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Fran Marder is the first substantial stop on the evolutionary journey of one of Sweden's finest and most consistent black metal outfits, Arckanum. Cutting an imposing (or amusing) figure with his robes, masks, and archaic weaponry (axes, staves, etc.), Shamaatae was able to instantly ingrain himself upon the memories of those who cast eyes upon him (much like Rob Darken's armored woodland posing through the history of Graveland). But Arckanum also deserves some credit as a Swedish answer to Burzum: one man capable of multiple instruments, a single vision joined only by those he hand picks for guest roles, but excelling beyond the crude 'bedroom black' metal aesthetic to something hinging on professional.
This is due largely to the production, which was shared with Peter Tägtgren at his Abyss studios. No stranger to the black metal genre, Fran Marder does share some attributes with Peter's own house band The Abyss in the dry but consistent mix of the guitars, but what Shamaatae has on offer is a far more curious and cultural display of consistency. He's one of the earlier black metal acts to pen his lyrics in the best approximation of the Old Swedish tongue. He's unafraid to draw forth outside or unexpected influences (female vocals, ambient/ritual sequences). He has less of a focus on central melodic themes than his peers at the time (Dissection, Sacramentum, etc), but one can still find the guitar patterns gorgeous and addictive in parts. Fran Marder is not quite the best album in his catalog, nor does it totally distinguish itself from the other formative works of the scene and period, but its selections served as a solid and effective control group from which Shamaatae could further expand his horizons.
Like much of 90s black metal, the guitars relied heavily on the repetition of somber, frost born notation that lulls the listener into a bleak despondency, and much of Fran Marder is performed at a fast but not impossibly fast pace laden with competent blast work. A number of the tracks like "Þe Alder Hærskande Væsende Natur" and "Kununger Af Þæn Diupeste Natu" play this pretty close to the hilt, with little memorable riffing involved in the experience, only the echoed rasp Shamaatae uses for the majority of the album. But there are others such as "Svinna" or the title track which are able to conjure a more lush, calculated wall of sound that envelops the ear. The slower, driving fare like "Gava Fran Trulen" or "Trulmælder" reveals a semblance to the band's precursors Bathory, Darkthrone and Hellhammer, and in general engaging, while "Baerghet" comes off the most original, long stretches of dual guitar melodies that are only joined by percussion near the close of the track, and both rasped and female vocals.
The ambient sequences, especially those used to bookend the album ("Pans Lughn", "Ener Stilla Sior Af Droten Min") are immersive and well done, but a few of the stranger ideas (like the down tuned narration of the intro or Tägtgren's dorky higher pitched guest vocals in "Trulmælder") leave something to be desired. In all, though, Fran Marder was a very promising effort, with a commendable production (both the original and the re-issue) ethic and a rigid, folksy mystique being channeled through its cold winds and ambient resonance. It would be well over a decade before Shamaatae would write an album of a legendary disposition, but the journey itself has not been without its merits, and Fran Marder, for its few flaws, was well worth the time of the avid Scandinavian black metal audience.
This is one of those albums that I come back to again and again, and it is difficult to provide a logical argument describing exactly what the elements are which set this album apart from so many other forest-inspired black metal albums. This is the challenge that review writing presents. Firstly, I should bring to your attention the fact that this album is a grower. It is unlikely to make a significant impact on first listen. Perhaps the elements such as owl hoots and storm noises will make certain aspects stand out as memorable, but the riffs themselves are likely to seem non-descript. This is not helped by the thin, non-aggressive guitar sound. In many ways the riffing style resembles that of Darkthrone’s “Transilvanian Hunger”: simplistic, stripped down to black metal’s barest form, at times playing a single elongated note, before moving up or down to repeat for the next note. The difference is that on “Transilvanian Hunger”, the guitar sound is abrasive and scathing, whereas “Fran Marder” has a warm, almost rockish guitar sound, which some may say is inappropriate. The songwriting is a bit more complex here also.
The vocals on this album stand out as a crucial ingredient in the forest black metal concept. Shamaatae sounds like a troll (whatever trolls sound like). This is not typical black metal screaming or rasping. He has a throaty vocal style, where he enunciates every word clearly, in ancient Swedish of course. If I could understand this language, I would have no problem understanding all of the lyrics. The lyrics are delivered in a way that sounds poignant and poetic, with emphasis given to “hard” consonants, and rolling of the ‘r’s. This is a particularly appropriate and aesthetically pleasing language for the genre. The vocals have an echo effect, so that every syllable is repeated in the background twice, becoming quieter on each repetition. Of course while a previous word is still echoing, the next word is already beginning. It’s like being in a forest at night surrounded by trolls. They’re everywhere and making disparaging comments behind my back. Headphones are strongly recommended for this album to get that true forest atmosphere. Either that or a very good quality surround sound system. The echoes are quiet and allow the listener to focus on what is being played currently, and do not distract the listener.
Another strength of this album is its coherence as a single art form. It is certainly not a mere collection of songs. It is a concept. The songs tend to move seamlessly into each other, so at times you might not notice that the next song has begun. Having said this, the songs are significantly different from each other, but agreeable with the overall flow of the album. Shamaatae is very clever with his songwriting, and conveys an affinity with nature. An example of this is at the start of the title track where the rolling of thunder is heard. At the point where the listener might expect to hear rain falling, the guitars come in, and hit the perfect note to simulate rainfall. The riffs that follow could almost be used as the definition of the word “epic”, despite their simplicity, and the fact that the song isn’t very long. Each guitar note seems to “hit the spot” for me. Each riff is simplistic but absolutely infectious. Shamaatae knows exactly how long to pursue with each riff before making the song progress. Often the riffs plod along in such a way as to conjure images of a troll trudging through a forest.
Arckanum has produced a special album, which could be seen as a landmark in nature-inspired black metal. Many bands have attempted this style since, but simply do not possess the natural songwriting magic of Shamaatae. He should also be given credit for the tasteful integration of female vocals into parts of songs, giving them a pure and innocent feel (certainly not some lame gothic theme). Be warned that this album is unlikely to make an instant impact, but ultimately becomes a charming and rewarding listen over time.
For being anyone’s debut, this is a good album. For being general black metal, it's pretty ok. For being Arckanum it's...well, not bad.
Over all this album gives not too many surprises, but at the time it was released it had a lot more to give but since this is no longer the year of 1995 it stands kind of faceless in the vast crowd of the present day black metal scene. I mean, everything is there; the grinding, the solid riffs, the genuine feeling of a black metal release but there is little extra stuff that would make this record hit the spot.
The main problem is the mixing. This was the first time Shamaatae entered a professional studio (Abyss Studios) and Peter Tägtgren kind of pulled the strings himself adding that typical Abyss Studio-sound: way too clean and clear to fit the mysterious and clandestine approach of Arckanum. If you listen to the following albums you understand how little influence Shamaatae had on this session and I must say I feel a bit sorry for him because Arckanum is at least 70% atmosphere.
Over all the music is somewhat repetitive and not very original, but given the thought that this is a debut recording it is not much to whine about. The album is also a bit too long. He could have cut it down some 20 minutes and still kept the whole concept. A cheesy keyboard melody in the intro that just keeps going on and on, begging to be “fast-forwarded” feels kind of unnecessary too.
Artwork can be seen as both great and poor depending on what release you've got. The slightly more limited ones with coloured photo on the cover have a very cheap booklet. The re-release though, in black and silver is just artistically beautiful (as usual).
Some things that still makes this album stand out from the crowd are: the vocals (of course) presented with his trademark "throat-cancer" screams of torment, but also the clean vocals that are powerful and full of emotion (not emo though). The upper-class-primitive riffs that are simple but beautiful in its simplicity and surely enough not lacking melody (also I get the feel that they are slightly heavier than regular black metal riffs). The lyrics are as usual in medieval Swedish brings this, and all the other releases of Arckanum, to an unthreatened position in the black metal world; no matter how much a band sucks, special efforts like this gives the work a more artistic value. Back in this time Shamaatae’s knowledge of this forgotten language was somewhat limited (only noticed by Swedes I guess) but it’s nice not having to listen to the common “Yeah, Satan, yeah, kill Christ, yeah-yeah drink blood” and such, for a change. This is a steady piece of classic black metal. "Berghet- De Glömda" (The Mountain- the Forgotten) is the best track, without a doubt, with that unusual mix of “clean-rough” vocals. It's actually one of the best Arckanum songs of all times which are pretty odd since this is the "less best" of his albums.
I would not avoid saying that there are better albums out there on the market, but this one is not bad in any way and if you are a fan of Arckanum you should have it in your collection without a doubt. It serves its purpose.