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Originally posted on my reviews blog at heavymetalspotlight.blogspot.com
Henbane, more fully; "Henbane, or Sonic Compendium of Black Arts", is the second album by Polish black-metal band Cultes Des Ghoules, and was released earlier this year; I can't remember where I heard about the album, or the band in general, but I decided to buy it blindly, which is sometimes the most enjoyable way to discover new music. When it comes to this record, reading the title is all you really need to do to work out that you're probably in for an interesting listening experience, and I can safely say my expectations were met, and more.
Cultes Des Ghoules bring a lot into their music, both in terms of creativity and influence. Under the flag of raw, scathing black-metal, there are elements as diverse as the chunky but malevolent feeling of A Blaze in the Northern Sky-era Darkthrone, to the dissonant, wailing guitar work of bands like Blut Aus Nord. In this respect, the record manages to feel like vintage black metal, but at the same time, the band manage to assemble it in quite a fresh and novel way; it's not quite a brand-new interpretation of the genre, but it is what's good about it, being played in an exciting way - a very triumphant merging of the old-school with imaginative innovation and a lot of thoughtful song-construction. I think my favourite juxtaposition on the record is the coming together of the primitive and grandiose; pounding, hypnotically repetitive primal riffs and simple but crushing drum-beats merge with a deeply tangible feeling of ambition and direction; the sepulchral atmosphere which the record delivers is more complex than the literal musicianship, but somehow very complimentary to it - something I'd consider to be the great secret of black-metal; that is, the fantastically present atmosphere delivered by chords and beats, which need not be self-indulgent or even technical; instead, the riffs bring with them a horror which only black-metal can. The atmosphere on Henbane can quite well be summarised as that. Not soaring, not majestic, simply downright scary; the soundtrack to being cast into a pit of unseen, shadowy demons, all of them ready to tear you limb from limb. Henbane delivers terror and malice, and captures it very well indeed, with the sheer murkiness and filth-encrusted production really burying the listener in a claustrophobic grave.
One of the crowning features of the record is the vocalist, who has taken a leaf from the book of just about every influential black-metal vocalist around, and the diverse approaches they take to vocal duties really make the album special. A lot of extreme metal vocalists are content with a single style, but what Cultes Des Ghoules remember is that you don't have to settle for just one. Throughout the record, there seem to be influences from half-a-dozen or so vocalists; everything from the dessicated, mangled whisperings like those of Arioch from Funeral Mist, right through to Attila Csihar style roaring, and even the maniacal, melodramatic cackling style of Big Boss from Root. The variety in the vocal department certainly makes the record even more fun to listen to; more dynamic, exciting, and it even makes the atmosphere a little darker. Like the bands first album, this isn't the kind of record I can listen to while reading or relaxing - it doesn't let you, and I'd expect that that's what the band aimed for. Another pleasing feature of the record is that the long songs, and they are rather long, really seem to justify their length. Henbane is definitely not an album which drags along, despite many of the songs on it (read: all but one of them) being over ten-minutes in length. Even with many of the riffs being quite hypnotic and repetitive, they slowly, subtly change and undulate in a way which makes them really enjoyable to listen to, even when a single riff can last for near minutes, or recur a lot through the course of a song, there isn't a single track on the record which outlives its welcome.
Ultimately, if you have a bit of a thing for black-metal which gives the listener the experience of what it's like to be soft, vulnerable corn being ground remorselessly between harsh, unrelenting millstones, this is probably the sort of band you want to be listening to. Henbane, and Cultes Des Ghoules other work too, is exciting, old-school, harsh, murky, malign and very, very well-made. I thoroughly recommend it.
Five years after the release of their instant classic Haxan, Polish Satanic black metal horde Cultes des Ghoules return this year with a vengeance with their follow up full length album, Henbane.
Following up with a highly acclaimed album is always a challenge, but Cultes des Ghoules takes it in their stride as would be quickly evident on the material on Henbane. Similar to their previous exploits, there is a rather heavy emphasis on the atmospheric aspects on Henbane, as can be heard in the intro of opening track Idylls of the Chosen Damned. But things start to go into chaos pretty quickly as the first riffs hit the listener, and on top of the usual black metal stylistics, the band has this time included some slight death metal influences as well, with the furiously trem-picked riffs and the resulting tension being rather reminiscent of the Finnish death metal style, adding to the darkness that is already quickly encroaching upon the listener.
Of course, the band does not abandon their original stylistics, and it wouldn’t be exactly right to say that Cultes des Ghoules has polished up their sound on Henbane, since the music on the album remain as raw and filthy-sounding as their previous releases. Yet things are certainly even more thought out now than before, and this has resulted in a more torturous and harsher listening album. The sound of Cultes des Ghoules range from the classics of Norwegian greats such as Mayhem, down to the bestial style of bands such as Canadian maniacs Blasphemy and bands such as Black Witchery, especially in the chaotic, yet extremely precise style of drumming on the album. Along with that tinge of death metal that is now more heavily present in their music, there are even moments where one is reminded of such bands as Bestial Raids and Antediluvian.
The entire album may be one that is rather difficult to sit through for those unfamiliar with Cultes des Ghoules‘ ritualistic style of black metal, and this is pretty understandable with the amount of unease that the band provides. The clever usage of the different vocal styles of Mark of the Devil is one such technique used, going from tortured, inhuman shrieks to whispers, and even providing some sinister laughs from time to time to constantly test and push the sanity of the listener. Furthermore, there is a constant dark cloud shrouding the music, making the listening experience of Henbane all the more ominous. The long track times also mean that such feelings of doom and desolation can be slowly cultivated within the listener, with the repetitive but trance-inducing riffs proving to be rather effective as they are played and replayed to the listener, with songs like The Passion of a Sorceress sounding like a droned-out version of Archgoat with the simplicity but effectiveness in the technique.
To continue proving their uniqueness, the band also includes non-conventional instrumentation on the album such as the additional percussions on moments like Vintage Black Magic and towards the end of Idylls of the Chosen Damned, giving a nice flavour to the music and complementing the ritualistic mood that has been created.
The Polish necro warlocks of Cultes Des Ghoules are back, and this time they a more learned, cunning and sadistic force for the dark arts, acting as His (read: SATAN) unholy agents on this dying, divided Earth. Henbane is an album made of equal parts dense atmosphere and classic concepts, drawing equally from first wave black metal, second wave black metal, Ross Bay Cult styled bestial black metal and thundering old-school doom metal to create a sound which no other band can truly match. And aided by a brilliant conceptual identity which reeks of rot, witchcraft and occultism, Henbane is the perfect mood music for late nights lost in the misty woods, dripping blood upon the altar of sacrifice and preparing one's body to entertain the ancient spirits.
Compared to Haxan, Henbane seems significantly softer at first: the production sound is cleaner, more balanced and far less dense, and the bands more Bestial elements have taken a back seat to a greater focus on riffs, introspection and mystical energies. But once the incantations of Henbane begin to shake and rattle your very bones, you'll soon realize the massive error in judgement you had made. Sure, it's a more approachable album than Haxan, Odd Spirituality or Spectres Over Transsylvania, but its also a more fully realized, mature and utterly devastating album than anything Cultes Des Ghoules have accomplished to date. The atmosphere is tremendous, using a combination of spine-shattering low end, diverse arrangements, ambiance and perfectly controlled repetition to envelope the listener in a shroud from which they might never escape. Henbane also frequently and masterfully makes use of sounds and samples to further amplify the already over-whelming atmosphere on the album, creating moments of somberness, insanity and suffering. Whether it's the ringing of a death knell, the chants of withered witches or the bubbling of a rusted cauldron, the use of these classic and spooky conventions further intensifies Henbane and gives it a rather charming novelty which is impossible to deny.
Though it's still all about the riffs with Henbane. It's got more of them than you can shake a crucifix at: thundering, Doom-y, Thrash-y, dissonant, melodic, noisy riffs which give off an equal mix of To Mega Therion, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and Angelcunt (Tales of Desecration). "The Passion of a Sorceress" drips grime and filth, and the bass and drums combine to flatten mountains: at 2:25, prepare to have your skull force-fucked by damnation right off your slender, weak spine. Vocalist Mark of the Devil is simply inhuman as he moves from yelps, shrieks, growls and moans. He brays at the moon and screams like his testicles have been forcibly removed, he chokes on his own tongue and whispers ancient enchantments into your ear. He simply dominates this album, and his ancient and desiccated style fits perfectly with the tomb-dwelling riffs. "The Devil Intimate" becomes a truly terrifying sojourn, led through the bowels of Hades by the hand of Virgil, and slowly builds to a horrifying and frozen crescendo in the icy halls of the Ninth Circle. Once again, Mark of the Devil pulls out every vocal trick at his disposal and acts as the most ferocious and demented barker ever, while the skull crushing riffs and horrifying organ (so fucking wicked) act as a gory and pestilential back-drop to the madness.
Awesome honestly doesn't even begin to describe what Cultes Des Ghoules have achieved with Henbane. This album is such a fresh and fascinating take on classic extreme metal sounds, as well as classic horror elements, which makes it one of the most enjoyable and charming black metal albums I've ever heard. For an album which creates such an unholy and inhuman atmosphere, Henbane is also an album which, for lack of a better term, is a hell of a lot of fun. Its an album which conjures up old fears from your childhood, an album which brings you back to the first time you head-banged to a killer riffs and an album which can appeal to all the musical complexity you desire in your advanced age. All aspects are satisfied, and the Devil will get his due...
Horror. Despite the best of intentions, it's a lot harder than you would think to evoke within the realm of music. Even metal music. I can't count how many records attempt to sound morbid and threatening but miss the mark on the sheer grounds that they've got no thought placed into their construction, no balance of atmosphere and riffing, or such a sterile and brickwalled production that they have no impact other than the technicality of their riffing. Slasher flick samples and misogynistic lyrics just aren't gonna cut it, folks. Within black metal, the problem is one of too many cooks in the kitchen copying one anothers' recipes without understanding the baseline inspiration of the very best. The same Anti-Christian lyrics, the same riffs, the same blast beats, and the same imagery can only be evoked so many times before they lose their 'edge', and many would argue that the once sharpened spikes of this niche became blunted long ago.
Well, Cultes des Ghoules of Poland are a band that understands the notion of horror all too well, and it permeates...suffuses every second of their sophomore outing Henbane. Despite its comparable atmospheric cultivation and a marginal appreciation for its back-to-basics black metal, I actually was not a fan of their 2008 effort Häxan, but its successor manages to iron out nearly every flaw. This is a daunting, mesmeric experience with a lot of character, a lot of surprises, twists and turns and corners from which leering specters might leap out and feast upon you. Chief among these is the vocalist 'Mark of the Devil', whose panoply of decrepit snarls and growls will haunt you in ways that few others are capable: maybe Atila Csihar, perhaps It (ex-Abruptum), but this guy is a nightmare given throat. Coupled with the male choir chants, organs, bells and other percussion arrangements, he manifests a ritual appeal to the album which is the metallic equivalent of a morgue full of corpses suddenly stiffening up to a seated position and having a group conversation. This was already a component of their earlier material, but here it's got so much more breadth, depth and schizoid dementia than I would have expected, and it would sell the music by itself...
Fortunately, it doesn't have to, because the music is also up to the task. One of my gripes about the debut was that the riffing progressions often felt a little too basal or mundane to really match the atmospherics, but with Henbane they've ramped up this aspect of the writing so there's an added level of texture and nuance. I still felt as if some sequences were excessively repetitive, which is to be expected with track lists that are generally eclipsing 10 minutes (some closer to 13-14), but there's a staggering variety to this material which more then makes up for a few unnecessary added cycles. You've got some straight, traditional tremolo pick permutations through pieces like "Idylls of the Chosen Damned", but quite a lot of solemn, blackened doom grooves that represent most of the more catchy moments of pieces like "The Devil Intimate" and the heavily ritualistic "Vintage Black Magic". The rhythm guitar is dowsed in this raunchy, beautiful fuzz which gives Henbane a primacy that relates it back to the early 90s and the dawning of this genre, but the bass is also quite fluid and flowing, the drums crashing along with a plenitude of fills and samples that help round out the compositions with a live feeling, like you were listening through this in some walled-in outdoor garden where the titular, psychoactive herb is grown in secrecy.
There's a particular, unnatural reaction I had to this music which I've traditionally only had when viewing some understated masterpiece of dark film and fiction. Nosferatu. The Seventh Seal. The original Wicker Man. Hammer Horror. Argento or Fulci. Lovecraft. Stoker. William Hope Hodgson. Arthur Machen. We're not talking cheap thrills, a knife in the dark, Freddy Kruger bullshit, or Paranormal Activity airheads. No, this is a tangible, spiritually draining experience which taps into the listener, overrides its survival instincts and then drags he or she towards its maw. A vast, vampiric insect building its web. It utterly destroys the band's debut, and most everything else I've heard lately. In fact, this is such a well-rationed amalgamation of the refreshing and archaic that I can't think of much else like it. Perhaps the superb Head of the Demon debut is close, but Henbane is even denser with ideas. Mandatory, riveting and astonishing, an album I've come out of much different than when I went in...