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Medieval landmark in 90s metal - 83%

gasmask_colostomy, October 1st, 2014

This is a very difficult album to review in a balanced way. 'As the Flower Withers' is undoubtedly an influential, atmospheric slab of unique death/doom, yet it is also undoubtedly a dated, poorly recorded slab of haphazard death/doom, wherein lies all its charms and repellants. As the first MDB album it clearly has a few songwriting wrinkles that are yet to be ironed out, but those idiosyncracies made the album a milestone in the early development of the genre. As such, it sometimes works very well and sometimes quite poorly, and has dated in a way not unlike doom/death peers Anathema's 'Serenades' album, also released in the early '90s. We thus end up with an album that sounds much older than its release date, which is only partly intentional.

The combination of instruments and the atmosphere that they generate make 'As the Flower Withers' sound like a blast of foetid air from the Middle Ages. Vocals are always gruff, tortured, and ragged; however, this rarely renders them indecipherable, except when they are pronouncing Latin words (I am assuming a limited general knowledge of Latin), which is naturally an aging factor. The guitars are heavily distorted, very deep (MDB were one of the first bands to regularly tune down to C and below), and are usually utilised at minimum pace, which seems to exaggerate an everyday toil and struggle that wouldn't be out of place in your average labourer or (I'm going by the lyrics here) monk. The slow riffs are more emotionally than physically crushing, playing in a mournful, melodic style, usually with both guitars contributing layers of the riff.

There are some faster, death metal sections on about half of the songs, which seem like an accurate depiction of the brutal sweep of a bloodthirsty crusade: the guitars are a little crusty here and tend not to riff technically, focusing more on pure speed and nastiness. There are blastbeats during these sections, but the drums do not dominate like in most extreme metal. In fact, they do not penetrate to the fore at all on this album, which is something of a blessing in disguise, since they can sound plodding and would spoil the contemplative melancholy of the lead instruments. Bass is surprisingly thick and meaty and just about stops the recording sounding too bare and weightless, though the basslines themselves are often difficult to pick out.

What really set this album album apart - and continues to do so - is the violin. Remember that this was released back in 1992, when there wasn't even a gothic bandwagon to jump on. The violin isn't merely for show either. It creeps and aches and wails in a way that even Gregor Mackintosh of Paradise Lost could never manage (and I consider him the most talented and original guitarist of all the original death/doom bands), adding a layer of menace and emotion that means the album remains more than an exercise in style and possesses its own medieval character. The violin doesn't dominate, but it crops up on the majority of the songs here, particularly those which sound like MDB's later output. The constant threat of this unknown element gives the album an unpredictability, meaning that it stays exciting even at a slow pace.

The level of invention on 'As the Flower Withers' extends beyond the addition of violin and is its strongest point. 'Sear Me' and 'The Return of the Beautiful' are both doom epics that contain huge riffs, a distinct atmosphere, and enough progressive touches (sorry, no choruses) to ensure the listener remains unsettled until the end. 'The Forever People' is the only track that could be classed as death metal and, since the style of DM that MDB play was never revolutionary, is the least interesting thing here. 'Vast Choirs' is also more death metal in style, but throws in enough changes in pace and mood to elevate the average musicianship.The hypnotic, monkish chants over the fast riffs are a touch of genius and there is a frenetic, thrash-like solo too.

The main problems with the album are its dated feel (you can argue for atmosphere all you like, but the recording quality is poor) and the slightly haphazard construction of the songs. MDB songs have always been progressive and structurally asymmetrical, but this trait is most pronounced in their early material and (especially if your mood does not match that of the album) it could make the songs seem directionless. This is mostly down to personal taste, but more adventurous doom fans will be enraptured.