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Underdark’s accomplished album I Am Above All is one of the best instances of a band other than Mayhem developing the roiling Wolf’s Lair Abyss aesthetic. While the mode of attack for this Ukrainian onemanband varies from song to song, album opener “Basements of Consciousness” is informed by Wolf’s Lair Abyss much the same way that the second 1349 album was; full throttle shifting gears black metal at the edge of chaotic war metal, yet held together and regrouped in tight metric configurations. Simply put, in this cut Underdark blackly grinds (0:36), reorients (1:23), and decides upon another way to do the same thing— another way to achieve obliteration (1:29 & 3:03). Drummer-propelled black metal, deemphasizing vocals and emphasizing the churn. “Apotheosis of Insignificance” also proffers the roiling aesthetic (esp at 1:40 & 4:16) as well as the blitzkrieg maelstrom instrumental “Depth of Idea.”
Unlike Wolf’s Lair Abyss, I Am Above All often drops into mid-tempo sections, giving the album a more rocking feel than the deadly evil Mayhem release. Underdark proprietor Amorth Incubus Magnum clearly enjoys his material and at times playfully interacts with it. “Leaving,” undoubtedly the best song on the album, does not push the annihilation manifesto, but something heavier…and more confusing. A largely mid-tempo song of sluggish riffs, this tune is not played— it lurks. The combative interplay between the drums and lethargic riffs (from 3:10-end) is absolutely brilliant AND new— a weird and disorienting deconstruction of the dank soundworld. Bravo. This song- and in particular this section- is truly inspired.
The sad-victory song “I Am Above All” displays another Underdark mode: that of somber chord progressions. This doomy tune is a fluid and triumphant dirge-march with a hectic detour and a bit more of that very cool antagonistic drumming (3:30). The sped-up polka version of the doom lick is a bit silly/forced (4:16-4:42), but the song as a whole is a success. The two sonic eulogies that follow both work well to close out the album.
I Am Above All is a thoroughly impressive and varied release, half of which is obliteration manifesto and half of which is grooved and somnolent black metal. Highly recommended.
Underdark is the lesser-known side project of Amorth, one of the central members of today's Ukrainian black metal scene, better known for with work in Astrofaes, Drudkh, and a few other well-known artists in that scene. It'll likely come as a surprise to anyone that listens to 'I Am Above All', though, that instead of the folk-influenced or otherwise atypical material that Amorth is typically involved in, this LP is essentially straightforward Norwegian-style black metal with a bit of eastern European flair. This is easily the most 'traditional' band that Amorth has played in, but that doesn't mean that 'I Am Above All' isn't a worthwhile album- far from it. It's still much, much more interesting than Drudkh, after all!
The music on 'I Am Above All' is fairly similar to Dark Funeral or other similar artists, but there is a very light brushing of death metal in the riffs which keeps things from being completely typical, generally in the form of a bit of palm muting here and there. The occasional Celtic Frost/early Bathory style riff is employed as well, mixing with the predominantly tremolo-based riffing that encompasses most of the disc. These riffs are in the typical cold Norwegian style, but when varied with the tertiary influences are given a more lively and creative sound. The eastern European influence is most easily detectable in the mid-paced sections, which sound like what many of the Polish black and death metal bands such as Northland have been known to do, with a similarly epic yet decrepit sound. Intentionally simplistic drumming and gurgling, rasping vocals help round out the package, with the occasional bit of spoken word for atmosphere. Keys are employed very infrequently and sparingly, and are almost unnoticeable unless you're deliberately seeking them out, generally relegated to a distant background effect.
One of the major things that separates this album from others is the production, which, in this case, is much heavier and much dirtier than you typically expect from modern black metal. A significant bass presence, both sonically and instrumentally, is easily notable, and adds a lot to the full sound of the LP. The guitar tone is worthy of particular note, with a very dirty and strangely massive tone to it, as though the riffs are composed of three or more guitars playing the same riffs over each other. It provides a wall of sound like a black metal Bolt Thrower, and when combined with the fairly minimalistic music (as far as layers of sound go, anyway) creates a particularly aggressive and brutal atmosphere. Guitars are very far in the forefront of the sound, with drums being all but drowned out frequently during the tremolo/blasting sections. In one of the few perceptible flaws on this album, the vocals have been forced into a position that is neither loud enough to be particularly powerful (though that may be significantly due to the lack of forcefulness in their delivery) nor distant or effects-laden enough to contribute very much to the atmosphere.
This is an album that I find myself appreciating a great deal more from an aesthetic standpoint than a purely musical one. I really enjoy the sound of everything that goes on in 'I Am Above All'. The songs themselves- the structures, the riffs, the relations of notes- are all very solid, but would not be nearly as strong as they are without the massive sound that the album has. This is one of few cases I can think of where production has had such a big impact on how the music truly comes across; the added thickness and heaviness of it makes the album a joy to listen to all the way through, even during some of the more still moments of the music. I wish more black metal albums had sound like this; it's the perfect blend of clarity and dirtiness to maintain atmosphere without sacrificing knowledge of what's occurring in the music.
While not a mandatory purchase, I'd say that Underdark's debut is a very good black metal album that would please numerous fans of the genre, and even more outside of it who struggle with black metal's typical sonic aesthetics. This is an LP that's worth your time more than numerous others; it's well-composed, well-produced, and precisely made to be an enjoyable listen all the way through. A very worthy release from this Ukrainian project, and I have no doubt we'll hear more of a similar caliber in the future.