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So a few months ago, I hit up some of my more talented fellow reviewers whose work I respected despite having very little taste in common with, and undertook a Taste Swap Challenge. Well today is round three, wherein I swap with yet another Canadian, this time the cascadian "holy shit maaaaan this is so transcendental" genius in RapeTheDead. True story, he was the first guy to track down my personal Facebook page and send me fanmail that way, so even if he was a shitty writer (which he isn't), I'd love him anyway.
Anywho, just like with the last one, I didn't quite get what I was expecting when I proposed the swap challenge. I mean, he certainly provided me with black metal, no doubt, but I was expecting something along the lines of Gris or Agalloch, but instead what he gave me was more along the lines of Emperor. And even better, it's apparently an extremely well regarded album within the black metal scene. And even better than that, all the heaps of praise that get piled on top of the album are 100% deserved.
That's right, out of the fjordiest fjords of northern fjordland, we have Obtained Enslavement, and despite being much less of a black metal guy than certain other genres, I feel pretty confident in calling their second album, Witchcraft, one of the finest symphonic black metal albums in existence. Obviously I'm a fan of symphonic metal in general anyway, I've been defending Rhapsody of Fire for years, but this is one of the very, very few albums to incorporate the classical influence so bloody masterfully. At no point do the strings, keys, horns, or that goddamn awesome timpani feel tacked on as an afterthought, and at the same time, the same can be said about the traditional metal instrumentation. It can be difficult to tell which aspect of the overall sound is leading the other at times, which is brilliant because it shouldn't really be one or the other anyway, and Obtained Enslavement not only realized that, but managed to execute it very well.
Take the metal portion of the record, for instance. In a sense I suppose you could call it "typical", since the vast majority of the guitar work is comprised of tremolo patterns and the drums seem to blast along for a good amount of the running time, but the inherent melody in these riffs are just overwhelming. I can't even point out specific examples because every single track manages to nail this flawlessly. That's actually one of the most prevalent aspects about Witchcraft, the melody. It's pretty much overwhelming in its complexity and saturation, but it never crosses into the territory of being sugary and harmless. This album manages to beef up classical passages with aggressive morbidity whilst simultaneously giving raw and hateful black metal a sense of beauty and fullness. The two halves of the pie complement each other in a way that has yet to be replicated in the realm of metal as a whole, and truly must be heard to be believed. I mean, I like Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk just as much as the next guy, but this here is just in a class of its own. Basically, if you take the elements that make up that mid era of Emperor and just make them... I dunno, better, you'd end up with something along the lines of Obtained Enslavement. The songs are just bewilderingly well written, following twisting and linear progressions that keep the compositions interesting while never traversing the same path twice. It's rare to find themes repeating themselves, as instead the album is treated like a journey as opposed to a collection of songs. And I love how well it works, it takes you by the hand and leads you down a path of twisted horrors that manage to be gorgeous in their evil.
I feel pretty much unqualified to write on Witchcraft, because it feels like it deserves a much more pretentious and in-depth analysis than I'm able to provide, but like I've said plenty of times in the past, I know good music when I hear it, and goddammit Obtained Enslavement is some damn good music. Every time I listen, I'm blown away all over again and the sheer depth and complexity provided by one would assume (if one were to judge a book by its cover, which we all do all the fucking time) to be a fairly typical black metal affair. I feel like the album gets a little less adventurous as it goes on, with the first couple tracks being essentially classical pieces with black metal instruments and the later tracks being more black metal songs with symphonic influence, but it's really not even a flaw because it keeps the album from becoming tedious and one dimensional (not that that was possible with such a wide array of themes, ideas, and instrumentation in the first place). I haven't even found a place to mention that the vocalist of this entire affair is fucking Pest, which is just yet another one of the dozens of marks in this album's favor (I'm not much of a Gorgoroth fan, but the albums I do like (Antichrist and Under the Sign of Hell) feature Pest, so quality just seemed to follow this man in the mid 90s). I don't know what it is about him, but his vocals are just otherworldly to me, taking a wet, throaty rasp and just blasting it past realms of mortal capability.
Obtained Enslavement pretty easily just watched themselves catapult into the upper echelon of black metal bands I'll listen to relatively frequently. What they managed to do was make a black metal album melodic and complex enough and attract fans of other subgenres while keeping it as misanthropic and dark as the genre usually is, thus managing to not alienate established fans of the genre. By virtue of that alone, this is one of the more perfect metal albums of all time from a technical standpoint. Now, I'm not about to chuck this up next to hallowed personal favorites of mine like Melissa or The Crimson Idol or anything, but considering I have no negative things to say about an album that so brilliantly combines so many different aspects of music without ever coming across as disjointed or confusing, it's pretty hard to deny the significance of the imagination that Witchcraft captures. From huge, sweeping majesties being grounded in morbid hatefulness in "From Times in Kingdoms..." to the raw evil being uplifted by gorgeous strings in "The Seven Witches", nothing misses the mark. I'm astounded at how well crafted and executed this album manages to be, and it pretty solidly cements itself as the most successful entry into my infrequent Taste Swap Challenges. RapeTheDead, thank you, you fucking owned this round.
(Once again, this guy doesn't have a personal site (and only a small handful of reviews compared to the others I've done this with), but his talent is undeniable. True story, a while back I was toying with the idea of bringing in a second writer for Lair of the Bastard for the purpose of covering the genres I have a habit of neglecting, and RapeTheDead was the first and only candidate I had in mind. So yeah, read his stuff.)
Originally written for Lair of the Bastard
I am not one to throw perfect scores around, instead giving them only to albums that I think that truly deserve them. Many times when an album really appeals to me, I ponder for some time if they are really perfect or just close. Countless times I deemed an album perfect, only to slowly realize its flaws. And even if an album is completely devoid of flaws, sometimes it simply isn’t transcendental enough to receive a full score. At the same time, I am not exactly the biggest fan of black metal. Sure, there are many bands and albums that I rate highly, but for the most part I always find flaws in black metal. Be it the repetition, be the extremely bad production or simply the lack of something else, something that stands out. Exceptions can be made on rare occasions, but only at first, since no black metal album had ever captivated me enough to make me listen to it over and over again. And then came Witchcraft. I found myself reading Kruel’s interesting review for another album, which led me to see if there were any other albums he rated higher than that one. I found none, but instead I found one that was rated almost as highly. A release by an obscure symphonic black metal band that had disbanded years ago, and had the legendary Pest as vocalist. As I read further, I got interested and decided to download the album. On my first listen, I was intrigued by the amount of stuff going on simultaneously. None of the instruments seemed to play coherently, since each one played something different. The guitars were tremolo picked, yet very melodious and harmonically rich. The drumming was varied, some times blast beats, some times fills, but never random bashing. A keyboard was present, playing beautiful melodies that did not seem to fit the music at all. Never overused, but always present. The bass was, surprisingly, audible. And the vocals were filled with hate. Yet none of these elements seemed to fit together, sounding almost contradictory. Still I felt there was something about this album that attracted me, though I failed to see what.
On repeated listens, I started to notice facets of the music that were previously ignored, as if they had simply appeared from nowhere. Slowly, all the aspects started to make sense, beginning to sound coherent and even logical. Layers of harmonies and melodies started to appear, one at each listen, in a way that the album never failed to sound fresh. All of this gave the album a complex, almost progressive feel. Look at the song structures, for example. As Kruel pointed out, there is little repetition, if there is any at all. On the first proper song, after the beautiful introduction titled Prelude Funebre, no riff or section is repeated. This gives way for new riffs to appear, and there are enough riffs here to surpass most thrash metal albums, and rival the best. Despite being noticeably different, each riff has similarities, so the songs sound complete, and not just a collection of tremolo picked riffs. There are a couple of non-tremolo riffs on some songs, adding to the variety and freshness of the album. Since this album is strong on the counterpoint element, it is not unusual for each guitar to be playing a different riff, but instead of sounding confusing, each riff complements the other. The guitar playing is, as I said before, very melodic and downright beautiful. With the stunning keyboard playing yet another different melody, the whole album is unbelievably pleasant. The varied drumming serves the purpose of adding rhythm and flow to the album, just like the bass, both skillfully played. All of this beautiful music has a very medieval feel, and is perfectly complemented by the insane vocals of Pest.
I like to think of Pest as the Gollum of black metal. There is an astonishing quantity of pure, unadulterated hate in his vocals, yet at the same time you can feel the sorrow and regret in his voice, like some sort of pitiful creature, mistreated and abandoned by the world, a hermit filled with rage for the world that discarded him, yet sad and miserable. Not many, if any, black metal vocalists are capable of such a comprehensive performance, and I personally believe this to be the highlight of his career so far. Lyrically the album does not stand out, as witchcraft and satanism are overused themes. However, with Pest vocals and the music united, this album faultlessly captures the feeling of being in a dark, misty forest at night, witnessing the witches sabbath. The atmosphere conjured by the songs is that of mysterious sorceress and their cauldrons, preparing long forgotten magick. In this aspect, Witchcraft is similar to Fates Warning masterpiece Awaken the Guardian, although in a more aggressive approach. Occasionally there are some chanted vocals, once again adding some variety and more dimensions to the vocals. As dazzling as his vocals may be, he does not, at any moment, overshadow the brilliant music. Witchcraft has the perfect production for black metal. Every instrument is perfectly audible, while still maintaining a raw feeling.
Every song on the album is marvelous and absolutely delicious to listen to, but there are some highlights here, like Carnal Lust, with its killer intro and ferocious riffs, From Times in Kingdoms… and its melodious riffage, and Veils of Wintersorrow, absolute highlight of the album, with its twisting tunes and emotions. When it comes to black metal, it hardly gets better than this. Better yet, it doesn’t gets better than this. I have not listened to every black metal album, and probably never will, but still I highly doubt that I ever will find anything in this genre that matches Witchcraft in sheer perfection. Some albums, including Obtained Enslavement’s next magnum opus, Soulblight, may come close, but none will ever reach the transcendental level achieved by this one. It is that good. Anyone that likes black metal should listen to this album. The neo-classical and melodious nature may even appeal to people that doesn’t usually listen to black metal. It is rare to find this album for sale, so if you do, buy it. Believe me, it is worth the price, whatever it may be. Not only an underrated black metal classic, but a marvellous, malevolent and majestic masterpiece too.
Obtained Enslavement's Witchcraft fulfills the "symphonic black metal" label much better than most other bands of that tag. It is symphonic not only in its use of synthesized strings but also in the diverse instrumentation and extensive use of counterpoint and development of themes. It is black-metal in that it has hateful vocals, sinister atmosphere, and composition based on tremolo-picked guitar riffs. In fact, this exhibits symphonic qualities to a higher extent than a typical symphonic metal album, while simultaneously being more black-metal than a typical black metal album. The synthesizer usage is extremely heavy, and at the same time the guitars are employed to a greater extent than on almost any album. This even has imaginative drumming, and the production gives a raw feeling but each instrument, including the bass, can be clearly heard. It sounds too good to be true, but it is true.
The most unique quality of this album is its counterpoint. This is very likely to be the most contrapuntally elaborate album in the history of metal, and perhaps even in the entire realm of popular music. Contrapuntally it even beats a lot of accomplished classical pieces. There are two guitars, a bass guitar, and a synthesizer and these work independently but cooperatively; sometimes one of the guitars or the bass would follow the main riff, but at any given point you can expect to hear some counterpoint, likely with the synthesizers providing atmospheric backdrop in the distant background, and often it goes up to triple or quadruple counterpoint. During this incredible barrage of counterpoint, each voice retains a high degree of melodic complexity; even a single guitar line extracted and played alone, with the addition of vocals and the drums, would make for interesting music, and yet there are three more layers of melody. Again, it sounds almost too good to be true, and one may expect each voice to be disjointed, resulting in chaos. No, this isn't exactly Bach (and, unfortunately, there are no fugues), but each voice never sounds out of place. There is a sense of overwhelming, with the sheer complexity and the number of events going on simultaneously, but it is never chaotic.
Onto the individual voices: the two guitars work together in various ways. Sometimes one of them repeats a short phrase and the other plays a longer phrase, sometimes they compete with each other with melodies of equal phrasal length, and sometimes one of them takes more of a lead role while the other provides a simple wall of sound for harmonic purposes. The great majority of the riffs are tremolo-picked, but there are a few instances in which some slower one-note riffs and arpeggios are employed. The guitar sound is raw, but instead of being fuzzy it is thin, and this permits the contrapuntal texture to come out clearly, while the contrapuntal texture in turn compensates for the thinness of tone, owing to the fact that the strata of different melody lend deepness to the overall timbre. The synthesizer takes the form of not only the usual strings and choirs, but also organs, harpsichords and pianos. The choir and the organs are generally heard faintly in the background, providing simple homophonic harmony, while the strings, harpsichords, and pianos take the lead role, either playing a melody similar to that of the guitars but more elaborate, or playing something entirely different, with the amount of melodic content sometimes almost verging on soloing. The piano is also frequently employed to play chords that give harmonic elaboration to the melody of the riff. In addition, the synthesizer often plays different voices simultaneously, so even when the piano is on display with full melodic force often some sort of string accompaniment can be heard, perhaps with the choirs in the background. The bass, while not prominent, is audible and compositionally significant. Rhythmically it is not rapidly picked like the guitars but follows the beat provided by the drums, and melodically it either follows the one of the guitar lines or provides counterpoint.
The non-melodic voices – the vocal and percussive parts – live up to the standard of performance set by the melodic ones. The vocalist is none other than Pest, and while the peak of his performance was captured in Gorgoroth's Under the Sign of Hell, he still delivers utter hatred here. His serpentine vocals are quite high-pitched and piercing, but not very thin, and full of aggression. Narrated vocals and clean vocals are also employed in a few cases, but the vocal highlight is definitely the laughter reminiscent of those of witches (remember, the term was archaically not gender-specific). The percussion includes the use of timpani (which greatly enhances the atmosphere), heavy usage of the bass drums, and numerous drum fills – almost a fill per a phrase. Due to the reign of tremolo in the realm of the guitars which obscures the rhythm, the drumming is responsible for providing most of the rhythmic drive, and this aspect is exploited to a great extent; often the drums will switch the meter, usually from triple to duple, during a single section, and sometimes the drumming relaxes into a slow beat, lending spaciousness to the otherwise very thick atmosphere, or breaks into a blast beat, creating a powerful upward drive that results in a wider view of the imaginary landscape.
Almost all guitar riffs are beautiful black metal riffs with well-defined melodies, and except for perhaps one riff, there are no death metallic, chaotic and abstract riffs, but generally aggression and morbidity are retained. There is a sinister and somewhat oriental vibe in the melodies, and the phrasal lengthiness allows unpredictable but logical twists that strengthen the occult mood to take place within each phrase. The slower riffs usually feel folk-like, though the "folk" here is close to the sense in which it may be applied to some of the riffs by Burzum or Graveland, not folk metal. A possible criticism would be that some of the riffs are lacking in darkness and malice. However, these riffs, flowing naturally from and into other riffs and retaining the medieval atmosphere, are never out of place, nor overtly flowery or saccharine. The raw guitar tone also helps in maintaining the black-metal feeling, and the contrapuntal complexity prevents even the brighter riffs from sounding shallow or simplistic. The contrapuntal richness certainly is not confined to the abstract realm of musical notations; it translates itself into richness in atmosphere. If an average black metal album is a bleak forest at night, then this is a bleak forest at night with wildfire burning bright, serpents crawling underneath, and starlight shining faintly from the black sky.
Structurally, there is very little repetition, yet the songs are extremely coherent. Excluding the symphonic intro and piano outro, there are seven songs, three of which are completely linear in structure (in these, a section that appeared once does not appear again). The other four ('From Times in Kingdoms,' 'Witchcraft,' 'Torn Winds From a Past Star,' and 'The Seven Witches') have a section or two from the first half of the song reappearing in the second half, but in a different context. The term "section" is more appropriate than "riff" or even "theme" here, because for each main riff (assuming, for the sake of argument, that a single voice can be identified as the principal one in a given section), there is often an accompanying guitar riff, a bass riff, and a synthesizer riff. The number of distinct sections average on eight per song, which is quite a number considering that most albums don't even have eight distinct riffs per song; the number of themes on the entire album would easily add up to more than a hundred, and the number of riffs could possibly even break the record of Time Does Not Heal if every slight variation on the themes is counted as a riff (and that is how Time Does Not Heal gets 246 riffs). Although three songs have no reappearance of past sections, it does not mean that they are not rich in development, because each and almost every section contains development in itself. Generally the guitars lead the melody at first and then the synthesizers slowly build up, finally breaking in with full melodic complexity, but sometimes the guitar melodies themselves, while retaining resemblance to its original incarnation, are developed into more elaborate forms, and the aforetime mentioned change in meter by the drums are another device of variation. Each section generally consists of at least two different incarnations, with some cases in which more than four of them are present, and occasionally some melodic hints would be given by the synthesizers before one of the guitars fully takes on the idea and transforms the potential into a full guitar riff.
This description could give the impression that each section is clearly separate from each other and permit the inference that hence the music as a whole would be disjointed, but that is not the case at all. While this is still a metal album with riffs that are more or less distinct phrases on paper, the transition from one section into another is, excluding an average of one case per song of rather clear distinction that does serve compositional purpose, extremely smooth that one barely notices it at all, let alone feel any disjunction. This effect is caused first and foremost by the melodic relevance between the preceding and succeeding sections, but also by the fact that each section contains lengthy phrases, rich melodic content, numerous voices with independent lines, and tremolo picking. Since each section is complex in itself with little sense of repetitiveness, a change from a section to the next may be mistaken, consciously or subconsciously, for a change within the section, and tremolo picking provides rhythmic uniformity between the sections. The few transitions definitely noticeable (though usually not any more noticeable than the average riff change in metal) are meaningful in allowing just enough breathing space and announcing the dawn of a new mood, and even these are, except for a single case, very natural and do not feel drastic at all. The one drastic change (comparable to the second riff of Abigor's 'Battlefield Orphans,' which is also the only really sudden change in the otherwise perfectly connected album Orkblut) occurs in the song 'Witchcraft', and that short and thrusting riff works because it connects the slower section of the song to the aggressive reappearance of the first riff.
In many ways, this is like Abigor, itself one of the greatest black metal bands: flowing tremolo riffs dominate, beautiful yet aggressive melodies abound, vocal delivery is full of hate, the timpani is used extensively, the two guitars are often contrasted with each other, and the song structures are extremely non-repetitive. Add to this some very rich counterpoint and relentless thematic development, and you have Obtained Enslavement's Witchcraft. The degree of perfectionism exhibited is astounding on every single level; it is bombastic and epic, but pays an incredible amount of attentions to the details. It sounds ridiculously good on paper; it sounds ludicrously good when heard.
Black Metal comes in two kinds : the false one that uses keyboards and the raw one, often referred to as “True Black Metal”, reflecting what this music genre is all about. Do you agree? I mostly do, as it’s extremely hard for a band to keep one’s music faithful to the style and use keyboards at the same time. However, all my preconceptions shatter whenever I listen to OBTAINED ENSLAVEMENT ’s “WITCHCRAFT”, a pure musical gem.
What makes this CD so special is the fact that the band has not diluted their pure Black Metal style to suit the keyboards. Sure, these play an important, sometimes crucial role in the songs, but they make no attempt at minimizing the dark atmosphere created by the other instruments and, instead, simply complement the latter. As a result, incredibly BEAUTIFUL melodies abound on this album and I doubt I have ever heard so many EXCELLENT melodies in one place! Without going into a song by song analysis, let me just say that the Black Metal experience is global in the case of “Witchcraft”, as all the right elements, from the cover to the pictures and lyrics are as true as it gets, while the music gains an epic/medieval feeling thanks to the keyboard work. The guitars, bass and drums – in addition to the vocals - are nonetheless as straightforward and uncompromising as any die-hard fan of the genre would demand.
To cut things short, if you’re looking for a high standard kind of Black Metal, where the focus on music as a superior form of ART is molded into a breathtaking album, get your hands on “WITCHCRAFT”. I myself have spent many a winter night by the light of black candles, enjoying the enrapturing tunes of this truly (Black) magical release…And though I usually favor Black Metal where ideology is as present as the right kind of feel, the beauty of "WITCHCRAFT" forces me to disregard my fanaticism!
Not only this band is the quintessential expression of orchestral black metal, but this album expresses the ultimate rendition of it. Not for the layman taste, this album is not only a perfect example of integrating classical elements into black mental, but also the most sophisticated arrangement of it.
The first time you listen to it, it would be like if you are seeing a blurred picture… a lot of stuff without a frame, but then… the magic starts, once you are able to distinguish all the elements included in each of these 9 invocations of black magic and unholy doctrine.
Based on witchcraft and malignant invocation of black magic, “Witchcraft” encapsulates beautifully what makes Black Metal an art by itself, not an approximation to other form of music, but an irreverent “fuck off” from even established bands on the vein of Mayhem or Darkthrone.
Each song in “Witchcraft” follows a pattern that delivers a punch that, if you listen to other Black Metal bands, will be your new standard to measure them: Majestic keyboard, perfectly structured drums and witch-like vocal enough to keep the music in the foreground and the lyrics behind. Of course it has the intro/outro classic in the 90’s but skipping the saggy piano will get you where the true evilness is.
After listening to black metal for more than 20 years, I can say this is one of the most sophisticated pieces of expression of that movement and even better… after deciphering it, it will make easier to demand a better standard on what true Black Metal is supposed to be.