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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