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Symphonic contrapuntal hate - 97%

Kruel, July 24th, 2009

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.