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Within a few years of the Black Metal explosion in the lands of the north, many others were soon drawn to this black flame and did their best to capture the same feeling. Some were untalented clowns that simply adopted the aesthetics and techniques in order to capitalize on the growing popularity of such bands as Darkthrone, Emperor and Immortal, while others were truly inspired and sought to create something worthy of the ancient darkness that spawned the hideous thing known as Black Metal in the first place.
Taking their name from an old Darkthrone song, Paragon Belial most certainly belonged to the second group, taking a good amount of inspiration from their neighbors to the north, while also aspiring to craft something rather unique. This band came to my attention, by chance, some years ago. I had a pen pal from Berlin that was a longtime contact of some of the members, and recommended that I listen to this. Of course, at the time, there was simply no way to get my hands on an original copy of their 1996 album, Hordes of the Darklands, since Folter Records had only made 1000 of them. So, several weeks later, I received a package from Germany that contained a homemade copy of the album, complete with a xeroxed booklet. Upon listening to this collection of songs, I realized that this was definitely a lost gem of mid-90's Black Metal. Not a classic, by any means, but absolutely worth hearing.
The intro almost sounds like something that one would expect from a My Dying Bride album, a simple clean guitar melody that serves to create a sombre tone. In a sense, it does not really belong there, as the song that follows does not really carry this feeling on. "The Coming of a New Dynasty" does not waste time in speeding up and unleashing the type of tremolo-picked melodies that were standard for the time period. There are some interesting riffs, though the production does not allows allow their full impact to be felt. The sound is somewhat muddy, and there is a hissing that gives the feeling that this album was first recorded onto an old cassette. In some ways, this works to add a level of charm to the proceedings, as many bands were already experimenting with newer production techniques by that time, so this more primitive approach was likely a welcome thing.
"Black Tears of Diabolical Rage" starts out with an ominous intro; another clean guitar melody that sounds like it is emanating from a dark cave, somewhere. While it is not bad, it gives the song a bit of a disjointed feeling since the main riffs possess a completely different vibe. More cold tremolo riffs blow through like raging winds in the midst of a blizzard, interrupted by a brief mid-paced section that adds a little doom to the track. In a sense, Paragon Belial is like the reverse of old Bethlehem; whereas the former utilizes doom riffs on occasion, the latter employed brief Black Metal sections within their doom-oriented material. The song continues to alternate between the faster and slower riffs, with a nice epic melody coming in near the end to allow it to end on a high note.
The next song is "Shadow Grave", which begins with a mournful riff that is again reminiscent of Classen's previous band, Bethlehem. This sorrowful melody digs its cold claws into you chest and prepares you for a miserable journey through the depths of suffering. This song is more mid-paced and additional guitar harmonies weave in and out to add to the bleak soundscape. The riffs seem more introspective and the song, as a whole, appears to be more well thought-out. This is one of the highlights of the album as it displays the band really working well together to create something of their own.
"Horns of Reprisal" starts out much like the previous song. This is one of the few complaints that I have with this album, the fact that several of the tracks begin in a very similar manner, with the clean guitar intros. Not only are none of them worked into the context of the songs very well, but it gives off a repetitive feeling that does not help when one is attempting to get familiar with the album. While much of the album possesses a dark feeling, this track features some rather upbeat melodies that lack the same kind of malevolent atmosphere that pervades most of the material. However, this does not affect the overall aura and is counteracted by a woeful riff that comes later in the song.
To the surprise of no one, "Cradle of Blood" starts out with a soft and depressive clean guitar intro that lasts for about two and a half minutes. Used sparingly, this can be a nice touch. In this case, though, it has been done to death. It is not bad, but this technique begins to wear thin by this point, especially when the song is as raw and hateful as it is. In other words, there is no connection, whatsoever. As for the main part of the song, it features some rather competent playing but there is the sense that it is missing something. Some of the riffs are a little less effective than others, though one can easily detect the high level of energy and passion that each member possesses. The faster riffs are the ones that stand out the best, and with a little more work this could have been quite remarkable.
"Necromancer of the Dark Valley" opens with something that sounds like it belongs in some old horror movie, which is appreciated. Again, the intro is disconnected from the main body of the song, which seems to be a recurring flaw with this band. The song is mostly fast-paced, until the middle where things slow down and a mournful atmosphere begins to unfurl and envelope all in its path. In this case, Paragon Belial may have benefited from expanding this part of the song and tossing some of the more generic riffs.
The album ends with "Verdelet (Master of Zeremonies)", which is a bleak outro that is reminiscent of early Katatonia. Listening to this is like one of those nightmares where you wake up and think it is all over, only to realize that you are still dreaming. It is very haunting and brings things to an eerie conclusion.
Hordes of the Darklands is a decent slab of German Black Metal. It is not on the same level as Moonblood, but more along the lines of what Wolfsmond was doing around that time. Maybe it is simply the fact that Andreas Classen is the vocalist, but Paragon Belial seems to pick up from where the Black Metal side of Bethlehem's Dark Metal left off, in some ways. This L.P. shows a lot of potential and one has to wonder what the band would have been capable of, back then, had they stuck together and continued working on this project. Despite the boring cover art and the handful of flaws, this is well worth checking out.
Written for http://ritesoftheblackmoon.tripod.com
This is a somewhat obscure release from 1996 which apparently has only been followed up by a single demo to this day. The vocalist on ‘Hordes of the Darklands’ is Chassen, so I’ve heard... that is, the same guy who did vocals on Bethlehem’s ‘Dark Metal’ masterpiece (see my review on that too!). Well, it must be him, because I can hear some of the same vocal maneurisms and tone of voice in a lot of places... in other words, from the point of view of the vocals I really like this album. As for the rest, well, it’s a decent bit of modern black metal with a combination of atmospheric, blurry riffs and more metalized groovier riffs. The mix is somewhat washed-over sounding, like with many of the typical mid-90’s black metal bands, but I can live with that, and it helps out the feeling of the music here and there. The guitars are in fact quite distorted underneath the washy sound, in the fashion of sort of fabricated-sounding digital distortion, but they are mixed low enough to not be over-powering. I’m glad for that because, again, the vocals are actually the highlight of this album. They are at times very aggressive and pissed off, which counteracts the slightly under-aggressive rhythm work. As far as comparisons go, at times this brought to mind the US band Hemlock, at times the first Satyricon EP split release, and the several atmospheric introductions bring to mind a bit more of a typical so-called ‘Pagan NSBM’ approach like that of Veles etc... all in all an average modern black metal release with perhaps too many tremelo-picked sections and blast-beats, because it’s at its best when it plays those more rocking atmospheric parts (I know, that’s an oxymoron).