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Before the black metal craze hit Norway, death metal was the underground music of choice among that country's rebellious youth. A surprising number of Norway's premier black metal bands from the mid to late 1990's once experimented with downtuned guitars, gutteral vocals and horror lyrics at the turn of the decade. In the case of Emperor and Ildjarn, this was in the form of Thou Shalt Suffer. The band quickly parted ways after just a demo and 7", but thanks to tape traders and the re-releasing of this material on CD their legacy continues to make its mark on the death metal maniacs of today.
"Into the Woods of Belial" was a low-budget demo tape originally released in 1991. The copy I have was recorded directly from the original cassette, but the sound quality isn't very good - especially when compared to the CD reissue. The volume levels are low, the highs drowned out and the production in general is very muddy. Luckily, these problems were all fixed on the re-release. It's amazing that they were actually able to make this recording sound clear. The drumming is a bit high in the mix on the CD, but that's just a small price to pay when you compare the two versions side-by-side.
Musically, this demo is a maelstrom of darkness, dissonance and unfathomably haunting melodies. Yes, it is death metal, but of the most evil and atmospheric variety. You can't compare this to the half-serious, horror-influenced stuff that fellow countrymen Old Funeral or Phobia (pre-Enslaved) were coming up with at the time. This material is pure and dark, and it will make your skin crawl. One of the main elements that really sets Thou Shalt Suffer apart from other Scandinavian death metal being released at the time is their dynamic use of keyboards. These eerie melodies weave their way through the songs, often going against the main guitar leads by burrowing their own paths through the maze of blasphemous chaos. Ihsahn's vocals are immeasurably sinister. His deep, demonic growls originate from deep within the bowels of hell before being spit out like burning venom onto a virgin's pale flesh. His voice, like a thousand rabid frogs croaking in unison inside an abandoned, festering sewer is unlike anything I've ever heard. Although, I suppose a more throaty and drawn-out Antti Boman would be a reasonable comparison.
Each song transitions perfectly into the next, with the intro beautifully setting the mood for all the evil within. In general, there is a fast tempo used throughout the main branches of each composition. Blastbeats from the drummer are frequent, but unfortunately the double-bass during the slower parts is virtually impossible to make out. The chorus of "Chimera Dimension" is one of the few exceptions to this - it's here where you can really feel the furious pounding of the double-bass drum. All five songs are filled with energy and memorable riffing, but the highlite of the demo is probably "The Goat of a Thousand Young". The chorus riff is fucking monumental. At the end of the day, I can honestly say that a song like this is darker than anything Emperor or Ildjarn have ever recorded.
As for the negatives, the main complaint would have to be the sloppy production of the original demo. Another problem worth mentioning is the poor mix of the lead guitar during the solos - you can barely even make it out. That, and the double bass drum needs to be brought out a lot more. It's unfortunate that they weren't able to fix these things for the CD release, but in the end they're not significant enough to ruin the listening experience of this bloodchilling piece of music.