Friday, May 21, 2010

Nokturnal Mortum - Lunar Poetry

Nokturnal Mortum - Lunar Poetry
2001, The End Records

I'll confess, what I enjoy the most about this 1996 re-release is the cover art - that and the booklet picture(s), etc. When it comes to the music, well...if you have heard this band's later material you probably know what to expect, although you probably don't know what degree in which to anticipate the different elements. Folk influences, you are thinking? Yes, they are here - all over the place - but because they appear mainly as odd synth/keyboard manipulations instead of song structures specifically built upon a 'folk' framework, they merely color the music (traditional black metal) rather than form the skeleton of its essential message. This is nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to black metal bands, but it is interesting to see exactly how NM got their start, what elements they chose to concentrate on, which ones they later ignored, etc. And out of all the NM release we have had the pleasure of listening to so far in their career, this is the most relaxed, even-tempered, almost 'serene' in certain parts, althought that's the sort of serenity that comes in the middle of a five-minute long blast beat. So this is strange...the band trying to reflect, in an epic sense primarily, the ascendency and beauty of nature or the past in a form of music that, evolving, later became much more barbaric, increasingly violent. From here to the third album, for example, is a major step down into the world, away from ideal creations of the mind into pure sublunar warfare. NM has never been one to merely reside in this world, however, there is always an epic edge to their material, a constant call to the beyond, to above or below. Is this the beginning of that concentration? The first step of that particular urge in the music towards something...more? How, exactly, did they end up with 'Nechrist'?

And why did they fall, far downwards, into the savagery of their next two releases? Was the poetry of the moon, of nature and the 'mysticism' of the abstract not enough to sustain their energies, their curiosity?

This release opens with one of those pseudo-natural soundscapes that I elliptically referred to above: the use of the keyboard, the most modern instrument on the recording, to mimic or 'falsify' natural atmospheres. This is a prevailing paradox in modern black metal, and NM didn't resolve it until their last release, which had them using, I believe, authentic native instruments. It's all just a matter of finances, really. The synths stand in for other elements that can't be 'authentically' manipulated until the recording budget grows. This is all to be expected...what I don't like, however, is the way the keyboards/samples in this (and many other black metal recordings), striving for a certain 'naturalness' of tone, fall completely short of this goal and sound so utterly modern - listen to the 'Pied Piper' piccolo introduction of 'Carpathian Mysteries', which could also be Willy Wonka summoning the oompaloompas. Once again, it's a matter of economics (rubles?)- the better the synth equipment, the less it sounds like a keyboard...another paradox? At this early point in their career, NM certainly couldn't be expected to have a production aesthetic/electronic apparatus that fit their grandiose designs...I'm pleased that the music more than makes up for these faults in execution with its ambition, its sheer scope and breadth of evocative power. This band, more than any other still laying claim to that obsolete (and all-too narrow) categorical definition of 'black metal', are able to evade all obstacles and put their imaginative designs down on tape. However muted, the intended effect still shines through. Even at this early stage, pagan-leaning compositions like the title track and 'Perun's Celestial Silver' more than adequately demonstrate this group's illustrative power - entire dimensions of sound, light, and atmosphere are created for the listener to lose him/herself in. Later releases would find NM reaching a point of eloquent mastery with this. And while beneath the overt, surface effects (down in the depths, underwater, with the drums, bass, and guitars) things are more than traditional - indeed almost reactionary - it's the keyboards that make this band, hand-in-hand with the progressive, open-ended, expansive song structures. Again, this is what I was referring to when I opened this review by saying that Nokturnal Mortum, in the beginning, mainly borrowed melodic ideas and sounds from folk influences...only later did the structures of indigenous music - the chants, sing-alongs, anthems, choruses, etc. - actually have a formal emphasis in their song-writing process and in the simple architecture of their music. Listen to their last album and you will hear the truth of this...

So, mainly traditional black metal here (or what is known as 'traditional' now), albeit the stylistic approach is not really primarily riff-based ('Carpathian Mysteries' is an exception) as much as it is created in terms of a classical or 'symphonic' composition: a long, flowing, ever-changing stream of melodic impulses, reined in under the aegis of a single theme and its variations (very close to Emperor's 'In The Nightside Eclipse'), and then given rhythmic power by a panzer snare/bass drum fusillade, ticking away like a dozen metronomes. I think this is either a drum machine by itself, or a machine in league with a human drummer, the tracks set over each other Bathory-style. All very soothing, all smooth sides, curves, gradual accelerations - nothing jagged, abrupt, rude, crass, out of place. The material bears the signature of countless lost hours spent honing its polish to a silver sheen. It goes down without a hitch, once the song themes proper kick in, and I have swallowed the lump in my throat caused by bells, bongos, unnatural bird cries and piping forest dwellers. A spoonful of raging guitars helps the homeopathic medicine go down...

A few melodies are even sentimental...again listen to the opening of 'Carpathian Mysteries', which speaks of regret and wishes for past glory, before the sleazy main rock riff comes in to set the cymbals twittering. A few turns of this, and then we are back again in Emperor territory, before Emperor even knew they would be here...

This is a curt demonstration, but the truth is that the notion of Byronic regret, of mourning for the past, fits in so well in the Romantic framework with folk references or nature-worship that NM could not ignore it...or they would ignore it at their own peril. As they are from Ukraine, and so seen as perpetual outsiders, these sorts of lyrical/thematic illustrations are second-nature to them. What else would they possibly feature in their songs?

While I can't exactly trace, right now, the original lineage of these ideas - where precisely the 'lost paradise of the past' motif was introduced into black metal, it's enough to register the fact that it is completely par for the course to include such world-weary flavorings now if one is going to write a black album, and that one's audience would feel a little displaced if they weren't given these topics or recurrent strains to latch onto. I wonder, though, how many people really feel the same way as Nokturnal Mortum when it comes to this subject? Can Americans feel this way? Can we legitimately mourn the past, ancient tradition, the world of our ancestors? Or is this all just emotional, and I am making a mistake in appealing to the rational - to real history?

Still, what I enjoy the most about this band - what I have always mentioned in my reviews of their material - is the way they attempt to 'open up' the listening space, letting it breathe, trying to push the boundaries further and further back, that stale 180 degrees from ear to ear...later, on 'To The Gates of Blasphemous Fire', I think they achieve a revolution with this constant ambition. A small changing of the guard, passed off without anyone really noticing, but a distinct switch in priorities nonetheless: listen to that album compared to this, the way the production emphasizes the width/girth of the band's sound, its all-encompassing breadth, the wide open spaces of its harmonic potential...listen to the way the music has evolved, how it swarms on so many levels at once, and moves along, living, expiring, like the passing of a comet, a crumbling civilization, a dark star, a dying planet falling past in the night, screaming...

'...And Winter Becomes' (Becomes what? I need the lyrics!) is the middle of this recording, a song that opens up with a very nice marching keyboard klaxon, a sort of maudlin call to war, stirring nonetheless, but which quickly degenerates into an alternation of by-the-numbers black metal strumming and Amorphis lead meandering. The most annoying part of this is, once again, the synths, which just sound so out of place...in the intros, confined to simple evocative melodies, everything proceeds smoothly, but when they are unleashed as quick frenzied bursts, in a percussive manner, I can't help but think of those demonstrations they give in shopping malls of the 'authenticity' of synth sounds...which means, of course, they don't sound authentic at all. When keyboards aren't being set to mimic something, whether it is a choral sampling, strings, brass, or whatever, when they are just left with that neutral flourescent obviously electronic 'almost-piano' sound...I shudder...is there anyone who actually enjoys those tones? Again, though, this is an old recording...you have to expect that certain improvements have been made in technique and quality. Here the electronics, what NM use to mainly picture the forest awakening, or the coming of night, is later transformed into a synthetic onslaught, the abyss opening wide, the tortures of the damned rising to the ear in blissful waves...

One of the highlights here is their original take on Celtic Frost's 'Sorrow of the Moon', from Into The Pandemonium, which switches the instrumentation and tempos around a little, making the structure their own. The fuzzy, rough recording of this only enhances its 'occult' paranoia and death-drive...and is it just me, or is most of the mix sent to the left side? I must be imagining that. This isn't really the song that I would have covered if I was in this band ('Babylon Fell' or 'Inner Sanctum', I think, would be much more appropriate), but it's instructive, interesting, both as to the source of their influences and the ways in which they can manipulate their own style.

So, for the rest of the album, it's really just more of the same. Fast, open, swelling, grandiose, Tolkienesque (meaning strangely close to Summoning at times) atmospheric black metal with a variety of interludes, intros, etc. that set the mood for the song proper. Nothing absolutely extraordinary, but an excellent record (meaning: a capturing of time and place) of where Nokturnal Mortum originated from, and a virtual clinic in the use of black metal synths...it's good this was finally put on disc.