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The debut of Ancient Rites was released in 1994 and it is hardly comparable with the last efforts of the Belgians. To a large extent, the instrumentation was reduced to the essentials. Keyboards, flutes or further more or less unusual instruments were missing. The guys just played black metal with some thrash influences. The whipping drums set the pace in a furious manner. It seems as if drummer and co-composer Walter Van Cortenberg wanted to see some necks breaking. His performance profited from the powerful mix. Guitars and drums were on an equal footing while the bass guitar played a minor role. But from my point of view, this was no problem. Finally, the menacing vocal performance of Gunter Theys fulfilled its purpose in a convincing manner. All in all, the mix created a dark aura and reinforced the band´s musical way of proceeding. Better still, the debutants had already reached a more than solid level of musicianship.
The songs scored with fury and straightness. Of course, tempo changes were integrated, but they did not appear as an end in itself. The song patterns were easily comprehensible. As a consequence of this approach, "The Diabolic Serenades" enthused me right from the beginning. But this does not mean that the full-length became boring after a few runs. Strong riffs and the necessary amount of unholy melodies led to a long-lasting listening pleasure. Ancient Rites did not play the most radical form of black metal and they were clever enough to avoid icy guitars and restlessly battering drums. There was no need for the band members to disguise themselves as Norwegian clones. Instead, the chorals of the first section of "Longing for the Ancient Kingdom" reminded me slightly of the Italian Bulldozer. This was surprising enough.
Today the ambitious band is well-known for the usually successful integration of medieval elements. But on its debut, the Middle Ages were of minor importance. Leaving the antique sounds of the brief outro out of consideration, only the intro of "Morbid Glory (Gilles de Rais 1404-1440)" pointed in this direction. Nevertheless, the lyrics already dealt with historical topics and song titles like "Obscurity Reigns (Fields of Flanders)" were able to inspire my fantasy. The band indicated its intellectual potential without leaving the path of natural black metal.
The song material did not lack of rawness and directness. Its highlights were the straight "Death Messiah" and the more varied "Land of Frost & Despair". In view of their highly memorable riffs, both shine with a rarely heard kind of black catchiness. But each and every song added value to this captivating debut. I appreciate the open-minded later recordings of the band, but I also like their here presented more spontaneous approach. It offers that certain iota of intolerance and to quote their neighbours from the Netherlands, the very strong Infinity: black metal is intolerance. I agree. Thus, if you want to get familiar with the black roots of Ancient Rites, do not hesitate to buy this homogeneous album. Its amazingly mature mixture of grimness and melodies leaves almost nothing to be desired.
As one of the earliest black metal bands in Belgium (forming in 1988) Ancient Rites is also the most interesting of the country. In constant evolution the band has shed members and sounds over the years to arrive a concoction of popular styles without abandoning artistic integrity or musical merit. “The Diabolic Serenades” is the first and most crude sounding of all Ancient Rites releases, yet already its keen sense of melody, epic solos and traditional metal foundation are accounted for. Of all releases this one has the most death -, and thrash metal influences. The only things working against it are the unflattering drum production and studio processed vocals of bassist Gunther Theys.
At this juncture the band was a power trio, consisting of vocalist, lyricist and bass guitarist Gunther Theys, lead guitarist Bart Vandereycken and drummer Walter van Cortenberg. The album bears a striking resemblance to the Mystifier album “Wicca” which was released two years before, in 1992. Both albums aim for a for the same writing style and atmosphere, although Ancient Rites is more death metal oriented in its writing, and far more percussive in terms of drumming. That both instruments feature as prominently as they do should come as no surprise, as all the music was composed by Bart Vandereycken and Walter van Cortenberg. The songwriting is sometimes hampered by the presence of only one guitar, but Vandereycken more often than not finds clever ways around these limitations. The bass guitar, in usage more than tone, isn’t as interesting as it could be, mostly due it merely doubling the guitar riffs. What the band lacks in subtlety and finesse it makes up in sheer variation and diversity in how it goes about accomplishing its songwriting objective. “The Diabolic Serenades” has a lineage in ancient thrash – and death metal rather than the formative black metal acts.
Although steeped in anti-religious and Satanic imagery, a great deal of the lyrics already deal with historical subject matter, including French nobleman Gilles de Rais (‘Morbid Glory (Gilles de Rais 1404-1440)’), the Roman Empire (‘Crucifiction Justified (Roman Supremacy)’, Assyria (‘Assyrian Empire’) and local Belgian folklore and history (‘Obscurity Reigns (Fields Of Flanders)’ and ‘Land of Frost & Despair’). The remainder of the songs deal with the archetypical Satanic philosophy, such as ‘Satanic Rejoice’, ‘Death Messiah’, ‘Longing For the Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Ritual Slayings (Goat Worship Pure)’ and ‘Evil Prevails’. Over the course of its next albums Ancient Rites would gradually tone down its Satanic rhetoric in favor of exploring European antiquity, history and folklore. For the most part “The Diabolic Serenades” is the culmination of the band’s demo stage, and one of two records in terms of its central songwriting axis. That Ancient Rites doesn’t conform to any philosophy, but its own is made abundantly clear by the fact that the band adamantly refuses to wear corpse paint in its promotional material, and to adopt unpronounceable stage names. Both these practices were standard for then-emergent black metal genre, and remain a staple of it to this day. The band’s integrity and honesty at the expense of artistic – and commercial success is its greatest strength.
One of the biggest strengths of “The Diabolic Serenades” is the contrast between its mechanical brutality and atmospheric interludes. ‘Infant Sacrifices to Baalberith’, ‘Longing For the Ancient Kingdom’ and ‘Last Rites/Echoes Of Melancholy’ stand in stark contrast to the batterings of ‘Crucifixion Justified (Roman Supremacy)’, ‘Land Of Frost & Despair’, ‘Ritual Slayings (Goat Worship Pure)’ and ‘Evil Prevails’. In fact ‘Longing For the Ancient Kingdom’, a re-recorded cut of the band’s 1992 “Evil Prevails” EP, is the earliest instance of the band exploring its atmospheric side within its rather crude death/black metal framework. This track forms the architectural basis for the band’s later atmospheric and epic metal template that would be cultivated in earnest from the second, and third album onward. Being the earliest Ancient Rites release it captures the band at its most primal and ferocious. Bart Vandereycken is a commendable guitarist, and while his angular riffs aren’t always the most imaginative the fiery leads/solos is what he excels at. The drumming by Walter van Cortenberg mostly seems to be built around thrash beats, and somewhat early American sounding fills. The demonic vocals by Gunther Theys, as goofy as they sound due to the studio processing, fit the album’s haunting atmosphere. A hissing vocal style, such as heard on the “Resurrection” EP (which was released the same year as this album) by American death metal combo Sadistic Intent would have fitted the album better in retrospect. The current vocals work for what they intend to convey, their sheer otherworldiness works in its favor.
The production is a both a blessing and a curse. Once again the band convened at Studio 20 in Tienen, Belgium with long-time producer/engineer Louis Jans behind the console. The guitar tone is crunchy and thick, while the bass rumbles healthily in the background. The drums sound digital, and kind of plastic. The whole kit oozes an electronic vibe that never really improves. While the snares and toms sound digital, the kickdrums sound truly massive giving the record, along with the prominent bass guitar, its thundering bass-heaviness and weight. It is unclear whether an electronic drum kit was used during these sessions, or that it was merely due to production choices on the band’s end. Similarly a studio filter, or processor, was used on the grunts and rasps of bass guitarist Gunther Theys, which push them squarely into death metal territory. Even though it adds to the overall macabre effect, it takes some time getting used to – especially in hindsight since Theys would opt for a more natural and emotive vocal style past this debut record. Many of the qualms would be rectified on the successor to this album, while the sterile, digital drum tones would prove a continuing ailment for this band that even a move towards a high-budget, professional studio environment couldn’t cure.
“The Diabolic Serenades” had the unfortunate distinction of being released through the doomed Afterdark Records, which declared bankruptcy shortly after the album’s release. This led to Ancient Rites embarking on a European tour in support of the album, without any product to push. The album is an ideal fusion of various streams of underground metal styles. The visuals might not be the most striking but they fit with the rather crude and primitive take on the genres the band mix on its debut. From this point onward the band would expand its musical, vocal and lyrical palette. “The Diabolic Serenades” is the culmination of Ancient Rites’ demo phase, and the only album of its kind in the band’s early canon. Much of what would make Ancient Rites the interesting musical outfit that they are is found here in its most embryonal form. This album lays down the groundwork for the much better material they would produce in the following years. In hindsight it looks corny compared and contrasted with the material the band would release in subsequent years, but the conviction and spirit present they weren’t able to capture or recreate on later, arguably better, albums.
Review originally written for Least Worst Option - www.leastworstoption.com
Ancient Rites went through multiple different musical personalities through their span as a band. Even in the beginning, their demo in '90 surprisingly played a form of darker speed metal with a much different type of discernible half-singing voice. It's like they were attempting to breathe life back into an early to mid-'80s sound until other styles climbed over this and thrash with bigger boots in the '90s. Ancient Rites took the hint—probably from an omen in their blackened, syrup-gory morning Belgium waffles, or simply 3 of 4 members leaving or dying—as their sound shortly evolved on their EP in '92 and is closer to what's presented here with a form of black and death metal.
The production is on the side of digital and is more processed than other extreme metal projects of similar ilk. The guitars have a good amount of fitting effects, and the bass is right there with the same volume level to maximize its effort. But on the other hand, this sounds like it uses an electronic drum set; my suspicions came about since they have the same tone per drum and the cymbals only have a small amount of ringing after hits. The vocals have a processor on them—either with a healthy dose of pitch shift or run through a distortion pedal—making them an even lower toned growl and somewhat inhuman and demonic sounding as a result. With the shock and helplessness they give off, it's as if the Archfiend himself called your house while holding one of your family members eternally hostage. Pretty lucrative enterprise. Who's stopping him? You? Or You? Maybe even you, brave guy?
This is simultaneously catchy and mean sounding. The speed can adequately adjust to dreary slow, galloping mids and thrash-like fast sections. This isn't filled with blasterbation or a saturation of over-chugging. The guitars actually use a decent amount of strums, even at some points when going faster, or will pull out some tremolo type picking and other techniques to balance out palm mutes. Even though this has over-processed drums, it is definitely busy behind that artificial sounding throne by attaching plenty of fills and various hits to keep the listener's attention enraptured and engaged. Instead of continuous double bass, he'll use these at-a-trot type of kick drum hits; it works to the band's advantage especially when the guitarist has one of his hooking riffs going. The song writing can switch between atmospherics and aggression. "Longing for the Ancient Kingdom" is a good example of where the band mostly goes for a mood-centered track. It begins with a slow-to-mid-range beat, where the guitars play a particular set of notes with one sticking out that's higher toned of the bunch and with a keyboard choir effect following those same notes in succession. The first vocal passage, instead of beginning with his other grotesque vocals, give way to a clean and reverb-effected, almost wail-like voice. They also included some layered whispers and rasps, and then eventually break back into his regular growls to conclude this dark and emotively charged song.
"The Diabolic Serenades" is the band's most consistently sinister compared to later recordings. Although, I have to admit the production sounded funny to my ears when I first heard this with their precise drum sound and the digitalized recording quality for the type of extreme metal they were projecting. I can imagine it would have chimed a little better with an acoustic kit like they used on the demo and EP, and then, of course, helped out by the louder sound here. The band still makes up for it, as their subsequent material would record in an even more processed fashion but not hold up the musical end of the bargain for someone who got into them when they were stepping on more toes and sensibilities with their different take on extreme metal here. The band is cited as black metal, but this release actually combines attributes of black and death. They took a sidelined direction to sounding strictly like, say, American death metal a la Morbid Angel or Cannibal Corpse, or even the Norwegian route with Darkthrone or Burzum, as, of course, many would attempt to do so without the innovation aspect of things. Those of us who've had a run in with Ancient Rites might have different mind sets about them with the band shifting around their modes of playing on their varied albums, and I can imagine only a select few that are into the whole enchilada. Since we're on topic of food, I think of how they eventually over-heated the waffle iron with all of those keyboards, honored all of those Vikings with mead soaked waffle treats, and ended up being just another fancy breakfast platter on a list that had a shadowier past on their first but gradually lost what made them darkly delicious.