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"Under the Sign of Hell" was my first foray into Gorgoroth, and I have to admit, I don't know why it took me so long to check this band out.
The first thing that really captivated me about "Under the Sign of Hell" was just how straight to the jugular it is. There aren't big epic stringed intros or big layered bridges. It's not that I don't like those things, but I do like it when bands concern themselves with intensity. "Under the Sign of Hell" clocks in at just over thirty minutes, and is a driving relentless force. Once it starts it never really lets up. Plus, about half of the tracks start off with an immediate bang, giving the album a brutal never-ending quality (as some tracks seem to almost seamlessly bleed into each other).
Pest's vocals were another stand out thing for me. They're very raw, and high pitched to boot; both of which I prefer in my black metal vocals. Additionally, Pest will occasionally throw in some clean vocals ("Profetens Åpenbaring" for instance), which I found to be quite effective. I especially thought that the clean vocals toward the end of “Blood Stains the Circle” where interesting. The quality of the vocals are rather poor (as he, to me at least, sings out of key). But what they lack in quality, they surely make up for in raw power; for some reason they just work.
The guitars are solid. They don't wow me, but they do drive the album (and the album’s drive is one of its most important aspects). They're what you'd probably expect from a reputable black metal outfit: dissonant riffs, tremolo picking, an all-around high-end assault on the ears. Most of the riffs are fast paced, though there are [rare] times when Infernus plays slower parts (1:10-2:32 of "Ødeleggelse og Undergang" being a prime example of this). When they do occur, Infernus makes sure to make the riff is as discordant, as harsh, and as evil-sounding as possible. These slower parts, through contrast, also help accentuate the driving nature of the disc. Another thing I liked was the solo in "The Rite of Infernal Invocation", around the 1:33 mark. I didn’t like the solo because I thought it was necessarily impressive; I liked it more or less because it was there at all (if that makes any sense). As far as I can remember it's the only solo on the whole album. It helps give the song (and I suppose, arguably, the album as a whole) a little flair, even if it is short and sweet.
The drums were more of the same thing. Solid enough to continue the album's overall drive and tempo. I would have thought that Grim’s drumming to consist of mostly blast beats, but on the contrary, most of the drumming is mid-paced and keeps Gorgoroth's guitar-focused sound driving without being distracting (though to be clear, there are still a fair amount of blast-beats present on the album). On a production note, I like how audible the drums are within the mix. The toms and cymbals are very clear (which is not always the case for metal). While on the subject of production, “Under the Sign of Hell” has an odd raw sound. All of the instrument/vocals sound pretty clear, yet there’s just this overwhelming feeling of poor production hovering overhead (almost as if it were a live recording). I don’t think this it effected the album positive or negatively, but since it does fit the black metal aesthetic, and I felt it was worth mentioning.
The stand out track (for me) is "Profetens Åpenbaring". It essentially encompasses the sound of “Under the Sign of Hell” all on one track. Clocking in at 5:05, it is easily the longest track on the album as well. We get a slow ambient intro, both clean and shrieked vocals (not to mention a super heavy metal “HEEEYY!”), some ultra discordant riffs (3:52), and except for the intro and a second or two before the aforementioned riff, the song is constant and ruthless.
In the end, I think it's the constant barrage of passionate intensity that makes "Under the Sign of Hell" such a good album. Sure, there are several factors that, when added together, give the album this quality, but I see “Under the Sign of Hell” as one of those album that equals more than the sum of its parts. It may not be my favorite black album ever, but you could easily do a lot worse.