2000, The End Records
While many people are probably going to see this album as something of an atavistic slide for Nokturnal Mortum, replacing the technical brilliance, melodic creativity, and outright savagery of their last two releases with a kindler, gentler sound intent on exploring their own pagan/mythic origins and the music of their ancestry, I am actually convinced that nothing of that sort has happened here, and that this band has followed, with a ruthless determination, the program they set for themselves years ago as to the focus, motive, and defining purpose of their art. This album follows in a direct progression, on almost all fronts, the ideals, questions, and paths that the last album (the absolutely overwhelming 'To The Gates of Blasphemous Fire') set forth for this group of extremely original musicians. Listening to the two albums, the old and the new, back to back, should make this obvious to you. Last year's release mainly struck me as being original in the complicated (and at times, very technical) layering of dual keyboards over competing guitar riffs, and as such I was preparing myself for something that followed that light of composition even further: into Emperor-esqe symphonic landscapes that would up the ante once again for all the keyboard-laden black metal groups across the world. Nokturnal have instead with this new release followed another guide that was just as readily apparent on their earlier albums as their technical innovations: their desire for incorporating folk melodies, ancient traditions, and the pagan spirit of their homeland into their music. So, in truth, this new album seems to swing masterfully between these two poles of motivation: on one hand we have the symphonic Nokturnal Mortum, intent as ever on burnishing their shocking black metal brutality with layered keyboard effects, smoothing a bright raiment of melodic peaks over the caustic clashings of the vulpine battery beneath it, or swallowing high-velocity lungings and dartings with echoing chambers of atmospheric bliss - and then we have a new Nokturnal Mortum, given to incorporating all kinds of different instruments (sampled or otherwise) and ritualistic patterns of folk music into their program for domination, not neglecting to pause or stop and breathe deeply the forgiving/soothing calm of melodies that, springing as they do from their own heritage and heartland, can not help but speak directly to the soul. It is a unique and strange combination, one that has been tried before with varying levels of success (see Graveland, Enslaved, Satyricon, etc.) but which has never, I believe, reached this depth of exploration, manipulation, and total immersion. Nokturnal Mortum, it can be said, have finally gone native.
While the main aspect of this album's atavism, as I mentioned it above, can be seen mainly in that term's positive aspect, referring as it does to the concentrated effort of these musicians to sink far down within their pagan/mythic roots and draw inspiration from those wells of creativity, it also is applied to the look and feel of this release. The cover art, the promo photos inside, and the production sound of this record immediately bring back something of the 'lost spirit' of black metal. The promo copy I was given reproduces everything in black and white (I'm not sure if the final version will be like this) and so the overall effect of this record's aesthetics is a concentrated reproduction of those first essential releases in the black metal movement that, for me, really defined the direction, effect, and possibilities of this form of music. I'm talking about Darkthrone here, of course. The album cover and back cover/tray insert pictures are directly reminiscent of 'Panzerfaust' or 'Under a Funeral Moon', and the total aesthetic effect of the packaging is purposely obscure, I feel, in the same manner as the packaging of Darkthrone, Gorgoroth, and bands of that principle. Pure underground, pure cult.
When it comes to the sound of this recording, the same aesthetics apply. The entire soundscape of these songs seems to be compressed, claustrophobic, and purposely obscured by a lack of direct instrument clarity or a monotone mixing. While not reducing the range of the instrumentation or the ability of the music to come through clearly (especially when played at high volume) this production creates an admirable atmosphere of its own. Again, this is something that can be linked to Darkthrone - the sound of the recording casts shadows all by itself, and when at certain times the keyboards fall away, of their own accord, the cutting, raw, and ravenous buzzsaw of the guitars takes center stage in a small defined space, seemingly buried far underground, making Nokturnal Mortum sound like the most vicious garage band on Earth.
The first track on this record, 'The Funeral Wind Born In Oriana', is a very good demonstration of the band's new concentration and purpose for this record, as it exchanges, in equal measure, the blasting black metal fury and dark atmospheres that they have become known for with passages of folk music superimposed over the flailing chaos of more traditional instrumentation. As the album progresses these two elements or musical directions are separated more and more, both within the body of the individual songs and in the structure of the album itself, so that an ample display of their different concentrations becomes more and more apparent. The second track, for example, 'Night Before The Fight', is almost a complete regression to their earlier style of combining an electrifying high speed maelstrom of metal severity with occult keyboard overtones and a stratified ambience - there aren't really any folk elements to be found here. The most idiosyncratic and original part of this song is one thrash riff (first found at 1:06 into the song) which is metamorphosized, at the conclusion of the track (4:30 - with a false segue at 4:16, see if you catch it), into an agonizing and sadistic doom crawl and then sent through several variations, where different tiers of atmospherics are added one on top of another. This is truly inspired composing. The next track then takes the album back to its first real flirtation with folk music, as the initial two minutes are a rambling exploration of ritualistic chants, ethnic (for lack of a better word) singing, pealing aged strings, rusty chimes, raven calls, a jew's harp, and bracing tribal drumming. When the metal finally comes in, at 1:56, with stripped-down strident and stomping power riffing, punching bass, searing keyboards (with another great swirling and reverberating keyboard melody underneath the main synths that perfectly complements the rhythm of the song), and excoriating vocals spitting out lyrics filled with malice, the track truly becomes transcendent. Amazing.
Once again, I am filled with admiration for this groundbreaking and stubbornly original group of musical isolationists. Separated from the rest of the world, almost perversely secretive and close-mouthed about their own history or musical inspiration, this band proves that great music can be made in any place where ardent souls are intent on expressing their own true convictions with integrity and creativity. This album is easily one of the best black metal releases put out this year. Highly recommended.