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The Toughest Shells Hold the Sweetest Meat - 99%

HeWhoIsInTheWater, January 25th, 2013

As you can tell from the title, this album requires many listens to gain a full appreciation of. But, this shouldn’t really be news to you, the reader, as this is the case for much of the genre of black metal, but this really goes beyond that amount listening time by also being devoutly progressive. That in and of itself is fantastic. We look at 1997 and think that it was not that long ago, but this album really pioneered progressive black metal. It’s easy to look back and compare, but this was one of the first of its kind, yet it does it so well.

Let’s break this down now. What really makes this album is abrasive but subtle and melodic guitar riffs, shredding and slowed down pained harsh vocals, airy melodic clean vocals, and keyboards akin to a winter breeze. The production is less than perfect, but that also adds significantly to the charm of the album, as it gives the music a really nice cold bite. However, I am vastly understating this album if I describe it as equivalent to the sum of its parts.

The true beauty of this album lies not in the riffs, nor in vocal hooks, or exquisite acoustic guitar and keyboard passages, but in the atmosphere generated by the coalescing of all these ingredients. This process of immersion into their cold world really begins with the packaging. A simple picture of a moss eaten tree emerges from a background of chipped birch bark that covers the entire album and inner jacket. The quiet beauty of nature in a pure form really sets the stage for an album that focuses mostly on winter.

I also love this album for the fact that it is so much more than a collection of songs. When I listen to this piece, I don’t hear individual songs, it is all multiple movements of one large song. It’s difficult to pinpoint certain areas of excellence because the album flows so perfectly and organically that it is best experienced as a whole. I do my best to not listen to this music digitally, as the shuffling of the order detracts from the true enjoyment. It takes a lot longer to fully appreciate The Olden Domain, due to the icy production and slight reverb as well as due to the fact that very little of the material is repeated, and that which is displays deep complexity. It took me four months of listening to this album every other day to finally understand what it all meant. It really was a eureka moment of transcendental winter beauty, and the most rewarding part of the experience, which is why I would recommend it so vehemently.

This is a metal album though, so the riffs are center stage. They are wide and varied, and take traditional black metal riffs and turn them on their heads. Few tremolo riffs can match the atmosphere of the intro of The Winterway, but the same guitar sounds like ice scraping on rock during Grimland Domain. Things are also done with plentiful rhythmic variation, with the almost folky hook of To Mount and Rove and the licks of A Tale of Pagan Tongue. There are also some really cool effects on the intro to The Eye of Oden, and the beginning of Ascension of Our Fathers has the kind of tone that the post-hardcore scene has been having a continuous orgasm over for 15+ years.

While a good portion of the riffs are tremolo, Oystein shows tremendous playing capability with odd chorded riffs that take many listens to understand the subtlety of. Grimland Domain especially comes to mind with this in mind. The track is the most headbang-able on this album, but upon further listens, it reveals beautiful undercurrents of melody. I feel like a crappy record player, repeating the same thing over and over, but that is the strongest aspect of the album. Another track comes to mind with transcendental guitar parts is The Winterway, which is the most effective track on this album to get lost in. At least give that a listen right now.

The rhythm section is about what you would expect for black metal. The bass provides a nice touch of warmth from time to time, and the drums bash skulls left and right. The drumming in general is superb; it’s a shame he died so young with a bright career. The production on the drum set is as desirable as you could want with black metal, with loud, brittle cymbals, subdued but firm snare, and bass drums that drive the undercurrent. The ebb and flow of his play style allows for the guitars to showcase special moments in a song or highlight a nice lead or vocal line. He avoids the pitfall of obscene blast beats, which makes this release melodic in comparison to most black metal. As a whole, he drives the music on this album as the guitars do their own thing and he commands the respect.

The lyrics are somewhat typical of black metal, but they are written by a clearly experienced hand, and they still speak wonders about the natural world. It’s true, I am a sucker for just about any kind of music with this kind of nature lyrical theme, but still, I find it to be quite compelling. For specific reference, the tracks The Eye of Oden and The Dawn of the End are my favorite cuts, as they convey a basic message that most people can agree on, but subtle undertones in the words and music allow many meanings to be conveyed, which gives this album significant replay value.

Vocally, this album is rather diverse and polarizing, like most parts of black metal. The harsh vocals cut the air like spears of ice and the cleans gently flow in and out of the instruments like a calm breeze. Kristoffer Rygg has an impeccable sense of placement, and there is not really a point on the album where it feels like the vocals are being forced down your throat; there are natural pockets in the music for the vocals to fill in. On the other hand, this album also never noodles long enough with the instruments for the listener to ask when the vocals will be returning.

Normally I find black metal vocals to be too far removed from the music to adequately fit the music, but Rygg displays mastery of the technique and manipulates the harsh vocals into very evocative forms. He brings so much more to the style than just pure agony, he injects his voice with frustration, loss, and other melancholic emotions that are just missing in most black metal vocalists, while also maintaining a tight grip on his primary role as narrator. His clean vocals are also nice and deep, which serves as a nice resonant opposite to the high shrieks. Tracks like The Winterway really display this polarization in its purest form.

Instrumental tracks are nothing new to the average black metal listener, and this album satisfies that requirement. In a Hundred Years All Will Be Forgotten noodles around with piano melodies while guitars soar in and out of the atmosphere, making for a very relaxed track that breaks up some of the fast songs. Ascension of our Fathers is a very metal song, but it is interesting in how it experiments with more guitar based melodies due to the absence of vocals.

If you like black metal, you need this album. If you are indifferent to black metal, you need this album. If you like metal, you need this album. It is one of the most coherent albums I have ever heard, functioning more as a single song than a collection of songs. It has brutality, glistening guitars, ripping riffs, terrifying vocals, and more than a few moments of utter beauty. This album will take many listens to fully grasp, but damn if it ain’t worth it in the end. Best tracks: The Winterway, Dawn of the End, and Grimland Domain.