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I remember a host of some mainstream television show talking about Cannibal Corpse a few years back. You know, how everyone seems to have a Cannibal Corpse tape in the car, for the sole purpose of occasionally shocking strangers? I think back in my early days, when I was just moving from Iron Maiden and company into more extreme regions of Metal, Beherit was something of an equivalent to said Cannibal Corpse story in more underground circles. You know, loads of people would have it, but never really listen to it, just keep it around to put it on at parties with an introduction like "Hey, anybody want to hear something really fucked up?" Then it would run a few minutes, everyone's jaw would drop, then everyone went back to their previous business of drinking beer and listening to more "civilized" Metal.
One can understand how this album would provoke such extreme reactions. On first listen - even on second, third or tenth listen - this barely comes off as much more than random noise. But sometimes, this can be irresistable. You know, when you're a naive but eager teenager, and just seriously getting into extreme Metal, most likely you'll start to get curious just how extreme it can get, and so you start digging through all more trashy and noisy stuff, the more wicked, inhuman and painful to the ears the better, until one day you mature a little bit and realize that most of it really is just trashy junk and you'd rather listen to music you can actually enjoy rather than wasting your time with nonsense that only gets on your nerves. Yes, most of it... and then there are the few exceptions, the rare gems that blend into the whole wicked-and-noisy-theme on first listen, but reveal a lot more to the careful and patient listener.
I can remember myself thinking of this as barely more than random noise the first times I listened into it, but looking back at it today, I cannot even relate to how and why I felt that way anymore. Of course, there has been that famous interview bit with Maniac of (then) Mayhem, where he states that listening to Black Metal is like listening to opera... you have to train your ear for it to be able to appreciate it. That might be an explanation, but now that my ear has been fully trained for many years, I cannot understand how I could ever not appreciate this album, because it simply is one of the few very best Black Metal albums of all times.
Very much unlike the random noise I - for some reason that as I said escapes me today - perceived during my first few listens, the structure on this album is quite clear and organized. The Black Metal songs (I'll get to the synth pieces later) function outside the back then still common verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, and rely quite heavily on build-up, at which they succeed flawlessly, in their own unique way. They usually start off with a very simplistic, very "old school" Black/Thrash riff, and work up the intensity through various such riffs at alternating speeds of percussion, linked almost clumsily (but with undeniable efficiency) through recurring breakdowns, usually starting off each new part with a single guitar before the rest kicks in again - a common technique in Black Metal at the time, but used quite captivatingly here. Then, as the tension builds up, Beherit usually finish off their songs with a stunning climax, usually working in atmospheric elements such as keyboards or harmonizing guitar leads. But don't think every song on this album is formulaic, no, each song has its own unique variation of this theme of songwriting, so while their structure might be roughly similar, every song stands on its own two legs, so to speak. And ultimately... every song on this album is its very own classic.
The vocals are another highlight of this album. They alternate between snarling growls that sound electronically altered and have chilling quality to them that sends a shiver down your spine, and piercing hisses - the part other people call "whispers", which is somewhat far from the truth - that add a disturbing form of aggression. Not the kind of "I'm going to beat you up"-aggression that you hear from other bands, but something that feels more morbid and devious - like he is going to stab you in the back while you sleep. Quite creepy in its own, unique way. Occasionally, Holocausto breaks out passages of spoken vocals, sometimes at his normal pitch (most notably in "The Gate of Nanna"), creating an outlandish, shamanistic feeling, and other times treated through heavy pitch-shifting, far down into the deepest layers of the diabolical. One little thing that personally surprises me a lot about the clean vocals is that I usually have a very strong distaste for English spoken with a Finnish accent, but Holocausto not only pulls it off not to sound extremely annoying like his compatriots, but quite the opposite, his accent gives his voice an even more diabolical feel that makes you think of wicked, outlandish rituals. Turning a weakness (and my apologies to all Finnish readers, but a Finnish accent is a weakness when it comes to vocals that try to create any kind of atmosphere) into a strength is a rare gift, and while Holocausto might not be the best Black Metal singer of this planet, this rare gift certainly makes him the best thing Finnish Black Metal has ever brought forth - by very, very far.
Few and far between are less than a handful of synth pieces, which in retrospect can be seen as previews of Holocausto's subsequent solo albums under the Beherit moniker. Disturbingly gloomy, and hypnotically shamanistic, relying once again on the two varieties of Holocausto's unique clean vocals.
Because of the eclectic production of this album's Black Metal part, this album is often said to be "ambiental", and to a degree that might be true. The strange hollow, echo-laden sound with the somewhat buried guitars, combined with the repetitive drumming creates a strange, dark ambience, very hypnotic and deeply moving in the darker layers of the listener's psyche. But that isn't all there is to this album, because once your trained ear gets used to the production, this album can work just as well as a solid piece of Black/Thrash for the Metalhead's traditional headbang-and-air-guitar frenzy. This is the kind of duality every good Black Metal album should encompass, being good Black Metal albums, full of darkness for nocturnal candlelight hours of dark reflections, and good Black Metal albums for the Metalhead's enjoyment of his favourite music at the same time.
This is a masterpiece, nothing less.