1999, Century Media (earlier on Malicious Records), recorded in 1996
I suppose this album deserves a special place in my collection just because my opinions and judgments concerning its aesthetic value, or - at the very least - its entertainment possibilities (related to its "originality"), have changed so many times over the years. When I first started listening to it I wasn't drawn into its material with much force, and so I didn't realize or feel with much emotion its immediacy, its ability to spontaneously capture the attention or mesmerize (which is so essential to what we eventually term "good music", its aptitude for transcendence) and seduce one's consciousness away from the present, one's controlling thoughts. This is to say the music itself did not have the ability to dominate consciousness or direct the imagination towards its own aims, its own sources and immediate desires for expression, release, transfiguration, or transference. Of course this was only my subjective opinion, and as a subjective value of experience or judgment, it of course had the ability to change over time, or change with my altered/transfigured consciousness or understanding. This is what eventually happened...as my feelings regarding this music shifted form and appearance over the course of a number of years. It was something inside of me that was changing, of course. The music wasn't distorted or "corrected" in any fashion.
In any case, to write "thrash" music in 1996 or 1999 or, indeed, in 2004 (as this band is currently still active), requires a few motives and satisfied directives or authentic, obvious principles, one of those being of course mimicry. In 2004 thrash metal is a throwback, an instant call for nostalgia, a relic and revenant - always having at least one foot in what has come before. The first order is to satisfy this desire for nostalgia, which means Aura Noir must refer to the past without openly repeating the work of other bands...but this is a pressure (the anxiety of influence, almost) which appears in almost every form of music...one's ability to evade or follow this anxiety and its directives is naturally linked to the outside interpretation of both the "naturalness" and eventual "originality" of one's music - which is to say, this anxiety and one's creative response to it (ignoring it, adjusting to it and incorporating it, transfiguring it, or accepting it and, like a master, immediately rising above it), ultimately determines both an objective placing of one's stylistic/aesthetic appearance within a timeframe (in the history of a steadily evolving art) and a subjective judgment of one's creativity, one's artistic powers. In metal, as in so many other art forms that are constantly aware of their evolution, aesthetic and progressive hierarchies, etc., nostalgia is both dangerous and potentially powerful as generations of enthusiasts peel away from the modern to embrace former responses, or new generations come into being that need to be introduced to older paradigms and methods through novel guises, contemporary filters and "interpretations". As always, a balance must be struck between aesthetic authenticity (faithfulness to the past and to the current spirit) and immediacy, or between the tested and proved true methodology of forms that have been absorbed into current aesthetics (and transfigured in their own evolution: subsumed, fractured, dissolved, digested), and "current" forms that speak to the present - both to novice and expert, experienced and amateur. This is a difficult act. I think I can safely say that most musicians who aim for nostalgia and immediacy, a grasp both of the past and the present, fall into promoting one side and one direction over the other - sometimes to the detriment of their own aesthetics, and to the detriment of their own ability to communicate. Outside of a "classic", or rigid, well-defined, ultimately aesthetically stagnant genre or form (with history as a dead preponderance, a conquering weight over one's head), it can only be difficult to originate this nostalgic/original balance in a musical system where each new creation is, in fact, its own innovative type, where each new individual creation is a new aesthetic, a new judgment and statement of approach in itself.
So in order to create their "new" thrash, which is just a constant turning away from the present (or the present of 1996-1999) and a glance towards the '80s German scene (specifically Sodom, Destruction, and Kreator, although I mainly mention Kreator just to hedge my bets), an eternal "looking away" or "looking askance", a half-turn while progressing through metal's evolution, one hand reaching towards the past and one held with trepidation towards the present (which is to say the immediate future), Aura Noir must press outmoded or inauthentic (for the present) paradigms through a younger, more violent and pressing aesthetic - one which is not creating constantly in its immediacy (as the forms have already been documented, archived, etc. by other bands 15 years before), but which is creating continuously by pressing the nostalgic into novel forms that strive both to reverence/reference the past and not repeat them verbatim...this is the balance of the retrogressive, as mentioned above. At its best, this aesthetic results in moving compositions ("Conqueror", "Caged Wrath"), at its worst the internal dynamic or balance fails, collapses, and results in segments that are either too "original" (which, not sticking to the overall aesthetic and nostalgic/original stance or pose, feel out of place) or too nostalgic...which is just stale repetition. Of course for the novice, this repetition might actually be something new...as always, it depends on the listener...but one must posit the awareness that Aura Noir must feel in realizing their own overt nostalgia or failure in achieving this essential balance, and the resulting lack of feeling in the playing. The questions this kind of material (or this kind of band, this approach, this aesthetic) always asks: is this authentic music? Is this a new genre with its own rules and compositional principles or expectations? Is it legitimate, aesthetically and emotionally - if not artistically - to look at the past constantly as one writes music for the present? Can outdated forms be brought into the present and dressed to suit current needs? Or are there "classic" forms in metal that are both old and new, nostalgic (directly evocative in themselves) and applicable to current needs? Is retrogressive metal a paradox?
My favorite parts, and the sort of segments that move this music past the mundane or strict repetition: the backwards-raking upward strumming shower of notes first at 1:39 in "Caged Wrath", which seem to immediately link this to Norwegian black metal, of course, derived from Thorns, and the minute switch in beat (incorporating the cymbal change) behind the swinging riff at 1:02 in "Conqueror". The drumming remains solid throughout, however, the throne being traded by Apollyon and Agressor (each one drums for the other's songs, as each sings on his own compositions). Blasphemer, of Mayhem fame, handles the single guitar with expert adequacy.
Ultimately, while I feel this album doesn't measure up to the violence, aggression, and breathtaking energy of its successor, it does have slow, quiet merits that sink into one's awareness and coalesce over time. It also serves as an interesting notice of the aesthetics that later reached a more pure (meaning more expressive, not simpler or more nostalgic) form on "Deep Tracts of Hell", of course...which I believe was this band's highpoint, their masterpiece.