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We've certainly been exposed to more horror-themed metal bands than we can count, not just in past few years but over the course of metal's lengthy 40 year history, ranging from Alice Cooper (not really metal, I know) to Necrophagia to newer exports like Negative Plane, but very few bands from this massed tenor actually succeeding in their conquest of horror. The problem lies not in their lack of musical skills or egregiously erratic preferences in structure or techniques, but their bland and one-dimensional perspective on the whole situation - their lack of detail, proper fervor and innovation - which ultimately create impediments for the construction of a virtually horrific and striking midnight experience. There are tenacious masters who still successfully thrive in this particular field - Antediluvian coming to mind at first - but even these acts have started to corrupt the utterly discomfiting omnipresence of horror in their sound, exploring less deep or less engrossing subjects for the sake of deviating from a topic, a theme that very few has struck the bull's eye at. The rest of the so called ''horror-themed'' metal bands have lost their touch long ago, inflicting cheesy 80's horror vibes at their laughing audience, not knowing, possible, that they are actually giving them more of a thrill than a fright.
Has horror metal not had success in a long time? Certainly, recent acts like Aevangelist, Negative Plane or Head Of The Demon have purveyed fear in a much denser and ingenious form than I would have expected, however, perhaps the absolute horror master of the last decade, or, I daresay, the last 20 years, has to be the latest offering of Polish sadists Cultes Des Ghoules, ''Henbane''. In an outstanding succession, the Poles have jumped not one but several giant steps from their debut, ''Haxan'', which, despite not being appalling, was still just another face in the crowd amid an army of eager old-school black-metal rehash maniacs. ''Henbane'' truly leaped out of nowhere and clawed me into the darkness. It merely guided me towards an unprecedented darkness, it smothered me with such ostentatious debilitation that the shreds and burnt pieces of flesh that came from my body simply entered a disheartening abyss that literally sucked the light out of me. Essentially a composite of proto-black metal and voracious bestial black/death that Blasphemy or Archgoat fans should love to endure, ''Henbane'' is so richly filtered with ideas, innovations and coherent thematic representations that it's nearly impossible not to be wallowed in by it, let alone breathe sanely while suffering it.
The guitars are sodden with a wonderful crunch that's somewhat reminiscent of the traditional Swedish death metal guitar punch taken to a lighter and more flexible edge when they are enraged, and the riffs themselves are actually quite technical and cleverly penned. As tracks like ''The Devil Intimate'' flow with smoldering pretense, it becomes noticeable that Cultes Des Ghoules actually enjoy to plod along with doom-like mannerisms, keeping the speed constant and mid-paced for the most part, and giving that old school doom metal feel. Of course, it's obvious that ''Henbane'' is so much more than the actual riffs. It's demented, deranged atmosphere comes from the presence of an unknown aura that somehow seeps from the raw material of the guitars and forms this horrifically delectable texture that's always there, but you only seem to realize its existence only when the album has finally concluded and when the shadow has been lifted. Vocalist Mark of the Devil's vocal complex is unlike anything I've ever heard; he effortlessly shifts from daunting, frigid black metal rasps to more guttural snarls to even throatier barks that undeniably sound like Freddy Krueger screaming his ass of in an abandoned corner of Elm Street - his inflections are vaguer than you you'd imagine, but for the one who suffers the nightmare that is ''Henbane'', they are as vivid as the puzzling gloom of the cover art.
In many ways, the entwining of the messed up vocals and the beautifully distorted guitar riffs sound like Charon's ''Sulphur Seraph'' with a more grotesque vision of reality. To add to the atmosphere, ''Henbane'' has in store a wide range of instruments of torture, my favorite being the creeping, crawling acoustic guitar sections that are randomly distributed along the album; nightmarish guitar sequences which resonate through the echoing cervix of the album. Amongst others, you'll also find ambient passages aplenty, organ medleys, and bleak periods of absolute emptiness where you're left to realize the pull competence of the album's horror infliction. ''A Passion Of A Sorceress'' was for me the wildest tune in the entire record, a feral discharge of cadaverous, spiking black metal tremolos and chords eventually coupling with a ritualistic image of a witch burning at the stake. ''Vintage Black Magic'' explores the sheer depths of Portal-esque black/death insanity with terrifying ululations of absurd creatures howling as the album sways with a steady, trudging groove. Cultes Des Ghoules neared perfection with ''Henbane''. It does not reflect the imageries of something as cosmic and godly as Lovecraft as many people would imagine, but something far more down-to-earth, with just five tracks at 60 minutes, imagine replacing the unnerving classical feasts on Nosferatu with a wholesome helping of this... Or perhaps just form in your mind the soundtrack of a combustive, utterly sentient ceremony of Aztec jaguar-priests ripping the heart out of a living victim. Imagine the torture. Imagine the horror. That is ''Henbane'', a true compendium of the black arts. And all you have to do to feel it is to acquire it.
Vintage Black Magic
Idylls Of The Chosen Damned
The Devil Intimate