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Songs From the Woods - 70%

Frankingsteins, April 13th, 2008

I'm a sucker for a really terrible quality black metal demo recording, and I often end up preferring them to the more polished and audible studio albums that come later on. I can't really explain it, but I suppose I love them for their genuine raw simplicity and the authentic gloomy atmosphere that can only come from recording on cheap equipment in your parents' cellar, rather than striving to achieve the same lo-fi sound through artificial means as many more fortunate bands with proper funding embarrassingly attempt to, in an effort to appear more D.I.Y. (Ulver's 'Nattens Madrigal' would be the defining example, if not for the rumours that the band spent the record company's money on cars, drugs and women, and had to hurriedly record the promised album in a forest).

Speaking of forests (marvel at my seamless review structuring), Carpathian Forest's demos all strike the perfect balance between endearingly awful production values and a solid black metal performance, and while they aren't up to the standards of Behemoth's '...From the Pagan Vastlands,' they're more enjoyable and less aurally offensive than the entire discography of Beherit. This 1997 compilation was released after the band's first E.P. 'Through Chasm, Caves and Titan Woods,' and is essentially a commercial release of the 1992 demo of the same name, generously supplemented with the entirety of 1993's 'Journey Through the Cold Moors of Svarttjern' and 1992's less elaborately titled 'Rehearsal Tape' to provide the comprehensive demo collection (the other demo release 'In These Trees Are My Gallows' contained the same songs as 'Svarttjern').

The material here is commendably mixed. The 1992 demos offer relatively slow black metal grooves in the spirit of the first wave bands that pioneered black metal before it sounded like black metal, most notably Bathory and Venom, both of whom are covered in the rehearsal warm-up that forms the latter section of the compilation, while the 1993 release showcases a more melodic, atmospheric and melancholic style with a prominent keyboard presence comparable to Burzum. At this point I have yet to listen to a Carpathian Forest full-length to see how they emerged from the other end, but the move away from repetitive and often frankly dull first wave black metal tribute to epic, folk-tinged black metal certainly seems like a step in the right direction, with tastefully overdone woodland ambience living up to the band's moniker.

'Bloodlust and Perversion' itself consumes the first five tracks, and displays its Bathory influence from the onset with its long, ambient introductory track, followed later by the even longer outro 'Wings Over the Mountain of Sighisoara.' Both of these pieces are enjoyable in their own tranquil way, but are still nothing more than interludes despite some acoustic plucking in the second, and as is often the case with these keyboard- and effects-driven tracks, there's a shocking shift of both volume and sound quality once the "real" songs kick in. Sadly, the band's music isn't up to all that much at this point beyond a few reasonably catchy groove riffs reminiscent of early Ancient, but the focus on atmosphere over fury and speed is established from the onset, which I've always found preferable to the all-out ferocity of bands like Mayhem. The title song is enjoyable enough, but after this the quality increasingly slips, with 'The Woods of Wallachia' plodding along at a particularly tedious pace.

The central section of the album is by far the most interesting and advanced, and surpassed my expectations. 'Journey Through the Cold Moors of Svarttjern' is an effectively subtle piece of atmospheric black metal that works brilliantly in establishing and retaining an atmosphere through overbearing keyboard, slow, ominous drums and background screams, with a satisfying fuzz tone for the guitar. This is a song that would benefit from improved production values to the point that it would be comparable to something by Ancient Rites, but it's still the finest song here. Interestingly, the follow-up songs 'The Eclipse / The Raven' and 'The Last Sigh of Nostalgia' forsake metal entirely in favour of keyboard, but Nattefrost's rasping vocals subtly continue. The first is another forest-based acoustic piece, while the latter is a somewhat overlong keyboard/organ piece that wants to be 'Tomhet' (Burzum) but is ultimately pretty bland.

The final section of the album is forgivably the least impressive, the rehearsal tape that was presumably never really intended for anyone but the band itself and whoever they needed to impress to secure a proper promo. The sound quality here is seriously poor, a little too bad even for my bizarre preference, mainly affecting the drums as the guitars and vocals can still be heard, albeit once again approaching the white noise of the tape hiss.

The songs pretty much all sound like Bathory, which makes it especially enjoyable to hear genuine Quorthon riffs as the band covers 'Call From the Grave' in even worse sound quality than Bathory's original, but there really isn't anything particularly impressive here apart from a satisfying speed change half-way through 'In the Circle of Ravens' that only serves to draw attention to how boring the song had been up to that point. The Venom cover is nothing special, but then Venom never were, and essentially this whole lacklustre reprise section can be overlooked as simply ensuring that anyone interested in the first two demos can have this little, slightly rubbish bonus performance as an extra.