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Back in 1994, the underground spat out the debut EP of Dark Funeral. Nobody knew how great this band will get, but one thing was for sure: this first release indicated the huge potential of the unholy creatures from Sweden. Coming out of the twilight, the band performed four pieces of pure black metal. Neither the song structures nor the riffs and lines offered surprising elements in abundance. Yet it became clear in a matter of minutes that Dark Funeral had a good grasp for the moods and mechanisms of the dark sub genre.
Already the fittingly titled opener invites the listener on a trip into the dark. "Open the Gates" is based on intensive guitars and straightforwardly hammering drums. The necessary amount of tempo changes and a gloomy break show up as well. Some catchy parts, inter alia the demonic chorus, illustrate the compositional talent of the guys. From today's perspective, this song (and the further tracks as well) does not feature unique facets, but we may not forget that the second wave of black metal was still in its infancy. 1994 was the year of "Transylvanian Hunger", "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" and "Hvis lyset tar oss". These groundbreaking albums were, of course, not the first works of the revitalized genre. Nevertheless, Dark Funeral joined the movement at an early stage...
...and they were full of energy. "Shadows Over Transylvania" impresses with its smooth yet very powerful lines. The lyrics are crammed with buzzwords like cold moon, blood red skies, wolves, ancient castle and so on, but the music itself avoids any form of simple-mindedness. Blast beats driven sequences are successfully combined with fast verses and a few number of redirecting breaks. Not to mention the slightly weird melody line at the end. The remaining tracks do not pale beside "Open the Gates" and "Shadows Over Transylvania". They follow more or less the same musical concept. Thus, it is a matter of taste which song one likes most. I tend to the two openers, but all songs spread an evil flair and benefit from the professional, dark and firm production.
Taking all these details into account, Dark Funeral had released a promising debut. Pure back metal was refined with a tiny pinch of death metal (a guitar line of the closer greets the community of the Grim Reaper) and the result carried a clear signature which is still present in their recent album. A clear position is (almost) always a good thing. In this context, Dark Funeral did and do not need to have a bad conscience.
Dark Funeral is often looked with scorn and derision by the black metal community. This is mostly due to the fact that this band, during the years, has achieved a certain level of fame in the “mainstream” metal community, showing a thin glaze of “marketing” and “commercial approach” around their music. They’re undoubtedly the most “mainstream” Swedish black metal band by far, and it seems that nowadays most of their fanbase consists in little metal kiddies with generic knowledge about metal in general, who listen to the band’s latest albums and consider them (along with Dimmu Borgir’s most recent crap) as the peak of “satanic metal hurr durr”. They probably never heard of Darkthrone or Beherit, but who cares... we’re all tr00 satanic blacksters if we listen to Dark Funeral, aren’t we?
However, I’m not going to criticize the band for this... and with your surprise, I’m not even going to repeat the same old “the first albums are great then they wimped out and blah blah blah” rant. In all honesty, I think that Dark Funeral is a damn great band. Well... maybe, throughout the years, they went to embrace a “commercial satanic image” and took some few devices in order to make their music sounding accessible even to non-black metal fans, but despite this, all their albums are absolutely valid (including the infamous commercial scapegoat called “Attera Totus Sanctus”, which seems to be their most popular record among the “metal kiddies” crowd and the most hated one among the “true black metal” crowd). To be honest, in recent times, I wasn’t impressed at all with their brand new single “Nail Them to the Cross” (which, yeah, sounds very generic and lame), and I have little optimism for them now that they lost Caligula and went on Century Media, but at least until “Angelus Exuro Pro Eternus”, they never really disappointed me.
And there’s even something more... their older productions (1994-2001) are some of my favourite black metal releases of all time. Yeah, I finally admitted it.
Something that few people do know is that Dark Funeral was originally a side-project created by the Necrophobic guitarist/mastermind David Parland (aka Blackmoon), together with Lord Ahriman, because he wasn’t completely satisfied with the blackened death metal style of his main band, and wanted to unleash a new kind of dark, nocturnal fury with a 100% black metal project. Actually, Necrophobic’s “The Nocturnal Silence” was a very fine album, but what David had in mind at that time was way better. Dark Funeral’s debut EP came out in 1994, and the Swedish scene was finally shocked by Blackmoon’s unique musical vision.
The year before, these guys must have surely fallen in love with Marduk’s “Those of the Unlight”, besides having heard a good quantity of Norwegian black metal such as Mayhem and Immortal. In fact, the material contained on this EP sounds really inspired to Marduk’s second effort, but Dark Funeral develops this style even further, mixing it with some hints of Norwegian stuff and, of course, imprinting their own trademark melodic style that was going to influence tons of bands since then. I have to say that, when Blackmoon and Themgoroth were in the band, Dark Funeral was a radically different entity: while, nowadays, their style consists in constant blast beats and furious riffs that sound like they’ve been “forged” into the depths of hell, their early material is constantly permeated by a gelid, nocturnal vibe, and offers a slightly more atmospheric approach.
On Necrophobic’s debut, Blackmoon’s melodic style was yet in an embryonic style: here, for the first time, the majesty of his melodies can be heard in all its power and strength. Being honest, most of the best riffs you can find on here are built around a single 4/4 structure, actually very basic and simplistic... but paradoxically, this rhythmic approach allows the melodies to shine even more. Listen to several riffs of “Open the Gates”, “Shadows over Transylvania” and “In the Sign of the Horns”: same rhythmic pattern, but different combinations of notes, and all of them sound incredibly awesome and fresh.
But what’s so special about Blackmoon’s style? Well, that’s a crucial question. His mind was constantly filled with hatred, misanthropy and fascination for darkness, and all of this is reflected in his music: his melodies, despite their apparent simplicity, were actually very sophisticated and genially able to embody a feeling of darkness, coldness, majesty, evilness, passion, decadence, sorrow and despair, like very few other black metal musicians have ever been able to do, and without any single concession toward “happier” melodies: here, beauty is found only in darkness, sorrow and misanthropy. Genius is often hidden in simplicity and cohesion, rather than hyper-complex structures and hyper-constructions, and Blackmoon demonstrates it on this EP, leaving a strong footprint in the realm of extreme music.
Listening to the mournful intro riff of “In the Sign of the Horns”, a little icy breeze will freeze your spine, and then the song will bring you down to hell with some of the most haunting guitar melodies of the whole Dark Funeral catalog; on the other hand, a massive “glacial” atmosphere is obtained on “Open the Gates”, a masterful composition filled with fast, sinister and menacing riffs (plus a very short synth interlude that will remain stuck in your head). However, my favourite track is undoubtedly the monumental “Shadows over Transylvania”, presented here in an even more brilliant form than on the full-length “The Secrets of the Black Arts”; to be precise, this is also the greatest song Dark Funeral ever made: the aforementioned basic riff formula is brought to its peak, thanks to the most dramatic and most evil riff-sequence ever written by the band, ending in a slower section where some unbelievably sinister and sorrowful guitar phrasings give you the “coup de grace”, reducing you to a miserable, meaningless entity; it’s like if Satan himself launched you a curse through the notes of this song. Themgoroth increases these feelings with his agonizing, yet powerful screams, singing some of the most touching lines ever written by Dark Funeral (whose lyrics, I admit, are usually pretty generic):
”Rising shadows over blood red skies,
mournful cries through the darkened night...”
Rhythmically speaking, this is surely the less speed-driven Dark Funeral release. Obviously, there are already a lot of the hyper-fast blast beats the band is known for (which were yet very atypical for black metal in 1994: just very few bands already used to play at this speed, which was usually reserved to death metal), but, believe it or not, this time there’s a major tendency to thrashy beats, and a lot more space is left for slower and airier sections: “My Dark Desires”, for example, sounds mostly like a solemn funeral procession (supported by freezing, aural riffs), and speed is left a bit more apart than usual. This is also the only song of this EP that will receive a slightly better treatment on “The Secrets of the Black Arts”, but this version is already excellent and delightfully nightmarish on its own.
These four songs, engineered and produced by the almighty Dan Swanö, placed Dark Funeral on the map of the growing Swedish black metal scene, even though they actually began to reach real fame only since 1996, with the release of their first proper album “The Secrets of the Black Arts”. However, my favourite Dark Funeral release ever is actually this masterpiece of an EP, which contains a short but excellent selection of their earlier material. At that time, the band had a more emotional approach to songwriting, and was less focused on the “tongue-in-cheek” kind of satanism they’re known for nowadays. However, “The Secrets of the Black Arts”, “Vobiscum Satanas” and “Diabolis Interium” stand just slightly under this EP in terms of quality, and are absolute masterpieces as well.
Here it is then, this prototypical, subgenre-defining slice of violent, professionally produced Swedish black metal, the EP which was both an announcement of this band's entry into the scene as well as an essential document (along with 1996's 'The Secrets of the Black Arts') of that sound, the clean, no-frills, hyperspeed version of black metal which I have to come to absolutely loathe in the years after this record's release. This is an essential document/recording, however, because it has influenced so many bands - hundreds upon hundreds, one is led to believe.
And truth be told, it's not that bad, not at all. It doesn't really say anything new, but it provided an avenue (or opened a path) for bands who wanted a more sparkling and fresh alternative from the realm of the necro, and so many bands have gone down that path now that it seems like Dark Funeral hit upon something new themselves: that black metal could be 'professional', it could be well-produced, one could hear all the instruments on the recording, and the entire tone of a band's release could be geared towards an audience that was used to the sound of Swedish death metal releases...
The music is not iconoclastic, and in my ears it seems routine, almost trite and reticent in its unwillingness to incorporate anything creative... but one also has to remember that it was 1994 when this came out, and the black metal scene at that time was undergoing a cataclysmic series of changes... many bands were turning towards more 'commercial' sounds, if not in the music itself then in their production values. Besides, this band has never really been about originality.
Much like their close competitors and fellow pillars of the Swedish scene, Marduk, this band makes it extremely difficult to hear differences between their songs.. after a while it just all tends to blend together, and the production, with its vanilla wafer, sterile aesthetics, does not help matters. But if you listen close enough, the differences are there... I mean: there is a lot of music that speeds past the consciousness, buried under the squeaky clean guitar sound.
Ultimately this is just extremely listenable, it goes down easy, without really snagging on any of one's biases or preconceptions, and in that capacity one would think it had the ability to draw disparate segments of the scene together. Didn't it, after all? Who really hates Dark Funeral? Who has ever been offended by Dark Funeral? For me, now, this re-release is interesting mainly because it pits the production sounds of the two largest/most well-known Swedish studios and producers against each other... with the EP proper, it is Swano and Unisound (I blame Swano for the 'clean' sound in black metal production circles, may he be damned) and with the bonus tracks included on this disc (two Bathory covers) it is Tagtgren and the Abyss studios, the recordings being done in '94 and '96, respectively. As so, once again this record, in its re-release, becomes indicative of the larger musical movements within Sweden. From Unisound to the Abyss - that was the progression, wasn't it?
I will say that the Bathory covers done here ('Equimanthorn' - yes, one of the most 'influential' black metal songs of all time - and 'Call From The Grave', both from 'Under the Sign of the Black Mark') are excellent, really top-notch and professional in their planning, playing and recording. 'Call From The Grave' is especially good... when it comes down to the moving solo in the latter part of the song, the theme/progression of which is based on a popular funeral air, the playing is focused and tight, and done with obvious respect. Inspiring.
Other noteworthy bonuses in the re-release: the great new cover art, done by Necrolord, of Levi's enthroned Baphomet, in purple, black, and white tones (I would love to have a poster of this), and the pictures in the lyric booklet, which are supposedly from Dark Funeral's 'personal collection'.
So, in any case, you know what this album is, you know if you want it... I would suggest at least picking it up and listening to it if you are unaware of this band's history, or the tremendous impact they have had on European black metal.
Dark Funeral was formed in 1993, by Blackmoon and Lord Ahriman. Blackmoon had already founded the Satanic Death Metal band, Necrophobic, releasing The Nocturnal Silence. Joined by Themgoroth and Draugen, the band entered Dan Swanö's Hellspawn/Unisound Studios to record the Dark Funeral E.P.
"Open the Gates" begins this debut release with hellish fury, before going into a very oldschool section. Blackmoon's riffs, as always, have a very nocturnal feeling to them. Themgoroth's vocals are somewhat reminiscent of Hat (of Gorgoroth). While being executed in a different style, this really does create the same kind of atmosphere as Necrophobic.
"Shadows Over Transilvania" features some brilliant tremolo riffs and a sinister atmosphere that is only accentuated by Themgoroth's vocal performance. There are a handful of tempo changes, with the song slowing down a bit, near the end. This Swedish cult is definitely rooted in the older bands.
"My Dark Desires" continues the Satanic assault. One notices that the production os a lot closer to that of Marduk's Those of the Unlight. Perhaps the EP would have sounded even better if they had managed to get the same sound that Dissection did on The Somberlain (which was recorded at the same studio). About half-way through the song, the pace slows down and the melodies really take you into the night sky, beyond the realm of the living. Themgoroth's infernal vocals can be considered nothing less than a demonic possession captured on tape.
This final song opens with some of the best riffs of the album, melodies that will remain with you long after the song has concluded. "In the Sign of the Horns" expresses the desire to go from the world of light and to be embraced by darkness, for ever. As can be said for the rest of the album, the cold nocturnal melodies wrap around your throat and the hellish vocals summon forth the dark lord.
"In the sign of the horns
Come and take my life
In the sign of the horns
I must die"
Believe it or not, Dark Funeral was once a good band, prior to making music only to please the masses and having a rockstar mentality. This E.P. is absolute proof of the band's worth, in the long-forgotten past. If you have only been exposed to those later recordings, you owe it to yourself to seek this E.P. out. For that matter, it is recommended that you also listen to The Secrets of the Black Arts, as well. Beyond these two releases, consider the band irrelevant.
Dark Funeral have never been a band to say they are original. They aren't, but unlike a lot of bands of this nature, they have spirit. They know what they want to do and do it. The material presented on here is the best this band has ever written. The guitars are fast, speed picked, but also with a lot of melody to them. Drums are mostly either blast beats or slower, more doomy, but still are good, and not sloppy or anything. The vocals are demonic, really tortorous, and they fit perfectly with all the chaos going on on this.
Really, there isn't much more for me to say about this album. The songs are all fast, with slower parts incorporated into them. Open the Gates is definately the standout track on here, or In the Sign of the Horns, with it's very ominous opening riff.
This is a very promising start for this band. Although with the full length, Secrets of the Black Arts, things would become a little too monotonous for me. Buy this now.