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Epic. Glorious. Proud. Rousing.
These are all words that can be used to describe this piece of music conjured forth in the days of December 1994 by three dark souls. Yet they all fail to do it any justice, for this was and still is the finest expression of the pagan spirit in the realm of black metal. It is a musical monument to ancient heathen pride, Europe’s lost heritage and a beacon pointing the way to reclaiming it.
The three people responsible for this journey to the past are Karcharoth on bass, Capricornus on drums and musical visionary Rob Darken provides the rest. And what they created here transcends mere music.
From the opening intro written by Karcharoth one is instantly transported to the mystical past as toms beat a steady rhythm, a distorted guitar plays a wistful melody, soon to be joined by a clean acoustic guitar, giving way to the opening notes of starting song Blood of Christians on my sword and the epic pagan spirit is unleashed. Traces of Burzum and Bathory can be detected in the distorted guitarwork, but these are only secondary to the genuine folk melodies employed for the majority of this album’s duration. It’s this quality, the near continuus use of folk melody in lieu of standard metal riffing which gives this album its tremendous power. The bass provides a warbling ambient backdrop to the inspiring riffing, allowing the listener to sink in even deeper into the atmosphere which is further enhanced by sporadic, half-buried keyboard accentuations and the clean chanting of the album opener. The production, which sounds odd at first, greatly enhances this aspect, as it accentuates the very thin sounding lead guitars and drums while the bass, keyboards and supporting rhythm guitar melt together into a nebulous ambiental backdrop. Giving a grim commentary are Darken’s rasped croaks making great use of inflection and pace, thus providing an extra layer of melody. Finishing the whole off is Capricornus’ tremendous drumwork, which really comes into its own here. Gone are any pretensions of drumming in a metal way, instead employing pure paganistic percussion, martial pounding and rythms that literally sound like the galloping of horses.
Structurally, this is closer to Wagner than anything metal, making full use of repeating leitmotifs, narrative musical arcs and dramatic progressions making sure you’re not just listening to a song, but sheer musical storytelling. Listening to the title track or The Dark Battlefield you are almost bodily aware of being on said battlefield, the galloping drums becoming horse’s hoofs, cymbal clashes the striking of sword upon sword, the bass and rhythmguitar background the din of the battlefield, the rising and falling progressions the shifting tides of conflict. The music slows down, presenting a lull in the fighting until a lone distorted guitar plays a riff equally thrashy as it is folky to inspire the men back into battle as the drums come crashing back in again and Darken’s hoarse voice commands the warriors to fight on for blood and honour!
The first three songs, as well as the short Black Metal War, present this frenzied warlike atmosphere until The Time of Revenge changes things around with more severe, morose sections followed by frantic fastpicked riffs and drumwork while Karcharoth unleashes several banshee-like shrieks reminding me of a nazgul. This entire track comes across as a wild chase on horses with several sword exchanges made, to exact a terrible vengeance against some supernatural foe.
Born for War has a more sweeping nature, suggesting not a particular scene as the previous songs did but a story detailing a warrior’s entire life. Keyboards are far more present here in the form of a choir to enforce this while high trebly riffing dances around it in a majestic fashion. This song is more midpaced than the previous ones and has a few very contemplative moments as a lone guitar plays a highly nostalgic sounding riff, speeding up occasionally into fast galloping parts possibly describing the wars the protagonist fought in.
The cd finishes off with To Die in Fight, probably the most experimental and conceptual song on an already highly experimental and conceptual album. The music perfectly represents the dying protagonist’s losing battle and subsequent death, with the instruments slowing down and actually stumbling at one point until another rousing single melody of the type heard earlier during the warlike songs is played and the speed picks up one final time only to become grim and morose again until it finally dies off completely. Then an almost anthemic outro closes the album on a high note with heavy drums, horns, chanting and mystic guitarwork, leaving the listener with a last glimps into a forgotten era of valour and pride.
This album is groundbreaking in many ways as it almost completely discards traditional black metal riffing, drumming, songbuilding and production. This work of art is engineered to be like a soundtrack to the ancient past, all the elements becoming a gestalt that is greater than its individual parts, a unification of a single vision, staggering in its clarity. If there is one album that proves that vision can be transferred from artist to listener it’s this one, for it is practically impossible not to imagine ancient Europe and the warrior spirit when one hears this. For the duration of this album, you almost become someone else, a paganistic warrior in an uncompromising warlike age fighting for what you believe in! It’s that powerful.
I personally consider this the greatest pagan black metal album, perhaps even the greatest black metal album period, of all time. I would be very surprised if something came along to top this. Thousand Swords represents everything vital to black metal; conflict against modern Christian values, grimness, ancestral pride, romantic vision, epic grandeur, themes of life and death and the worship of nature and the old ways. If the entire metal scene were to vanish with the exception of this album I wouldn’t mind a bit, since everything I could possibly want from this style of music is present here in near perfection with a sincerity that is almost never seen.