.jpgAn album straight out of the world of dreams (wait, you mean to say there’s only one?). As far as I know, Blut Aus Nord never fully recaptured the misty, ethereal, and otherworldly atmosphere of Ultima Thulée. Even the album’s immediate successor favors a more structured and conventionally musical approach. I don’t intend that to be a slight against Memoria Vetusta, which is a quality work in its own right and better executed in some ways, but if black metal was the key to unlocking the occult (and it isn’t; more on that after today’s review), this album and not its successor would almost certainly be the source of all spiritual power in the world.

Ultima Thulée, despite being the work of a French band, theoretically takes after the ‘Viking’ themed black metal of Scandinavia. Considering that the band’s from Normandy, that’s surprisingly appropriate. The mix is raw, trebly and windswept, but not to the point that it becomes unintelligible. Artificial keyboards play a significant role in shaping these songs, to the point where they even occasionally take precedence over the guitars. This is a pretty stereotypical sounding album – its genius is more in how these elements are forged into a cohesive whole. It’s hard to put an exact description on why, to be honest – if I had to summarize, I’d say that the dense mix is responsible for at least the dreamlike aesthetic.

It’s the songwriting, though, that really pushes this album into alien territory. Ultima Thulée‘s songs are mostly lengthy (although one synth interlude stops just short of four minutes) and ramble on, with transitions that I would probably reject on other albums. Here, though, I can suspend my disbelief, much like a vivid dream can proceed in a fashion that would come off as insane and nonsensical were I fully awake. Despite their odd turns, the songs are also backed up by a strong sense of consonant melody. While the band emphasizes this more on the next album, it’s still very important here, and it helps keep the album interesting where other approaches (like a more blatantly ambient form of songwriting) would probably fail. Other elements fade into the winter by comparison – while the other instrumentation is crucial to holding this album together, it’s the main riffs and leads that hold my attention the most.

I can’t guarantee that you will enjoy this album, since it does take some getting used to, but it is certainly a personal favorite. Maybe not scary enough for Halloween, but winter is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere…

Highlights: “The Plain of Ida”, “From Hlidskjalf”, “Till I Perceive Bifrost”

Remember how I mentioned that black metal was not the key to gaining occult powers? National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow, and for the first time in my life I am participating. That’s all the spoilers you’re getting on my intended project for now. I expect to continue Invisible Blog in the mean time, but don’t be surprised if you see a greater portion of writing-related posts.

Hades – The Dawn of the Dying Sun (1997)

maxresdefaultAs opposed to “House of the Rising Sun”. Hades is apparently from a place where Blood Fire Death was constantly in the cassette decks and/or CD players. In many ways, they sound like a more intense version of ‘Viking’ era Bathory, to the point that this album is occasionally labeled as viking metal despite its lyrics mostly not being related to Viking topics. Either way, plenty of bands had paid homage to Bathory (or copied them more directly if they were less creative) by 1997, so this album’s merit is a question of what it brings to the table.

One thing listeners will notice is that this album is mostly midpaced, which creates some space in the arrangements that otherwise might not be there. That’s partially canceled out by the production, which is driven by pure wall of sound. Furthermore, the album’s mastered extremely loud and is somewhat lacking in dynamics, to the point that it sometimes clips like crazy; that could cause you some ear fatigue in the long run. To be fair, the apparent inspiration wasn’t very dynamic either, but this is still worth mentioning.

It also logically follows that Hades shares the strengths of late ’80s Bathory, in that they display similar skill in creating atmosphere and ambience despite the overall higher intensity level.  The compositions on this album are fairly minimalistic and sometimes extend to significant distance (such as 10 minute midpiece and tribute to Richard Chaucer “Alone Walkyng”). However, the band throws in just enough changes to keep my interest – and if you know of my tastes for variation and complexity in my music, then you know that’s an achievement. Other comparisons arise from this observation – Enslaved, in their earliest days, had a similar taste for atmosphere and minimalism, and actually engaged with Viking themes. Both bands also show an affinity for adding acoustic instruments and keyboards to their recordings. Beyond these surface elements, Hades shows an affinity for obvious melody that neither of the previous bands were particularly tapping into, at least on the albums I’ve linked to. Bathory obviously became more consonant after the Viking frenzy tempered the aggression of Quorthon’s music, but they don’t seem to have reached the same level as Hades shows here.

As a result of all this, The Dawn of the Dying Sun sounds like the crossfire between its more intense black metal contemporaries and quieter, gentler rock/folk influences that admittedly were present in diluted form through its contemporaries. The latter helps this album reach relevance, but extra dynamics would have earned this band many long term fans. Anyways, it appears this was the band’s last salvo in the style – after being forced to affix the word “Almighty” to their name, they briefly explored an experimental path and passed into history…

Highlights: “Awakening of Kings”, “Alone Walkyng”, “The Tale of a Nocturnal Empress”

Celtic Frost – Monotheist (2006)

folderEven compared to the rest of their discography, Celtic Frost’s final album, Monotheist is rather minimalistic and sparse, and I figure that’s on purpose. Much of the material here is reminiscent of earlier Hellhammer/Celtic Frost material dragged screaming through a machine that makes it more intense and in-line with 2006 extreme metal standards; the disadvantage is that it sometimes made songs more formulaic. I suppose it’s a result of the same things that lead to Cold Lake, so maybe the Frost just got lucky in that the trends they decided to follow were… less embarrassing. On the other hand, the overall approach here, as well as some of the material dates back to the obscure 2002 “Prototype” demo, which is allegedly a mess of weird experimentation and nu-metal. If that’s true, then some serious editing must’ve taken place.

Paradoxically for an album that ups the intensity of things, Monotheist is most memorable in its mellow moments. I think much of this comes down to the very types of sounds used – see, for instance, the guitar and bass in the intro of “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh”. Even with the distortion turned down, the hints of it remain, and it creates an effect that is beyond my ability as a writer to describe. The rest of the song is very basic, relying on a massively constrained tonality and two riffs to provide the substrate it works with. The songwriting here is all dynamics, and even those are used for basic quiet-loud-quiet-loud techniques. Despite this, it may be the best song on here.

There is something of a split between these quieter, arguably gentler (if not more upbeat) works and more straight-ahead extreme-ish doom metal, if one laden with spiritual crossovers. The production and mixing is immaculate and perfectly suited towards both purposes, courtesy of Peter Tägtgren and his experience on so many extreme metal albums. Amongst other things, this results in a distinctive guitar tone with a percussive strum and a seeming lack of harmonics. To be fair, the amount of instrumentation at any time on this album is usually fairly low, so the mixing job must have been simple. Add that to the lengthy production time of this album, and we get the reason each sound is so intensely shaped… produced. While this album definitely sounds good, the time spent in production may have (at times) come at expense of the writing. Songs here are definitely less varied than they were on the mid-1980s golden-age material, and while this sometimes isn’t a problem, it does weaken the less powerful riffs that could use counterpoint and further development to strengthen them.

Despite this, Monotheist is very well liked, as it presents a major aesthetic upgrade to the Celtic Frost formula, without substantial changes to the formula, even though it does retain some of the experimentation with instrumentation that the band tried on Into the Pandemonium. It helps that the aforementioned formula was hugely influential and lead to further evolution in almost every genre of metal, even the more accessible ones. With all of this in mind, I’ve found classic Celtic Frost to be a consistent band, if not particularly amazing (although if you look a little back into the Hellhammer days, there is “Triumph of Death”, the greatest trip of 1984). This album peaks higher, even if it has its clunkers.

Highlights: “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh”, “Os Abysmi Vel Daath”, “Obscured”, the Triptych (last 3 tracks)

Quickie: Susumu Hirasawa – Aurora (1994)

This was one of the things I was listening to in late 2008/early 2009. The rest of it was mostly ’80s New Wave and progressive rock. Outside of Susumu Hirasawa being in P-Model, and having a band called Mandrake in his college days, this doesn’t really fit into either.

It is, however, fairly representative of the formula that he would adopt as a solo artist (and to a lesser extent, in P-Model’s late ’90s works) – atmospheric pop music with significant electronic elements, East Asian garnishings, and a fairly large amount of improvisatory guitar solos. The former is on full display here, the second is basically nonexistent (There are more Western symphonic thingies like were present on the previous three solo albums) , and the latter is a relatively constant part of his sound.

Prior to this, P-Model was producing high speed synthpop reminiscent of earlier days – their 1994 album “Way of Live” consisted entirely of rerecordings of their songs from the 1980s in this style. But in 1995, they released “Fune”, which was less minimalistic, slower, and had some ambient compositions like “Mirror Image”. If Hirasawa wasn’t the one constant member of P-Model, this probably wouldn’t have happened, but P-Model DID go through a significant lineup change at this period, and the albums after Fune sound like a hybrid of the two styles.

Anyways, this album manages to be both typical and atypical of Hirasawa’s compositional methods. I wouldn’t know for sure (mainly since I’m not even remotely fluent in Japanese), but I believe that this is when Hirasawa shifted towards significant use of archaic Japanese in his lyrics. It may be the least “straightforward” album he put out, at least until ICE-9 (an EP of guitar improv and soundscapes). It’s definitely the most ambient, and probably one of the softest – outside of the militant “Take the Wheel” (which was slightly rewritten into the theme song of the anime Berserk), it contains very laid back songs like “Love Song” and “Island Door/Paranesian Circle”. Definitely mood music. This is good stuff, but I believe that Hirasawa improved on the formula on the later albums “Technique of Relief” and “Philosopher’s Propeller”. The two solo albums after that were more rock-oriented, but that’s another quickie.

Quickie: Enslaved – Below the Lights

So at least until this album (Because it’s the last of theirs that I’ve listened to), Enslaved seem to be masters of ambience and atmosphere, from the blackened soundscapes of Vikingligr Veldi, to the folk flavored ramblings of Eld, to the Pink Floyd/70’s prog flavored stuff that brings us to this album.

These are not hyper-complex songs – they tend to go through a series of different sections, but the amount of riffs is not in the millions.  Also, they’re not easily shoehorned into any specific character –  they’re definitely consonant, not in a way that resembles typical black metal. But besides the riffs, there’s a lot of small leads, vocals, some extra instrumentation on tracks like “Queen of Night”. Some tracks are more minimalistic and in that way resemble Vikingligr Veldi, like the 9 minute mini-epic, “The Crossing”. But most of the songs are shorter, often have more abrupt changes – Take “Ridicule Swarm” as an example – it cycles between two unrelated sections – one with hyperspeed blasting and a few riffs that the more violent  black metal bands like Marduk and Dark Funeral would kill for, and a slow section in 10/4 with what sounds like a mellotron playing. It gets boring fast, but wouldn’t had the band developed the sections further.


Still, depending on your “definition” of Enslaved, this may or may not fit in to your demands. It keeps the deep down essence of their sound (as far as I know) but the otherward aesthetics and structures have mutated substantially.