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Crimson Moon's "Under the Serpentine Spell" is truly a work of art that can only be appreciated by a few. The "music" of Crimson Moon presents the listener with a shroud of darkness. It is truly an atmospheric masterpiece of occult phenomena.
The musical production is somewhat dissappointing. The drums sound as if it is a constant bass drum. The tone is so deep that it sounds as if someone is hitting a hollow spot in another room. The vocals are very well done; switching from clean, deep chants to high-pitched, growling invocations. The guitars sound as if they aren't even there sometimes. They will play your typical black metal riffs, but the keyboards outsound them. This entire album seems as if it is taken over by the keyboards. The only downfall of that method is that it drowns out every other instrument.
The atmosphere of this album does make the listener overlook some of the production flaws, depending on the person. When I listen to this album, it feels like I am walking in a cloud of darkness. This is obviously related to the keyboards. They do overpower, but they also give the album a huge shadow of pure darkness that only true art can bring. The moments when the vocals switch from rough to clean chants adds additional levels of darkness.
If I could describe this album in one word, it would be darkness. The production is a bit off, and that is why it gets the rating, but if it was not for the atmosphere, then it would be significantly lower. If you're a fan of bands like Burzum, Nightbringer, and Xasthur, then you will like this.
Now I understand this atmospheric black metal material is (according to the CM website) from around '96/'97, and if it was released at that time, I would have given it a better score than waiting almost 10 years to do so….why such a long delay?
CM seems like they are living out the "glory years" of black metal by trying to breathe the breath of the corpse. Nothing is new or unique on UTSS; they try to emulate the masters (i.e. Burzum, early Immortal, early Emperor, early Enslaved) when what they should be doing is to help to move black metal into the future (or at least into the present) instead of stagnating in the past. I wouldn’t even say that CM is influenced by the previously mentioned bands, but more correctly, they are a too much a blatant copy of them (especially Emperor).
Production is weak and drowned out. The volume rises up and down in a most annoying fashion. While having two "actual" members of this band, they manage to capture the "bedroom black metal" sound that is usually reserved for bands having only one member. The drum programming needs some work as it has no depth of sound or interesting fills (especially when the "blasts" come out to play….uggh!). I find it hard to swallow a band calling themselves atmospheric while using a drum machine…it just does not work. While I will always prefer to listen to bands that have actual, competent members, I will say this: if bands continue to insist on using a drum machine, hopefully one day one of them will wise up and add some fills that were actually played by a human on top of the programming to give it a more interesting, less "sterile" sound. I would imagine that it has already been done, I just have not had a chance to hear it yet.
CM tries to hypnotize the listener but winds up being quite one-dimensional overall. There is some decent riffing here or there, but overall it comes off as a struggle to maintain cohesiveness. The songwriting itself is actually pretty good in its complexity. Not your standard BM fare, but it fails in its presentation. Theory and practice are two different disciplines, and mastery of one does not equate to competence in the other.
The opening track is way too long and bores the listener before the end….not a good way to start your album. The mix propels the keyboard to the front while hiding the guitar and bass. I'm not sure what happened in the mastering process but the entire album sounds soft and removed. Any darkness that was in the sound was lost.
If black metal is to become a valid genre again, it must move forward.
As is probably evident after reading a number of my other highly praising reviews, I tend to enjoy albums which seem to represent something higher than themselves; some concept which transcends the base material components of the sound itself. This will be another one of those.
Crimson Moon is a relatively obscure band from America, who nevertheless demand a great deal of respect from the underground. It’s easy to see why after hearing this recording, which was released in ’97 as a rehearsal and, aside from crappy bootlegs, did not see the light of day again until the band chose to give this a proper re-release straight from the master tapes, cooperating with the respectable Total Holocaust Records label for distribution. About time too, this is terrific stuff, on par with Black Funeral and mid-period Demoncy.
Even though this is supposedly a rehearsal, there is a complete concept behind the album, and the execution is spot on. Or, that is to say, spot on in relation to what they are conveying. More so than a lot of other black metal bands, the sound of this record is extraordinairily non-standard. Even those used to off-kilter stuff like Sort Vokter will probably have to make an effort to wrap their head around the initially bizarre sound of the music on display. But once that succeeds, the music is very easy to get caught up in, and I have to say that the production and mix, odd as it is, is absolutely perfect.
To properly explain why, or even how, this is so, an exposition regarding their conceptual expression is required. Like Black Funeral, a project with which they share an amicable history, Crimson Moon is heavily into the occult. This comes through in their effective artwork (great symbol designs!), and fantastic lyrical work. Among other things, Sumerian mythology is a recurring theme and this is what I am going to focus on here. In a genesis myth comparable to Norse and Greek mythology, the world was formed from the corpse of an elemental god, Tiamat in this case, representing the sea, as well as Kingu, the sky. Unlike most such genesis myths, Tiamat is not quite dead yet. Tiamat, being the primal chaos out of which the world was spawned, could reawaken and plunge all back into swirling elemental forms.
This process, the order arising from primal chaos, to return back to it in a cyclical movement, is what I can sense going on in the elemental compositions and soundscapes of ‘Under the Serpentine Spell’.
It starts with a long introductory composition, utilizing gongs, bells, accoustic guitars and more nebulous synths in a soothing, mysterious manner, bringing to mind the cosmos in its conceptual stage, before becoming actual. The later introduction of organ and harpsichord, along with a more measured, determined pace shows the steps the cosmos takes which will result in that first spark to spawn everything else.
It truly starts with ‘Chaos of the Sea – Mummu Tiamat’, the sound of waves giving way to a deep bass guitar’s drawn out chords, enveloping accoustic guitar, and the backing of a clicking drummachine and the very effective synthesizer, while a sonorous clear voice intones the lyrics. Progressing further, a genuine guitar enters the fray, while more echo is added to the bass, and cymbal hits and synthesizer hits continuously puncture this primordial mass of sound.
As described above, it doesn’t yet seem very different from other black metal; the instruments used aren’t the point here, but their layering, role and mix is. Most of the melody is provided by accoustics, the mostly baroque synthwork (focusing primarily on organ and harpsichord) and the cymbals and snare of the drum-computer (“Huh?” No I didn’t just make a mistake); with the guitar and bass providing vast envelloping maelstrom soundscapes which suffuse the lighter melodies, occasionally taking over the role of melodic instrument with black tremolo and epic speed metal progressions (check out track 4 at around 1:25, or track 8 at around 2:15!). This is all mixed in such a way that the massive guitar and bass sound completely seems to overpower the lighter instruments, but further listening reveals this to be a transitory effect, and the big guitar-soundscapes actually highlight the melodic instruments as much as they obscure them. The bass and guitar are like a hypersphere of soundwaves; on the one hand they provide an impenetrable spherical prison entrapping the lighter sounds, yet at the same time it spreads them outwards; the listener is as much on the surface of the sea of sound, as he is at the very centre of this ocean. This is the nature of Tiamat’s primal chaos, where paradoxes show opposites as singularly bound concepts. The very intricate, baroque styled organ and harpsichord spring out from this vortex, while punching through it towards its very centre. Echoing accoustics play discordant scales on the peripheries of sound, holding it together like musical threading.
This is as trance-inducingly minimal as it is staggeringly complex; springing out from chaos is a perceptible order, threading its way through the deterministic randomness of history.
This music is its concept. Here there is no difference whatsoever between content and form; they are one. This album presents a unification of polar opposites, a constant exchanging of traditional roles. Note how the drums act both as rhythm-instrument and as melodic counter to the other instruments; Every instrument here shifts places with other instruments from time to time, occupying rythmic, melodic and ambient roles regardless of what it’s supposed to be doing in normal metal. As is probably not unexpected now, the types of melodies employed vary constantly as well, from brutish grimness, to exalted wickedness, to sacharine sweetness, sometimes with different instrument-sets employing contradictory emotive melodies simultaneously.
In the course of over seventy minutes, the creation and growth of the universe seems to fly past in all its paradoxical glory, grim and majestic, beautiful and harsh; until the first-to-last track, wherein all musical elements seem to have taken their proper, ‘traditional’ place, and the music marches in a determined tread towards a final, universe ending confrontation, measured and ordered, only to finally give way to dissolution (beautifully depicted with a final mediterranean sounding accoustic melody).
The final track is a long outro in the same style as the introduction, wherein the music, or the cosmos, seems to dissolve into its component parts again, to become pure potential once more.
Intriguingly enough, the re-release contains a bonus-track from the same period, which seems to follow the same progression as the whole of the album itself, only compressed into slightly over 9 minutes. While unintentional, the placement of this bonus is perfect, showing how a new cycle resumes, the cosmos is reborn and structured, before ultimetaly falling back into the embrace of its mother Chaos.
The death and rebirth of the universe, as seen in the concept of Tiamat expressed in music, is not something I come across that often (understatement of the day). This band, along with Demoncy and Black Funeral, sits at the pinnacle of American black metal. Unlike most others, they don’t follow any established style of riffing or songwriting, and fully mold their compositions to follow their own esoteric convictions.
This is not easy to get into, but it is very easy to stay immersed in.
Esoteric perfection; Recommended highly.