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How do you review an album which is so far removed from normalcy that it can not be compared to anything else in the metal canon? It's a problem I run into rarely since almost one hundred percent of all music is not created in a vacuum and since almost all music aspires, acknowledged or ignored, consciously or involuntarily, to be that which influenced it. Countess, however, is not a project that fits either of these groupings. Countess has never existed in a vacuum and, as such, has been influenced by and has influenced countless projects across its fifteen years or so of existence. At the same time though, it clearly doesn't aspire to be anything other than itself... because if it did, it sure as hell wouldn't sound like it does. I'm left trying to describe and analyze an album which can be reviewed from several different perspectives: for someone who is familiar with Countess and enjoyed what they heard, someone who has heard Countess and been able to withstand only several minutes (if that) of Orlok's creations, and someone who has never heard of Countess. There almost has to be three different reviews to explain this album. Luckily the first two groupings of fans are easy enough to review for:
If you've heard Countess before and "got it" and thus enjoyed the previous albums, this will be enjoyable as well though I do think it might be slightly too long for it's own good.
If you've heard Countess before and cringed immediately for any reason, you will probably want to continue ignoring Countess. This album will not change your mind and would probably make you want to insert galvanized spikes, railroad ties and decking screws into your ear followed by a strong singular blow with a hammer to drive home the point that Countess should not exist in your world.
So this review is really for those that have never heard of Countess before and have no experience with the Orthodox Black Metal which Count Orlok has devised in some Dutch castle somewhere for nearly twenty years. Here's some background. On Wings of Defiance is the thirteenth (!) Countess album. They are all radically different in varying degrees of production standards though lately Orlok has been enamored with making his guitar sound like an amplified electric razor. The general style Countess has proceeded with since 1993 is difficult to describe. It's like a Manowar tribute album if the only songs chosen were from Louder Than Hell and all the bands that submitted tributes were Russian black metal bands from deep in Siberia. Additionally, Orlok has a knack for writing some of black metal's - actually any kind of metal's - most outrageously happy-go luckily, feel-good riffs. Did I mention the whole thing uses a drum machine? Thematically, this album revolves around invading Roman armies and burning down religious buildings and general black metal anti-religion angst. It's all well and good and some of the lyrics are really pretty good actually. One thing I've always admired with Countess is that it seems that for Orlok, his music is really nothing more than a way to say whatever the hell he wants and I have a feeling that he's actually probably super knowledgeable about history and theology.
I'm really fascinated with reviews I've read of Countess over the years which somehow are relatively positive. No other band that sounds like a twelve year old with a Korg who happens to be pretty exceptional at composition would ever receive such reviews. Somehow, across all this time, Orlok has earned so much respect that people just expect the musical equivalent of a Stretch Armstrong doll. No matter what Orlok does, Countess just can't break and people aren't even surprised when halfway through a song he belts out some throaty proclamation that sounds less like a Satanic warlord and more like a fifth grade English teacher pissed that every student in their class wrote book reports on internet facebook memes. It's an uncanny thing really. If Orlok released an album that was to Countess what St. Anger was to Metallica, it would most likely be hailed as a brilliant rethinking of the Countess doctrine. It's so strange to find not a single review which seems to objectively discuss the band. Even the reviews that DO blast Countess are usually short and poorly written. Probably because the reviewer just couldn't handle fifty-plus minutes of someone playing a guitar by rubbing a comb across the strings and listening to those ever-so-remarkably crisp and strained yelps.
Yes, Orlok has the single strangest vocal style I've ever heard. It's something I could never get used to and the first time I heard Ad Majorem Sathanae Gloriam, and consequently Blood On My Lips, I just had this revelation that somewhere out there was a grown man in his bedroom screaming into a microphone as if he was constantly being kicked in the nads while two rooms away his mom was cooking the best rookworst in the world and his dad was watching the world cycling finals on television. What's so great about On Wings of Defiance is that you get Orlok's barely tolerable yet considerably lovable and charming vocal approach for a full sixty-four minutes. Sixty four minutes of short, sharp bursts of snarling angst which is easy to mock and perfect to make anyone stuck in a car with you never ask for a ride again. In a genre which is supposed to be harsh and raw, there is nothing more perfectly ironic than Orlok's crystal clear delivery. It's Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman Returns singing over an emasculated Bathory with a Boss OD pedal. It's how Joe Biden pretends to imitate George Bush at family dinners for a laugh. Orlok's vocals are like being trapped in a 1930's horror movie full of actors that were never chosen to play the circus troupe in Freaks. It's listening to an album over ten times - as I have done - and still staring at your speakers not knowing if you should laugh, growl or just contemplate the fact that someone in the world thinks that vocals should sound like a human-cricket hybrid.
But as mentioned before, Countess has excellent songwriting and composition. The songs across On The Wings of Defiance are all excellent when you look deeper than outward appearances promote. Though slightly long, opening track "Where Eagles Die" displays a keen sense of dynamic writing with the inclusion of some keyboards at moments to elevate the song. Across the album there are moments in which Orlok creates a bombastic, regal vibe to accentuate the horny sounding lead guitar tone. Considering the themes across the album it works perfectly. See "Foggy Dew" for not only the best track on the album but a song which uses this feel to shine above the rest. The song is incredibly catchy and reminds me of bands like Forefather and songs like "Wudugast" or "These Lands." When Foggy Dew opens into the melody after the first verse you can't help but love what you're hearing just like when "Where Eagles Die" ascends into the first lead section or "At The Hot Gates I Stand," breaks the three-minute mark and reveals a brilliantly written instrumental section. "An Emperor's Stand" is another highlight for me. Much like other songs such as Sermon of the Devil Preacher (which shares an uncanny resemblance to Attacker's "Slayer's Blade") it opens with a grandiose and memorable intro.
Across the album are a few slower songs such as Invictus which sounds like that Graduation Song that we all sat through during high school proms and graduations though with Orlok's crispy snarl tagged across his excellent piano and keyboard playing like some veteran graffiti artist marking up local highway underpasses with Satanic verse. The album's title track, "On Wings Of Defiance," also starts off with strong piano playing and, something I've not heard on other albums, an accompaniment of keyboards - a unique compositional treat. Across the whole album Orlok really keeps the album from devolving into boredom through expert use of comedic ingenuity and variety. He experiments with all kinds of instrument combinations, rhythms. tempos and collaborations in every song. It's one of the highlights not just of this album but all the Countess albums going back to Return of the Horned One which sets Orlok apart from other projects of this style - not that there are many out there. To believe that one guy out there somewhere is writing incredible music and getting overlooked due, most likely, to production standards which are incredibly high but so far removed from your everyday black metal bands both produced and unproduced is a crime of the metal underground's seeming penchant to write off bands that bear little resemblance to the genres they are supposed to represent. Also included on this are awesome covers of Demon's "Night of the Demon" and "In Leage With Satan," obviously a Venom cover. Both are incredible.
Ultimately, I would like to propose to Orlok, should he read this, that I offer to engineer the next Countess album should there be one. Countess are a band that deserves recognition for many reasons. Consistent, innovative, totally ambivalent towards what everyone wants black metal to sound like, musically proficient... the list can be long and arduous to finish. To allow production to prevent a band this excellent from prospering and gaining the admiration I believe, and so many others believe - look at the reviews on Metal Archives, they average a score of 75.7% and albums like Heilig Vuur, Spawn of Steel, The Shining Swords of Hate and The Revenge of the Horned One Part II plus several others all have multiple reviews adding up to a rating of over 90%. The most comment complaint is the tone of the albums and the production on them. Orlok has nothing left to prove with Countess and he should take the opportunity to create more masterpieces of the genre with nothing to hold him back such as drum machines - a major no no to many metal fans - and tonality.
Originally written for Contaminated Tones
I am apparently to think of this band as black metal, but it's now definitely the '80s kind if any, plus there are keyboards and pianos and fucking heroic melodies and riffs aplenty. Having been around since 1992, now one-man project Countess mutated from bedroom black metal of the second wave worshiping variety into something far more 1984 and, I would venture, far more worthy. Gospel of the Horned One right at the start featured some of the tempos and ancient atmospheres to be fully embraced years later, and now On Wings of Defiance revels in that stubbornly retro veneer while yet adhering to irreligious lyrics.
The wailing leads labouring under the highly retro mix remind me of the guitar sound on certain demos, where the higher registers of the instrument sound somewhat plastic. The record doesn't suffer for it often though, as although something like the intro to 'Let The River Run Red' and some other points would be improved by a more articulate mix, the usual and overall impression is more in line with other throwbacks like Iron Man, perhaps with a dash of Forefather. Some of the vocals are beautiful in that harsh way, again like what some of the pagan bands achieve with proud and passionate shrieks.
'Where Eagles Die', perhaps a deliberately cheesy nod to Maiden, is an epic start to the album and one of the best cuts. NWOBHM licks abound and simplistic shredding defines the 8-minute song's various triumphant movements. 'At The Hot Gates I Stand' also gets the balance between grunted rasps and pseudo-exotic heavy metal melodies pretty spot on, with a great nostalgic solo section. Similiarly with 'Sermon of the Devil Preacher' - Venom meets Witchfinder General meets Saxon. Man, this guy is getting so many retro points. The title track and 'Foggy Dew' are fists and drinking horns in the air, a totally killer set of epic riffs and handsome, yearning melodies for eight-odd minutes in both cases. The stuff of classic metal albums given analog life in 2011.
Sometimes things can get a bit too power metal - a lot of 'I Am the Infidel', for example, which is a pity because the chorus makes for a great anti-Islam chant that we can all join in with when sharia law starts getting too out of hand across Europe and riots ensue. 'Invictus' and 'An Emperor's Stand' meanwhile are somewhat dull, slow songs that I can do without, though they have some nice "big" riffs going on there's nothing to bring me back for more.
The record has its fair share of glories in its eclectic volleys of guitarwork, and gives something of a different spin on the regressive schools of black metal by introducing some more glamorously melodic flights of fancy. The album isn't all hits, but some may well find it worth the price of admission for its untouchable epics 'Where Eagles Die' 'Foggy Dew' and the closing title track.
Usually when I listen to music to review I like to give a few listens before I write it, but in the case of Countess' newest album "On Wings of Defiance" I had to give up after a mere two listens. That's all I could bear.
I could go on and on about what's wrong with the album... So that's what I'm going to do: First of all the guitar tone is completely atrocious, sounding more like a failed attempt to play Dire Straits à la Satan than... Well, any metal genre really. The album starts out with an 8-minute epic with insanely monotonous and single-tracked drums which begs the question if Orlok, the sole member of Countess, knows anything about drum-programming. Vocal-wise he doesn't fair much better, and half-way into the first track I'd already grown bored and slighty irritated with his generic, incessant barking.
Apparently Countess' idea of a great album is an hour long pile of completely unvaried, beginner-level black metal riffs with equally unvaried vocals and drums. The only thing that comes close to variation on "On Wings of Defiance" is the entirely arbitrary changes between Scandinavian and Mediterranean sounding melodic riffs.
Enough of the senseless ranting. Boiled down to a few sentences, Countess' 2011 album is little more than unvaried sub-standard Bathory-influenced black metal with cheesy MIDI-keyboard sounds. I remember there was I time where I thought all one-man bands were awesome, but some of my more recent acquaintances have certainly made me rethink that notion.
I admire a band that can be persistent, and Countess has released a multitude of albums over the years since its' creation in 1992, but if all of those releases are equally lacking as On Wings of Defiance things are looking grim... And not in a good way.
But it's not all bad, I actually moderately enjoyed the song Foggy Dew, the 8-minute 6th track of the 11 track album. But if I had to choose between Bathory, by whom Countess is obviously inspired, I would always choose Bathory, even if Quorthon also had his dodgy moments when it came to vocal performance. Orlok's Countess merely feels like a watered down Bathory with the same boring riffs played ad nauseum.
Originally written for http://gouls-crypt.blogspot.com/
Countess is one of those bands where you know what you’re gonna get. With the exception of his “experimental phase” from 1996-2000, singer/songwriter Orlok has released album after album of no BS black metal with a distinctive thrash and heavy metal edge. What has kept Countess going is that Orlok always seems to find a new angle from which to play the same style. While the 13th Countess album, "On Wings of Defiance" doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it does zone in on the strengths of the past few albums—the epic, heavy metal inspired tracks—refines that sound and brings it together for an hour of chant-along-and-bang-your-head black metal.
The album centers on the theme of Barbarian warriors and their battles against the invading Roman and British Empires. The lyrics are pretty straight forward; our gods rule and your gods suck, our soldiers are brave and yours are cowards and so and so forth. It’s pretty cheesy, but Orlok makes it work. The album has so many grandiose choruses, blazing solos and sweeping melodies that you can’t help but look around for your sword and shield and say “fuck it, let’s kill some Romans!”
As always, Orlok’s vocals are awesome, shifting between his signature crow-like cackle and a lower, gritty shout. Once again, he uses a drum machine which adds a shabby quality to the recording, but his solid work on guitar and bass compensate.
While the album is solid from start to finish, the final two tracks are the highlights. “An Emperor’s Last Stand” is a slow, cinematic song that describes the reign of the final pagan ruler of the Roman Empire, Julian the Apostate. The song slowly and tragically marches toward the Empire's inevitable downfall, praising Julian while mourning the end of the pagan era in Europe. The closer “On Wings of Defiance,” is a dramatic call to battle. Glorious, fiery lead guitars and synths dance over a punkie rhythm section while Orlok’s screeching vocals warn of the resilient return of heathen culture to Europe. As a bonus, the album also includes some badass covers of Demon and Venom songs. These short, quick and catchy covers are the perfect pallet cleanser after a series of massive, sweeping tracks.
"On Wings of Defiance" an album for those like the metal in their black metal. Countess’s gallant style owes as much to Manowar and Manilla Road as it does to Bathory and Venom. If you can tolerate a little cheese for a lot of epic, then "On Wings of Defiance" is highly recommended.
(Originally written for http://www.deafsparrow.com/)