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American History I: Black Funeral's Debut - 80%

PhilosophicalFrog, September 10th, 2014

USBM is a tricky beast, one that is either loved or hated, and more likely, either respected or not. There's a certain amount of malice that runs through the criticism of the music, and most of that, I think, is unjustified. Overall, I would say that out of all of the countries that produce black metal, the land of opportunities produces that which is least tied to its roots, at least now. We are a country of innovators and surprises, for better or worse, and like Tocqueville said of us; we firmly believe tradition is something that is best left for the Old World. So, with this "innovation", there must naturally come harsh feedback - the European scene laughed at bands like Xasthur and Leviathan and Wolves in the Throne Room, and there are huge swaths of fans who won't even regard bands like Raspberry Bulbs, Liturgy of Deafheaven as black metal. I suppose, like most things American, history will prove our endeavors as silly or bold, and the rest of the world will judge it accordingly.

The modern American scene, much like the European scene, can be divided up into "scenes", but unlike the national brands the European scene carries (i.e Norwegian black metal is "romantic", the Swedish scene is "majestic, the Finnish, "grimy"), the American scenes are less about borders and more about sound. Essentially, there are two types of American black metal: filthy and flowing. All American bands either create these sweeping sections, melodic and hypnotic, drawn out and filled with majesty, or they are steeped in Darkthronian grit, with punk riffs and a-melodic thrashing moments. This is the current state of black metal here in the majestic purple mountains - you're either Deafheaven or your Ash Pool, and there are few bands of note playing something that mixes the two as well as the older roster of bands had done.

Black Funeral, like Judas Iscariot, were part of a time when the scene was much simpler - directly inspired by their European counterparts, the band would go from Motorhead-ian rockouts to sweeping choruses in a matter of seconds, and the debut, Vampyr - Throne of the Beast is probably the best example of this pre-division black metal.

The album begins with the furious "Ex Sanguini Draculae" - a blasting, hate-filled song that balances furious tremolo riffs with d-beat inspired riffs while the drums blast sloppily, but charmingly behind the menacing rhythm. It's a fitting beginning, no introduction, no ambiance - just an in your face filthy riff that oozes amateurish skill with deeply passionate delivery. This leads immediately into the more melodic and epic "The Floating Blue Witchlight" - which begins with an amazingly catchy lead that sort of floats over the major chords. It actually reminds me of Mutiilation's early career, where there would be a quiet guitar lead over fuzzing riffing that would immediately shift from melodic and simplistic to a crushing breakdown and tempo shift. It's an effective tool, especially with the short length of the song - the riffs change up almost every thirty seconds, but it doesn't sound rushed or sloppy - it sounds meticulous and purposeful and it's a very effective and evocative piece.

It's this that Black Funeral does extremely well - much like Darkthrone and Burzum, the riffs are inspired both by Mercyful Fate and Wagner, beautiful melodies and romantic keys and tunes blend easily with kick-ass crunchy riffs effortlessly. "Spectral Agony of Pain and Loneliness" and the title track are the best and primary examples of this transition, as both start with serpentine riffs that slur over muted palm chords, resulting in extremely intricate melodies before decomposing into straight-forward caveman punk inspired riffs. A song like "Rising from a Dishonored Grave" is both parts Bathory and Emperor. The main riff is just really goofy in the best way possible (it's just like this major blues chord played fast - it sounds like something that could be on an Aerosmith album), but it works so well in conjunction with blisteringly frigid tremolo riff. This balance is something that seems to be lost in a lot of modern black metal - that there has to be a choice of sound to match vision (i.e making "epic" music to match an "epic" vision), instead of just making really interesting songs that are both romantic and burly as hell, proving that the two don't have to be mutual.

The ambient parts "Valley of the Shadow", and "Spirit of the Werewolf" are actually really well placed, and while they are short, are both equally as hypnotic. They serve as "markers" for the concept of the album, and where Ford and crew are taking the lyrics and themes and while they could be a tad bit longer for effect, they both work well in the space of the short (28 minutes) album. As far as the obligatory ambient pieces on 90s black metal albums go, these two are very well composed and serve more or less as previews of the dark ambient/weirdo black metal Ford would go on to make ten years later.

The production is surprisingly warm (a trend I notice in a lot of early American black metal releases), with audible bass and fuzzy, but not buzzsaw guitars. The vocals are processed a bit, and it definitely sounds like Ford may be whispering into a distorted mic at times, but that's kind of Black Funeral's thing - I think ford wanted to sound more vampiric than human, so having these vocals right up front in the mix sounding slightly, off makes sense. The performance is sloppy, but in the best way possible - the transitions in tempo and melody sound natural, the drumming is fast and varied, with a noticeable lack of fills. Instead the drums opt for a straight-forward blastfest with the occasional 4/4 rock beat. It works well, and gives the release a real primal edge.

Vampyr - Throne of the Beast is an important history lesson, the first part of many. One that shows the Americans finding their path on this relatively new musical endeavor, and showing it as its most infantile. Sure, it's a direct copy of the European sound, but there's something unique about it, that it wears its fandom on its sleeve. Instead of sticking to a preset "sound", Black Funeral just took influences from all the bands they liked - from Darkthrone and Burzum, to Beherit and Bathory, to even a little Archgoat for good measure. This messy input led to a uniquely clean and refreshing output. Worthy of putting alongside of any European classics and highly recommended.