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Better Than Average But Far From Great - 70%

JackOfAllBlades, January 9th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2016, CD, Season of Mist (Limited edition, Digibook)

It must be strange to be Abbath. Normally, an artist with such an impenetrable back catalog would have no trouble making the jump to solo stardom. But in the realm of black metal, any given project must prove itself cold and desolate enough to garner any acclaim at all - even genre stalwarts can go from icon to pariah if they stray too far from the beaten path (or follow it too closely). And on his eponymous debut, Abbath aims straight for the black hearts of his old-school fans.

Some of these fans may, however, be alienated right out the gates. Though Abbath's name is well-revered, in tow is King Ov Hell, whose reputation among black metallers is... controversial. And although King contributed nothing to songwriting, one can't help but wonder if the record will fall prey to the same paint-by-numbers 'kvlt' riffage that has plagued his other projects.

Many of these fears will be almost certainly quelled by the music itself. Though the 21st century production values and C standard guitars keep a comfortable distance from the genre's 90s roots, this is undoubtedly black metal. Comparisons to Immortal are inevitable and entirely understandable - similar tactics are employed all throughout, to similar effect. Hallmarks like tremolo guitars and blast beats are used more sparingly than expected, but this serves the album well - with nigh 20 years of black metal following one tried-and-true formula, the change of pace is more than welcome.

Another welcome change is found in the lyrics. Without Demonaz beside him, Abbath wisely chose to outsource his lyrics once more. Every word on this album was penned by one Simon Dancaster, who breathes new life into old themes with literate, almost poetic lyrics. Demonaz' image-rich lyricism was appropriate, but nothing exceptional. Dancaster weaves great tales of violence and valor, featuring couplets like "Necrotic lord, bless our chains / Baptize heathen blood in flames".

Unfortunately, one of Abbath's worst offenses is that the music tries and fails to match the grandeur of the lyrics. Brassy keyboard flourishes come out of nowhere and sound absolutely stupid and misplaced. Occasional clean guitar breaks try to add drama and emotional depth, but appear so abruptly that their effect is completely nullified. One such break, in "Winterbane", resembles the Immortal classic "Blashyrkh (Mighty Ravendark)" far too closely to be a coincidence, but not closely enough to qualify as a purposeful quotation.

The difficulty in matching the lyrical atmosphere to its musical counterpart seems to be that, though this is black metal, the emphasis is on the 'metal'. Pinch harmonics and blue-note chord progressions keep the sound strangely rooted in rock, a sound that is rightly avoided by most black metal bands. In fact, the closest that the album comes to classic black metal is on "Count the Dead", which itself is punctuated by ill-fitting interludes that sometimes resemble mainstream metalcore.

Though the metalcore comparisons stop there, Abbath suffers from another malady all too common in mainstream metal singers - he's good at one vocal style, but keeps trying others. His screamed vocals are three steps above the pained croak that he became known for, and a little reverb goes a long way in getting him to sound like the tortured shrieker the music demands. But when he tries to implement clean vocals, it's hard to listen. His voice is nasal and ugly, like a hair metal yowler's worst tendencies multiplied by ten. Any clean-sung parts here would have been better left to a guest singer, one whose decades-long specialty has not been a violent war on their larynx.

A guest sound engineer wouldn't have hurt either. I'm no purist, and in my ears the crystal-clear production values do nothing to hurt the album's atmosphere. But amidst constant walls of guitar sound, Abbath's vocals have a nasty habit of bobbing up and down in the mix. King's bass is all but inaudible for the majority of the disc, and though Creature's drums sound mostly good, his bass drum sounds like a piece of paper struck with a pencil. I'm all for a fat, bassy kick drum tone, but a little treble could go a long way in tightening up the sound.

Rounding out the album's failures is the inattention to detail regarding the track list. "To War!" is a perfectly suitable opener, but a dramatic track like "Winterbane" shouldn't have come up so early in the album. "Endless" is an entirely underwhelming closer to the album proper, featuring a short fadeout on a less-than-interesting riff; if there was ever a place for a clean guitar, this is it - not in the middle of an otherwise pounding metal song.

At the root, it seems that there are three conflicting Abbaths. First is Abbath the musician, a black metal mainstay whose late-career reinvention is at best ill-advised. Next is Abbath the band, a collection of musicians with relatively disparate musical trajectories despite the base commonality of extreme metal. And finally there is Abbath the album, a superficially solid debut that can't decide just what it's trying to do. If Abbath can reconcile his obvious skill set with his loftier goals (and his backing band), his sophomore effort could very well see massive success. For now, we are left with a perfectly acceptable album, bubbling just beneath the surface of the greatness it could have achieved.