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Merciless were one of the promising acts of the late-80s Swedish underground, which got consolidated with the arrival of the 90’s, featuring a bunch of extreme groups from death to doom, the second wave of black, etc. These guys’ classic debut The Awakening and the following The Treasures Within proved the potential of the group and their predilection for brutality, combining sharp thrashy riffs with nearly guttural vocals in the style of Mutilator, Agressor, Messiah or Incubus. The new mid-decade arrived with its dangerous trends and changes but it didn’t really affect the purity of subgenres like death, which remained unadulterated and loyal to its roots while thrash became unpopular and exhausted. For a band like Merciless, which mixed elements from both subgenres, the need to evolve became indispensable to prevail without renouncing to their genuine identity.
With epic tunes like “Unbound” and “Back To North”, the group proves their determination to achieve greater progression and difficulty in their music than ever before. Both tracks are designed by a rich collection of riffs that avoid remaining unchanged for long, constructing technical passages, introducing surprising multiple harmonies and explicit melody, though still maintaining the ferocity and energy. The configuration is quite complex, plenty of tempo shifts, incessantly modified guitar lines and intricate structures, everything better arranged and precisely executed than any previous attempt. “Lost Eternally” and “Forbidden Pleasure” embrace those schemes of versatility and complication in smaller percentage, slightly straighter and giving more emphasis to velocity and aggression but still revealing a complex development of numerous perfectionist structures and severe rhythm alterations. Those 4 compositions are certainly superior and impressive, making evident Merciless’ greater ambition, although numbers like “Silent Truth” and “The Land I Used To Walk” also demonstrate they’re not pushing away their distinctive extreme nature. Those 2 are simpler, more direct, deprived of the refined elements and the pretention of the epic songs in the pack, determined by generally stable riffs and tempos, putting all attention of ferocity and speed like in the early days. “Nuclear Attack” isn’t that original or inventive either, reducing the level of technique to simply thrash hard. Even though “Feebleminded” features some tenuous harmonies, it still follows that easier pattern that works successfully to provide dynamism and roughness to the music, something you can headbang to. So the band obtains consistency and sense on both progressive/complicated tunes and straightforward thrashy titles, definitely reaching next level without betraying their original essence and nature.
Results are undoubtedly remarkable for a 1994 record, in contrast with most of mediocre thrash albums of that time. After all, Merciless have always been clearly thrashy as the nature of those incendiary riffs proves, they never used many low-tuned riffs or absolutely grotesque vocals like death groups. They’re definitely getting closer to thrash with this record, which is truly fast and crude. Peter Stjärnvind’s tempos are mostly blinding and frantic. However, their music no longer sound primitive, inexperienced and scruffy, the technical improvement is admirable in comparison with preceding performances. Instrumentally, it’s all now more fluent, accurate and polished by personnel with greater skills and ideas. Song-writing process shows bigger talent and creativity too, lacking no continuity or solidity on conceiving those exquisite instrumental sections, in particular. Arrangements are occasionally immaculate and varied, with these guys even making use of acoustic guitars, keyboard effects and those mellow harmonies, combined reasonably without affecting the brutality and strength. Although the most unexpected characteristic of this material is melody, which might not be uninterrupted or omnipresent but on those 4 epic ones (title-track and “Back To North” specially) it becomes an indispensable element to define them. Nobody could’ve predicted in 1987 this extreme group would incorporate such sophistication and class. Certainly, this is a huge evolutionary step which isn’t incompatible with Merciless’s innate aggression. Fortunately, Swanö‘s production is immaculate as well, ideal to make this stuff sound as splendorous and cathartic as it should, away from the adorable bad production of the debut. These songs wouldn’t have achieved such brilliance and presence, otherwise (What would’ve happened if Kreator’s Coma Of Souls was poorly produced?).
Unbound is a jewel of mid-90’s thrash, an exception among thousands of lame records. Luckily, there were still some hidden treasures like this in such a terrible period for the subgenre. The only alternative to mainstream genres like grunge, britpop and American pop-punk and Metallica’s homonym CD and groove was the death metal scene or some European extreme groups, which refused to take part on the scandalous adulteration of metal. And this album deserves more recognition and attention, of course. It reached the same level of Kreator, Sadus, Thanatos or Protector’s finest works. It also demonstrated it was possible to make progressive melodic music without getting too cheesy and inoffensive, remarkable.
Merciless take a turn towards making majestic thrash on this album, slowing down from their purely high-speed past and letting songs gallop and build up similar to mid-era Bathory minus the keyboards. The band have grown as musicians, as cliche as that sounds, they manage to effectively implement the changes in dynamics that they tried to use on their previous album. The most welcome change is the greatly improved drumming, which allows a full range from slow to fast and softer to harder, even some clean and acoustic guitars. While retaining their death/thrash roots, this one shows a similarity to Necrophobic and Unanimated, unsurprising considering the presence of Unanimated drummer Peter Stjärnvind.
The strongest track on the album is the epic "Back to North" - this shows the mid-paced thrash influence of Bathory, as well as the melodic black/death leanings. There's a great melodic guitar solo backed by keyboards, and it builds up and leads into an acoustic interlude, another furious section, then a laid-back melodic section. The drumming here is great, as it does an excellent job of dictating the pace and progression of the song. The buildups and dynamic changes in the song are quite impressive.
The classic Merciless scorchers are here - "Silent Truth" and "Feebleminded" are new ones, and "Nuclear Attack" reappears from their second demo. They're a little more varied than the early stuff, and the drumming is certainly better, but they won't disappoint if you like their older stuff. If you haven't heard their earlier stuff, check it out or look for descriptions in my reviews of the earlier stuff.
The other tracks fall somewhere between, with a good amount of progression, relying on fast, aggressive thrash but exploring further with melodic sections and dividing them with breaks that showcase the excellent drumming. The drumming isn't overly fancy, but it is very effective and it's a huge step forward from their earlier efforts. The guitar work's grasp on the mid-paced and melodic parts enables them to write longer songs that flow well.
All of this fits nicely into the style that Merciless have carved out for themselves - the parts that channel Bathory and Unanimated still sound more like Merciless than those, but you can hear the similarity. This style showcases what the band can do much better than the did previously - while brief thrash assaults are nice, they assembled a much more complete listening experience (at a whole 38 minutes, rather than the 27 of their debut or less on the demos). This is their finest hour, and it builds on their career very nicely.
This particular release arrived on my doorstep in the context of an unmitigated CD-buying binge of long ago, and would likely have been lost in the shuffle if it hadn't been for the singluar rawness of the production values and the sheer muscular power of it all. Back then you had to blow my head off to get my attention or you were lost, sometimes for years, and maybe forever. I was buying that much metal -- I'm sure some can relate. There's just a ton of material out there, it's simply difficult to cut through to a metalhead's inner soul.
Well, I'm proud to annouce Unbound cuts through. With a vengeance. You see, power & glory has a beauty and rarity all its own. Sharpening one's blade can be done by anyone, but sharpening it to the peak of ripping glory? That's an accomplishment for only the few...
And so we arrive at Merciless' accomplished talents. The power and the glory. Because that's what Unbound is, at its heart. Blow the doors off everything, use the sharpest blade, bare it down to its roots, and cut to the deepest core. A monumental task, and one that a great many bands fail at. But this group? It's an effortless endeavor.
Stylistically I really feel like there's a healthy dose of Kreator in here. I know Merciless are a band of Swedes...that's cool and all, and definitely there's a plenty of the old Swedish death on display. But listening to it more & more, I can hear Mille's influence happening, both in terms of Rogga's throaty shouting and the dissonant twisting riffwork delivered by Erik Wallin. The punch is pure Kreator wonderfulness -- it's an asset these guys can wear as a badge of honor as far as I'm concerned, as few can match the intensity of the German thrash legends. And Merciless pulls it off. I mean come on, that opening riff on Feebleminded would do anyone proud, but certainly Mille and the boys can sit back and say to themselves...."we inspired that." And there's nothing wrong with it. It's fantastic - more bands should wear Kreator as a feather in their cap.
A certain amount of modal melody is employed on Unbound. I love that these guys aren't afraid to phrase their riffs towards the lyrical. You can't sing along -- no, that's too far. But there's logic and a certain cyclical sensibility here. Not everything is a Slayer-esque atonal assault. Witness the chrous section of the title track, or the middle break in Back to North. There's an attempt at a change here, and it's toward the melodic. To be sure, the vocals can't be involved -- Rogga is pure thrash/death, not going to happen. But the guitars, and even the bass, can pick up where the vocals can't. Through it all, the melodic parts never take out the muscular tension supplied by the rest of the material, but rather offer an interesting and welcome counterpoint to the traditional laser-precise thrash delivery.
And then again, there's a time to just assault until the cows come home, such as in Nuclear Attack, or the aforementioned Feebleminded. Merciless has no shortage of intensity, and can dish out blast-beat thrash with the best of them. Nuclear Attack in particular contains some of the most honest blasting on the CD, and I'd put it up against pretty much anything in the genre. Love the cow bell in the closing moments. Nice touch.
The production on Unbound is stripped down and in-your-face. Effects processing is kept to a minimum, with the majority of the alterations happening on Rogga's vocals (some echo/reverb added). Even then, the vocals are a throaty shout, without much alteration. The mix is very guitar-heavy, and I find the drums are perfectly placed, although for my money I would prefer a bit stronger representation from the bass drums. The bass guitar gets lost a little bit here, and if there is one fault I would point there. But its not bad enough to ruin the experience. Merciless' performance on the CD is well-rehearsed and well-executed throughout, and the produced mix and strategy employed in the sessions draws out that performance, as it should. These guys knew what they were doing, which only adds to the mystery as to why they didn't break out like other bands did...
Unbound was a lost classic, being released on a small label and never really seeing the light of day. There are likely hordes of fans of the genre who would love to get their hands on a slab of pulsating madness like Unbound. Fortunately, with the invention of mp3 and massive online retailers, you should be able to find the songs if you want. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Merciless is a band that was always going to be more than they ended up being, but somehow never got the chance to break through. But all along they produced great stuff, and Unbound is no exception.
I've been a metalhead for essentially my entire life (thanks, Mom), and yet somehow Sweden's Merciless managed to slip under my radar until recently. Being the first band signed to and bearing your name on the first release by Deathlike Silence records is a pretty big deal in the metal underground. That debut, The Awakening is known to be an early death/thrash classic. Those two points alone make it baffling that I hadn't managed to stumble across this band earlier. I'll admit, I've yet to hear that legendary debut, and this, Unbound, is my first foray into Merciless's sick, demented world. And frankly, I plan on pitching a tent and staying in this desolate, ravaged world for a while.
Frankly, this really early style of death metal is probably my favorite style of music, but it's also the hardest to review. I love the hell out of Massacra, Agressor, Messiah, Revenant, and the like, but I've yet to review any of it because I really don't know how to articulate my love. This primal death/thrash is the hot, popular cheerleader to my socially awkward and obsessed nerd. There's nothing wrong with it, I love every little thing about it. I have a small shrine in my closet dedicated to it. There are a dozen almost-gone candles surrounding a marble altar with Enjoy the Violence perched at the top. Yet every time I convince myself that this is the time, that this is my shot to prove I'm not a square and that I can be worthy, it just kicks the living shit out of me and I have to go back to my room and worship from afar, sniveling like the bitch it made me. Merciless, being early progenitors of this style, accomplish the ass kicking as well as any other band in the genre. Unbound leans towards the thrashier side of the death/thrash balance that I love so much, but it still manages to blend the razor sharp riffwork of thrash with the punchiness of death metal. It's this brutal equilibrium that makes this sound so fantastic, and even though this isn't quite as balanced as some of the other bands I've mentioned, it's without a doubt more than competent enough to brain the snot out of you for saying it's flawed as a result.
The main strength in Unbound is that it rarely lets up, but it still does let up occasionally to keep the album fresh. It starts with a soft, acoustic intro before bursting out into some early Kreator styled death/thrash riffage. Each song continues the main theme of razorpunching the listener with unrivaled aggression, while simultaneously weaving in a melodic twist. I don't know why, but Sweden seems to have some law forbidding anything musical from being mainly atonal. Now don't confuse my point, melody is important, no doubt, and this particular album benefits from it. It sounds like the kind of thing Deceased would go on to thrive off of. The mixture is rather top notch here, as the mix of raw aggression and subtle melody never sounds forced or awkward. Everything is part of one cohesive monster. The one flub seems to be the 8 minute beast in "Back to North". Halfway through the track, the song abruptly stops, and plays around with a quiet, haunting instrumental section. It's less than a minute long and really isn't intrusive, but it's the one time that the songwriting seems to wander a bit. Thankfully, Merciless never lose their focus again throughout the album. Rogga carries a fairly typical voice for the style, but it works fabulously. It isn't quite a death metal growl, it isn't a thrashy rasp, it isn't a throaty scream, it's some unholy mixture of the three. Imagine a thicker, deeper Mille Petrozza and you're pretty close to the mark.
Unbound is essentially a blueprint for this very specific style I have such a raging boner for, and as a result, it's well worth anybody's time. The dirty production and hard edged riffing compliment each other extraordinarily. Looking back, I find I haven't really been able to express what makes this album so damn good, and it's precisely why I typically stray away from writing about this style. It has to be heard, and you'll surely convert when you hear it. It's hard to explain simply through text what makes a riff awesome or a song memorable. All that really needs to be known is that apart from some confusing song structuring here and there, this album does basically everything right. From the churning of "Back to North", to the pure thrash insanity of "Nuclear Attack", the more traditional metal moments of "Lost Eternally", and supernatural quality of "The Land I Used to Walk", nothing is half assed or mediocre.
Merciless have definitely matured since their debut with their songwriting and presentation of song. What I really enjoy about Unbound is the sense of groove, yet the unmistakable Merciless throat-throttling riffing is still abound. Another notch on the maturity post is the variety and flow from track to track; one does not get bored listening to the entire disc and I am one to easily fall into a cerebral-lethargy listening to an average thrash record.
The track “Back to North” is a great example of interesting guitar work with a mixture of groove, shredding, quiet acoustic and folk-inspired interludes. Rogga's vocals are nothing new on the Merciless front, but a sing-a-long with Unbound will result in the spitting of blood. The rhythm section is competent, but nothing special.
Overall, Unbound is a great thrash record that any self-respecting metal fan should try to snag a copy of. It's not of the same ilk as the generic thrash that was prevalent in the late eighties. As a general rule, I do not enjoy listening to thrash, but Merciless are one band that I gravitate towards.
It's a shame that Merciless have really never achieved the heights that other European thrash bands have, because this is yet another record the proves that Merciless deserve to be recognized as a premier thrash entity.
I realized while looking through the archives that there were no reviews available for Merciless. This really is total insanity so I decided to do a couple, hence this "Unbound" review. It is really fucked up how unknown Merciless are in comparison to what they deserve. They started out really early in 1986 and rarely earned their recognition for awakening the Metal scene in Sweden. Sure, they didn't have any major influence on an entire genre like Bathory, it's just the fact that they simply were (and remain) a quality Extreme Metal act.
Anyways, the CD I'm reviewing now is from 1994 and while it isn't as imminently violent as debut "The Awakening", it does have a bunch of good guitarwork and songwriting. There's a bunch of more melody in here as opposed to the raw Death/Thrash they started out as. This melodicism is all good though as it's well incorporated well into the songwriting.
The sure highlight of "Unbound" is the title track. It starts off with an acoustic folky intro (not in the gay In Flames sense of the world) before turning straight into a fuckload of nice riffs and thrashing tempos. The pace is high and it catchy as fuck, as well as slightly melodic. More melodic in the "Coma of Souls" meaning of the world than Swedish though. It does slightly remind me of "The Sun Burns Red", because it has an acoustic intro before turning into a great thrasher in the same fashion. Singer Rogga's aggressive snarl also remind me slightly of Mille.
"The Land I Used To Walk" and "Nuclear Attack" are two other great highlights of this album. The first one is a nice thrasher with a couple of very good riff patterns as well as nice snarls. Very reminiscent of 80's Kreator and obviously enjoyable. "Nuclear Attack" is one of Merciless classics and a fast as fuck balls-to-the-wall kind of song featuring a bunch of crushing riffs. The 8 minute epic "Back To North" is also worth mentioning. This might not be the best way for a band to Merciless to write songs but this one does work. There's a whole lot of nice midtempo Thrash riffs to be found in here, just enough to carry the song all the way.
My point is that more people should definitely check out these guys, because they surely do own. They have the attitude and they bring the riffs. What more do we need?