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Well, this definitely was one of the most anticipated demo compilations for me. Altar – although isn’t as known as many of other early 90’s Swedish death metal – definitely belongs to my favourite acts of that period and I can truly say that their demo as well as the split LP with Cartilage are milestones of the genre. So I guess it was only a matter of time, when someone was about to decide to compile them all on CD – and hopefully there will also be a vinyl version in the future. Here it is then! A nice CD titled “Dark Domains 1989-1995”, unleashed upon us by Konqueror and Pulverized. As always, when buying such compilations I hope for two things: one – to get nice, fat booklet with lots of old photos, demo details, bios, etc and two – to get as much old recordings as possible, hopefully also some unreleased material. Well, in case of “Dark Domains” the booklet is OK. There are quite many archival photos of Altar, which is great, there’s also a short biography, but I miss maybe more details on each of the recordings that are compiled on this CD. There are no covers of the old demos or split LP, there are no detailed recording information, there are no lyrics… Well, definitely it could have done better, but anyway the booklet is OK, at least it’s got something at all (unlike say Excruciate double CD, which hasn’t got anything!). As for the second of my wishes, I got exactly what I wanted. Although the music is not putted in the proper order (it should start with the oldest and finish with the last recordings), but I’m happy to find here two demos of Altar, which I have never heard before, which is just bloody awesome. Well, I have now all Altar recordings on a CD – cool! (although sorry, but they’ve skipped the rehearsal recordings from 1993, which are also quite good, in my opinion).
The album kicks off with the “Ex Oblivione” material from Altar’s split with Cartilage and I can truly say this is their best material. Those five tracks are classic death metal tunes, which are in many places dominated by infectious melodies (think of Amorphis and Epitaph for instance), but despite that the whole material do not lacks aggression at all. It still is damn violent and neckbreaking piece, with some hints of British death metal acts, as well as the likes of Messiah, or Polish Betrayer and Hazael. This is great stuff, really, well worth to be recommended to everyone, who’s into the old death metal bands, not necessarily the Swedish ones. The moody production of Swano’s Gorysound also deserves your attention I think. Then “Dark Domains” offers five tracks, which I have not heard before and thus they were one of the special reasons why I wanted to purchase this CD. You know, while “No Flesh Shall Be Spared” demo was quite popular, then the two demos from 1993 and 1994 were completely unknown, at least to me. My impression on them is slightly mixed though, I’m afraid. The band have lost some of their aggression and atmosphere that were present on the first demo as well as on their split material and instead opted for more and more technical and complex, and melodious playing, which started to take annoyingly a lot of influence from At the Gates and very early In Flames. But I don’t want to say that I don’t like those two demos just because they become too melodic (because they’re not too melodic, they’re more melodic than the previous efforts, but that’s all). It was rather the fact that well… the quality of these materials is not that good, simple as that! Especially those 1994 songs are terribly mediocre.
From 1993 demo I can at least say that there are some cool parts, when Altar plays more technical stuff and there are even some doomy influences in “Floodgates of Emotions”, and so the demo is OK, even though its production is very flat and again I am not 100% impressed by those sudden tempo changes or technical parts. And then 1994 material is just emotionless, I don’t like anything of it, it seems like the band was going in circles with their riffs, they dropped the aggression and everything I liked on their earlier recordings and just went for mediocre fusion of At the Gates and “Lunar Strain”. Even the vocals of Altar’s vocalist on that demo (who was Mieszko Talarczyk, later in Nasum), were not that good. Two things surprised me though – one was the fact that the compilation lacks one song from 1994 demo, I don’t know why the label didn’t put it here. And another was the melody in “Violent Acts”, which – trust me – is purely taken off „The Last of the Mohicans” movie. At first I wasn’t sure, but then I started to listen to it carefully and bang! I’ve recognized it, as this is one of my favourite movies ever and I also love the soundtrack from it!! Hehe, nice, don’t you think? Anyway, I’m also quite happy that soon when these two average 1994 songs finish I can listen to “No Flesh Shall Be Spared” demo, which is just a crusher and one of my favourite Swedish demos ever. The music is brutal, dark and massive, it’s not 100% style wise, as it’s not so melodic, it has many riffs, which you can compare to some American bands or European titans like Benediction and early Gorefest and there are even some more thrashing parts, which is I think just fuckin cool, really!
Once you start burrowing a bit deeper into death metal, looking under the crust of established and well-known bands, you’re bound to get a recommendation of the Altar / Cartilage split sooner than later. With reason, too – Cartilage is one of the finest Finnish groups to represent the style, and it’s a heinous crime that they never recorded an album full of their mildly esoteric, yet ballsy brand of music. Reviews of the split uniformly focus on their side of the record, bypassing Altar altogether or shunning their songs with a brief comment along the lines of “they’re good too”.
In a way, this fleeting dismissal manages to sum up the life and times of Altar pretty well. The band was adequate, showing they knew their way around their instruments, but their music lacked that spark of genius and originality that differentiates the leaders from the followers. They lose out against other Swedish death metal acts (has anybody ever name-dropped Altar as one of the country’s finest death ensembles?), they lose out on the split, they even lose out against their death-thrash namesake from Holland, always briefly acknowledged as “good too” before the conversation shifts to more notable acts. Not without reason, though.
The band’s early work, as documented on the famous split, showcases their take on the classic death metal template that’s been hammered to death, and resurrected recently for yet more abuse courtesy of retro acts. Tremolo runs? Check. Mid-paced riffs with more breathing room? Check. Characteristic drum patterns? Check. Simple underlying musical content? Check. It’s all competently executed, yet standard to the core. Every now and then, a riff sounds a bit more futuristic than the standard Swedish pack at the time, but it’s nowhere near the “okay, guys, where did you hide the time machine?” vibe one gets from Maimed’s lone 1991 demo. You’ve heard this before, there are few deviations from the norm. It’s executed well though, so if you don’t mind the fact that this isn’t anywhere near the best death metal you’ll ever listen to, you won’t be let down.
Not long after the split dropped, a new wave of death metal acts started getting attention, a more refined focus on melody their defining trait. Monkey hear, monkey do – Altar started experimenting with their sound. That’s not to say they turned everything upside down, as their prior approach is still firmly in place. They just casually laced it with various amounts of melody. This little-known side of the band makes for a more enjoyable listen, even though the all-important spark is still nowhere to be found. Their new style is just as studious and workmanlike as their previous sound, but the occasional flowing melodies make for a nice change of pace from the more stripped-down material of old. It also helps that there’s less bands that lived long enough to supply such a transition tape, so it’s interesting to witness Altar morphing a little, not completely unlike the visibly superior Obscure Infinity did with their 1994 promo.
With all that said, it’s not really surprising the highlight of Altar’s career was that one split, and they never managed to have anything else on a label. Until 2012, that is – the constant stream of re-releases and discography compilations (it’s a good time to be into old school death metal) generated the complete works of Altar on CD. Dan Swanö did a mighty fine job with the old tapes, giving them a well-deserved aural facelift that doesn’t ruin the organic vibe 90’s demos had. Clarity is added, you can actually hear every instrument perfectly well. Some muddiness shows up in places, but there’s only so much you can do with an ancient demo recording and the restoration is incredible as is. Thus, if you enjoy your death metal the old way, without fierce sweeps and robotic blasting, give Altar a shot. They’re good too, just not really remarkable.