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An Incredible Return - 85%

VilliThorne, April 16th, 2014

At this point in the extensive career of Countess, Orlok had taken on the task of being the vocalist and sole musician of the band, effectively turning it into a one man project. Hailing from the Netherlands and active since 1992, Countess have had an arguable assortment of releases that everyone who's heard of the band tend to have an opinion on; either they really love what they've heard or they detest it, or rather only a specific time period is adored. Having received mostly failing reviews of their first effort, how does the second effort The Return of the Horned One redeem Countess, or does it?

The Return of the Horned One makes its mark in the unending nether realm of black metal with its imaginative combination of guitar compositions that waltz in deathlike harmony with chilling synthesizer effects to create an immersive occult experience unlike any other. While "Intro Iniquity", the introductory atmospheric keyboard track, isn't as captivating as what was heard in The Gospel of the Horned One, the rest of the material makes up in excess for this tiny and obsolete flaw.

Every aspect of this album at hand surpasses its debut predecessor, from more creative compositions to tighter instrument precision, Orlok has made sure that no stone has been left unturned and has churned out a far different experience altogether in this follow-up. This time around it sounds as though a programmed drum machine was used rather than there being a live drummer present, which has resulted in the element having a hard mechanical sound and triggers that are easy to point out. However this has worked out to the benefit of Countess, as it has allowed for a larger range of kit elements to be incorporated, better beats for the listener to enjoy, a larger range of tempos to be explored and tighter, more fluid rhythms to be executed; when stacked up against the drumming heard on The Gospel of the Horned One the content on this release is absolutely incomparable.

Even pushed ridiculously far back into the production mix, the guitar keeps its signature rhythmic riffs but this time finds itself encumbered with a deep bass tone that gives the audio much needed weight. Orlok has a knack for writing extremely catchy hooks, and this asset is much more defined on the songs within this material, which is full of amazing riffage and sick skillful solos that've become some of the most well known from Countess. In addition to the deeper tone and heavier power chord sections, palm muted riffs have been added along with well layered acoustics; all adding depth to the tracks. The keyboards attach themselves directly to the rhythm guitar and dance along with them in an eerie masquerade of despicable horror, think early Castlevania games and that's the mood that this album portrays. The keyboards are even more prominent throughout the content, and nearly every track is adorned with either skin crawling organs, haunting bells, thunder or some other type of gothic style synthesizer effect.

Orlok's vocals are intimidatingly aggressive and more pronounced in this release, with accusing screams that push beyond the boundaries of the low end equipment that was used to record this material and thusly resulting in distortion during his powerful screams and shouts. Every now and then the listener will be greeted with some spoken word and cult chants in appropriate areas and each of these vocal styles are done with deeply emphatic tones and an unbridled passion that makes it all come across dangerously powerful. The bass guitar sits in the midst of all these aforesaid elements and drives them to new levels with hard hitting lines and a tone that sounds as if it's tuned at a dropped level or two. The production quality is a slight step up from The Gospel of the Horned One, but still allows the material to stay raw in nature. The mixing is also significantly better, but still finds itself uneven where the guitars are at the back of the mix, the bass is on top of the guitar and the vocals are extremely loud; the only elements that don't sound off in their mixed levels are the keyboards and drums.

Defiling its predecessor in every blasphemous way possible, The Return of the Horned One is a better album in every possible way than the debut Countess release. Deep, heavy guitar and bass tones are driven by skillfully programmed drums that can both assault and caress the background of the material, all the while occult keyboards dance along each track and invoke memorable, unique black metal hymns. These aspects are wrapped up in a slightly less raw production quality with much better mixing; the gritty, assaulting vocals tend to become loud in some areas, however this just pushes the aggressiveness of the content and the distortion that they take on adds flavor to the album. An absolute must hear for all black metal fans from one of the mid-influences of the genre.

- Villi Thorne
www.VolumesofSin.net

Emerging but Still Struggling - 40%

CrimsonFloyd, May 28th, 2012

The debut album from Countess, The Gospel of the Horned One failed at basically every level. It was unoriginal, poorly performed and terribly produced. Countess’s sophomore release, The Return of the Horned One resolves a number of the problems of the debut, but not enough to qualify it as a success. While the distinct Countess sound begins to emerge, extremely unbalanced production results in another awkward listening experience.

A number of the signature aspects of Countess’s sound emerge on The Return of the Horned One. Orlok’s psychotic growl is front and center. The guy has one of the most distinct voices in black metal: high pitched and sharp with an almost singsong cadence. The hack drummer from the last album has been replaced with a very predictable drum machine. This isn’t the best part of the Countess sound, but it is an undeniable aspect of it.

Where the album goes wrong is in the mix, which is really uneven. With the exception of the guitar solos, the guitars are practically inaudible. I have never heard guitar so far back in the mix on a metal album before. Moreover, what can be heard is very weak and puttering. In contrast, the bass is super loud, with every single note being audible. At times it’s so loud that it almost sounds like a rubber ball bouncing about in an empty gymnasium. A lot of this probably has to do with Orlok being primarily a bassist, not a guitarist. He might have felt more comfortable with the bass performance than the guitar performance. Whatever the reason is, it sounds extremely strange. Another problem with the production is that the vocals are so loud that sometimes they wash everything else out.

The songwriting is hit and miss. Fortunately, the band is over its Bathory worship phase, and while Bathory is obviously still a major influence, Orlok is starting to do something unique with the Bathory template. “Ritual of the Seven Priests” has exciting dramatic shifts that foreshadow the excellent theatrical pieces of the next few albums. “Into Battle” is a quick, playful instrumental full of energetic and melodious keys played in a bagpipe tone. Other songs are quite ineffective. “A Cry of Hope Forever Gone” centers on a rather goofy bass line. “Bloed in de Sneeuw” is a really strange acoustic ballad with growled vocals that doesn’t quite fit together. Almost every song is damaged by the awful production.

While Return of the Horned One is a step in the right direction, the production problems impede it from being an enjoyable listen. The songwriting is brave, but clearly Orlok is still going through some major growing pains. A lot of the techniques that fail here are actually done to great effect on the next two albums. Worth a listen for a Countess diehard, but newcomers should look to the next three albums, which are all stellar.

(Originally written for http://deinos-logos.blogspot.com)

The Return of the Horned One - 20%

Noctir, March 21st, 2012

Following the poor display of musicianship and songwriting found on the debut album from Countess, one really has to wonder how they managed to survive long enough to record another one. Every band is entitled to make a bad album or two, as long as they learn from their mistakes and show signs of improvement. However, Orlok had no battle plan ready when he put together a new line-up and began working on the band's sophomore effort. Released in December 1994, The Return of the Horned One not only failed to improve upon the first album, it can hardly be considered a full-fledged Metal record.

Orlok certainly put more thought into the songwriting, as this L.P. does not sound like a collection of rehashed Bathory riffs. Unfortunately, that would have been preferable to the atrocious filth that makes up the bulk of the second Countess album. One is likely to get the wrong impression from the outset, as "Aleidis" is not half bad, and sounds more developed and consistent than most of the material on The Gospel of the Horned One. The synth is too loud and it is clear, from the beginning, that the drummer was replaced by a machine; nonetheless, it comes off as rather solid, though average at best. It possesses somewhat of a gloomy feeling, aided by the ear-piercing vocals, but this track is not indicative of what is to follow. Songs like "Fire and Blood" and "A Cry of Hope Forever Gone" sound like more of a mixture between rock and techno, having almost nothing at all to do with Black Metal. The drum machine and bass lines completely ruin any chance this had, though it is not likely that it was ever going to become a classic along the lines of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. "The Wolf Cries Evil" and "Deisidaimonia" are about the only tracks to not bear these techno overtones, with the latter being the best song on the album. Even with better musicians and real drums, this tune could never hope to amount to anything more than mediocrity, but it really stands out among the horrid aural rape that surrounds it.

The production is really one of the worst things about this album. The guitar tone lacks any sense of rawness, which does no favours for the material. One would think that the band would want the guitar to be the dominant instrument, and to make sure that the sound is nasty and threatening, but it resides in the middle and is quite ineffective. The vocals are a bit too loud and, due to the shrieking nature of Orlok's voice, this becomes a problem. Neither of these things are as damning as the fact that the bass and drum machine are far too high in the mix. First of all, the bass lines are useless and do nothing to help the songs. The drum programming should be buried beneath the rest, to hide the fact that the band did not have a real drummer. Though, to be fair, it still would not have been so bad if the songwriting had been better.

The Return of the Horned One is a terrible album, even worse than the first one, and should be avoided by any means necessary. With this release, Countess proved to be a worthless musical entity and things only got worse from here. If you are just starting to branch out from the Scandinavian bands in your search for more Black Metal of this period, skip this and look instead to the Hellenic scene or the French Black Legions.

Written for http://ritesoftheblackmoon.tripod.com

He shouldn't have returned... - 47%

Pestbesmittad, December 21st, 2008

The follow-up to “Gospel of the Horned One” is actually worse than the debut. Were it released today, it would certainly be called bedroom black metal because that’s what it sounds like. The main drawback is the shitty production: powerless drum machine, keyboards that sound crappy and cheap most of the time, and the (for the most part) weak and down mixed guitar. The sound is dominated by the vocals, the bass and the keyboards. It’s of course positive that the vocals aren’t as low in the mix as they were on the debut, but in general everything concerning the production is more low-fi than on the debut. The production also lacks treble, the sound is muddy and bassy in a bad kind of way.

I already mentioned that the vocals are higher in the mix than on the debut but this just brings to light the fact that Orlok sounds pretty horrible on this album. His voice is too dry for my taste and he also overdoes his vocals in an effort to sound even grimmer. Vocals are very important in black metal and the screamed vocals on “The Return of the Horned One” do nothing for me.

As for the song writing itself, I can say that the songs are more varied than on the debut. The band has progressed a bit and even added a touch of their own to the sound, we are no longer talking about a pure Bathory/Hellhammer rip-off. We’re basically talking a mixture of raw Nordic black metal and old school black metal with keyboards added. The problem is that while most of the songs are more varied, the quality level still remains pretty low for most of the album. In general, the riffs and arrangements are rather predictable and this in combination with the horrible production effectively undermines most attempts to stay focused and enjoy the music.

Some overall clumsiness also remains, just check out e.g. the instrumental “Into Battle” where the lead guitar plays out of time with the rest of the instruments to the extent that I’m forced to smile. On “The Wolf Cries Evil” the guitar and bass are clearly out of tune with each other, adding further discomfort. A moment of fun occurs in the beginning of “Deisidaimonia”, as I recognise the guitar melody: it’s the melody from Pet Shop Boys’ hit song “It’s A Sin”! Hey Orlok, explain yourself out of this one, will ‘ya?

Despite all my ranting, I found a couple of enjoyable tracks. One of them is “Ritual of the 7 Priests”. This track starts with some ritualistic chanting and actually manages to create a good black metal atmosphere. In the middle of the track there’s a great ritualistic part with synths, bass guitar and chanting that reminds me a lot of early Necromantia. Yes, finally we get some quality music and I do my best to ignore how bad the sound is. “Since Man has Wielded Swords” is a track consisting of only keyboards, acoustic guitar and clean vocals. This track is a welcome change to the black metal stuff because during it you don’t have to stand the drum machine and the awful distorted guitar. “Bloed in de Sneeuw” is a good mid-paced closing number, incorporating some acoustic guitar in a manner that reminds me of Immortal’s debut. So, even if Countess progressed a bit on this album, it still turned out worse than the debut as a whole.

Bloed... vloeit in de sneeuw! - 100%

Skullhammer, January 7th, 2006

After hearing much about this trve kvlt underground black metal one man project (for the most part) I decided to check it out. The Return of the Horned One was the first thing I heard and it was by far one of the most horrible albums I've ever heard in my life. Never have I been so bored out of my mind and never have I hated an album so much. The first time I heard this album, it sounded like some sloppy shitty satanic band was playing in my basement and I'm hearing them about 2 floors up. I was laughing out loud when I heard Fire and Blood. The silly out of place bass riff made me want to give up on humanity. The chugging part of The Wolf Cries Evil was so sloppy and so out of place with the drum machine that it sounds like a complete fucking joke. Now you're probably wondering why I'm giving this album 100 right?

Like I said that was my first listen to the album... and one thing about it made me want to give it another chance... The Ritual of the 7 Priests! It was by far one of the greatest songs I've ever heard in my life. It had horrible drum programming that began to sound like it belongs in some 70's disco/funk band near the end of the song, and awesome fucking lyrics made me fall in love with the song. Ever since that day I've been screaming out THE ANTICHRIST IS BORN on numerous alcohol induced occasions. The lyrics are just fucking great. They rhyme so well together and manage not to be cheesy. They're powerful and evil and evoke hatred and a lust for destruction and carnage. After listening to the song about a dozen times I got used to the production and now to this day I love it. What sounded like a drunken shithead praising Satan and playing slop in my basement, actually sounded like a very awesome fucking black metal band.

The moment I really fell in love with it was after hearing Bloed in De Sneeuw. A powerful, dark, gloomy track with great Dutch lyrics that rhyme well. Then I started to enjoy the rest of the album. Aleidis is a total fucking badass track. I got used to the bass riff in Fire and Blood and began to love the song. I don't even understand how this mental transition happened for me. Into Battle is a funky little instrumental tune. The Wolf Cries Evil is an awesome slop ridden track. And Deisidaimonia has awesome fucking riffs. After falling in love with this album, I got used to this basement type production, the overly sloppy guitars (I mean ,shit, the riffs are like 3 chords at most. How could you possibly fuck this up?) And the horrendous drum machine. The programming is so simple and so awful that it’s just perfect. And sometimes it even sounds funky and something that you can dance to. I'm not joking. Listen to the ending of Ritual of the 7 Priests and tell me that you don't want to dance to that shit? It's so funky and works perfectly with that one chord riff being played in the background. It's terrific and it even influenced me to make my drum tracks simple and shitty sounding as well.

There are a couple of downfalls but none of them are enough to make me want to bring the rating down. The keyboard intro is boring. A Cry of Hope Forever Gone is a shitty instrumental song having one riff played over and over again for 5 minutes. And Since Man Has Wielded Swords is a horrendous short little 2 minute narration with Orlok's awful clean vocals. They're pretty off key but I eventually got into them after hearing the material on The Book of the Heretic.

This album is just fucking great. Orlok is without doubt one of the greatest black metal shriekers of all time. He has this powerful fucking shriek that you will love. Unfortunately this bastard started using gay distortion effects and put the vocals low in the mix in the newer albums, but oh well. This, along with Ad Maiorem Sathanae Gloriam and The Book of the Heretic, are the best Countess albums. Later material is still good but nothing compared to the greatness of these 3. Definitely try to hear the material on this album. You will love it. At first you may be like me and hate it, but you there is no fucking way that you could hate Ritual of the 7 Priests and Bloed in De Sneeuw...