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Blut Aus Nord are a metal act that always takes whatever they are exploring to the extreme. These Frenchmen have long had a reputation of being innovators in the black metal genre, and their 2010 EP "What Once Was... Liber I" follows their first 7 full-lengths in a surprising way. Having experimented with elements ranging from symphonic black metal to industrial, with both complex melodic and atonal song structures, Blut Aus Nord throws us yet another curveball by releasing a straight-up no-frills brutal death metal album.
If this were released today as Blut Aus Nord's long lost demo from 1990, I don't think anyone would be surprised. It would be heralded alongside Darkthrone's "Soulside Journey" as a solid death metal offering before the advent of 2nd wave black metal. Released as a 2-track 12" EP (both sides untitled) with minimal artwork, there is little to warn the listener what awaits. The opening drone on what sounds like a keyboard in the basement of hell could easily suggest this was going to veer in an experimental direction like MoRT or Odinist. However, the song abruptly kicks in to a filthy, furious death metal riff backed by thunderous, echoing drums. This has none of the studio polish that most of their albums feature, not to say that it's badly recorded. It sounds very deliberately recorded with all the atmosphere of the inside of a coffin.
The distorted growls are punctuated with savage gurgles that layer on top of each other at times, invoking a swarm of devils all screaming for your soul. The guitars are downtuned in classic Autopsy style, dirty and buried in reverb and yet sounding freshly exhumed. The solos are the only part that's clearly from the Blut Aus Nord playbook, often sounding like they are being generated by an insane robot through squealing layered effects. They do work well within the context of the mix, having some of the same character as Bill Steer's suicidal dive bomb solos on the earliest Carcass material.
Did I already mention this pulled a lot of tricks out of the classic death metal playbook? Unlike the brutal black metal onslaught of their album "Mystical Beast...", this record breaks up the skull-jarring blastbeats with slower death grooves. One complaint I've had about previous albums is that sometimes it's very obvious the drumming is programmed and doesn't keep up with the diversity of the guitar playing. I don't know for sure if there's a live drummer on this record, but the playing is active and diverse and frankly the most interesting I've heard on a Blut Aus Nord album to date.
While presented as 2 long tracks, each side does break down into 2 or 3 segments that could be interpreted as "songs." The guitar work is as furious as ever, burning through complex riff after riff, conjuring graveyard atmosphere with every twist and turn. The compositions are tight and relentless, barely giving the listener time to catch their breath during slow murky breakdowns that are often punctuated with the lacerating solos mentioned before. A final cymbal crash finally concludes side two, and the record vanishes like a demon in a cloud of black smoke. At a mere 31 minutes and 23 seconds in length, I often find myself listening to it twice in a row just to fully grasp what's going on.
Apparently this is the first in what will be a series of recordings to be released parallel to their more "refined" albums. Don't expect Blut Aus Nord's other material when you buy this record, but any true Blut Aus Nord fan knows to expect the unexpected with each of their albums. However, this one is definitely for fans of Teitanblood, Vasaeleth, Antediluvian, and the rest of the current revival of true raw evil DEATH metal.
Since its origins arguably beginning with Bathory's self-titled debut back in 1984, the genre of black metal has since diverged into two contrasting schools. The first of these is primal, garage-recorded, straightforward and overtly anti-Christian in nature whereas the second school tends to take the sound of black metal and push it forward to see what it is capable of. French metal act Blut Aus Nord incorporates sounds of both approaches, giving a rough and blastbeat-saturated ride with their music, but also focusing mostly on making their music unique. With such distinct records as 'The Work Which Transforms God' under their belt, Blut Aus Nord has since garnered a reputation for taking the craft of black metal down some interesting, eerie alleys. While the band's 2010 album 'What Once Was... Liber I' does sport a relatively complex composition and technicality from the band, the end result is unfortunately a piece of work which lacks direction or tightness, and doesn't compare to the band's less orthodox material.
Available only on vinyl or as a digital download, 'Liber' is essentially one long song, divided into halves to make up each side of the vinyl. While the concept of a half-hour long song is quite promising to begin with, Blut Aus Nord unfortunately forgets to tie in the music into one cohesive piece of work, instead coming across as a seemingly perpetual flow of riffs, blastbeats and garbled black metal rasps. There are no particularly endearing riffs or musical ideas that stand out and carry on throughout the EP. Instead, Blut Aus Nord is content to compile riffs and musical ideas into something that begins feeling more like a cycle of riffs over any particularly well-calculated composition, regardless of how strong the riffs may be, which- given the style- certainly have merit to them.
The guitars here are the main attraction, bringing a new eerie and burstfire riff to the table with each new moment. However, they dominate the mix, leaving the drums feeling somewhat weak, and the bass practically inaudible. Worst of all are the vocals, which do manage to do a fairly good job of being traditional black metal snarls for the most part, but get very muddied and difficult to enjoy when multiple vocal tracks are introduced, making a vocal noise that is utterly indecipherable.
A somewhat weak album from this French black metal band, although it is not completely without its merit.
Blut Aus Nord seem to be one of the very few bands on the extreme end of metal that can take their artistic license in almost any direction they wish to twist it and still enthrall me. I have come to rely upon their collective output, even the debatable, divisive works like mORT and Odinist, as a true escape from the sodden mist of predictable mediocrity that so saturates this art form as it reaches its qualitative and quantitative apex, and then explodes into the void of inevitable exodus. For these Frenchmen, you can know only to expect that each full-bodied interpretation of their darker halves will shift away from the prior axis, yet never completely abandon it along the overall career path.
What Once Was...Liber I is a niche release at present, the first through Debemur Morti, issued as a 12" Gatefold vinyl. I can certainly see where the classiness of this format collides with the nostalgic record collector of taste, but I do feel as if this sells the work short, so I hope to see its CD format available for the majority of listeners who may have to settle for a digital version in the interim. Content-wise, it's a single lengthy track divided into two sides, facing the tall task of engrossing the listener and not letting go. To this extent, it truly exceeds, because it's one of the most purely 'riff-heavy' works I've ever heard from Blut Aus Nord. There is little continuity with the last full-length, the excellent Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue with the Stars. Instead, the tones of this album are gritty, with processed black/doom guitar riffs operating at varied speeds through a bleak, oppressive architecture, drums crashing almost needlessly in the backdrop.
Yes, the density here is delivered almost exclusively through the ominous guitars and strangled rasp of Vindsval, as diabolic as he's been in years. The band's sense of ambiance has been retained, but here it haunts the margin of the guitar reverb more so than some scintillating panoramic mural in the background. The level of aggression here is far more of The Mystical Beast of Rebellion or The Work Which Transforms God than Memoria Vetusta in either of its incarnations. I'm not entirely convinced that this work could not have been structured into a number of smaller sequences, since there are some stretches of riffs which would make excellent tunes of their own accord, like the crashing percussion that introduces the latter half of the track, like a To Mega Therion swallowing on downers and absinthe while some unfortunate beast is choked to provide poetry; or the speed that later ensues with a terminal, blood-addled grace.
The band have stated that this will be the first in a new line of recordings, hopefully to run concurrent with the more thoughtful, atmospheric works tinged by melody like the last album. While it doesn't offer the duality of, say, Neurosis/Tribes of Neurot, it's an excellent thematic drift from which we can all benefit, provided the content remains at this level of solid riffing and utter, compelling darkness. One of the most hallowed fascinating forces in French metal music has found yet another dimension in which to inject their harrowing humours, and it's time we once again roll up our sleeves to take the medicine.