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The forsaken have taken the crown. - 93%

hells_unicorn, October 15th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, Century Media Records

Often overshadowed by their Norwegian counterparts, the early adherents of the second wave of black metal to come raging out of Sweden were an intriguing lot. Whether it was due to the prominent death metal scene that preceded it, or just an aversion to the ideological orthodoxy that developed as the second wave began to crest just to their west, outfits like Marduk, Unanimated and Dissection came off as less rigid in their pursuit of a darker and more forbidding sound. Another early player in said scene, namely Necrophobic, took this trend of nonconformity a bit further by being one of the earliest acts to break with the characteristic lo-fi and fuzz-driven production practices of the likes of Mayhem and Darkthrone in favor of a more impact-based and dense sound in line with the practices of the day when their 1993 debut offering The Nocturnal Silence was unleashed. Despite a fair amount of lineup instability, this practice of striving for a more polished and also more virtuosic product has stuck with them ever since, and culminated in one of the more impressive offerings to come out of the style in recent memory.

In every sense, 2020’s Dawn Of The Damned is a bleak and disquieting ride through the fringes of black and death metal. Stylistically speaking, it leans a bit more towards the former half of their hybrid approach, listening like a more impact-based, colossal incarnation of the dark yet melodically consonant sound that typified the early 90s 2nd wave sound, in direct contrast to the more death metal-steeped sound that has come to define Behemoth’s latter day sound. But within the context of a black metal album, it incorporates and expands upon many of the remnant death metal characteristics that lingered in certain seminal early 90s classics such as A Blaze In The Northern Sky and Those Of The Unlight. By the same token, per guitarist Sebastian Ramstedt’s own testimony in preparing for this album, an element of older heavy metal styling emerges in the way the lead guitar work deviates from the more chaotic character of a typical death metal affair, often resembling the idiomatic character of such classic shredders as Jake E. Lee and George Lynch, whom Ramstedt cites as among his influences.

When taken as a whole, what emerges is a lyrically nebulous conceptual journey through a series of abstract lucid dreams and meditations, which when combined with a few unconventional musical additives, culminates in an album that is wholly conventional yet highly unique. Following what can be best described as a guitar driven, quasi-ambient prelude dubbed “Aphelion”, which immediately showcases some of the guitar shredder influences mentioned earlier, it basically presents an album equally as bombastic as anything heard out of the likes of Dimmu Borgir or Behemoth, but without the massive orchestral backdrop. The flurry of blast-beat driven chaos that emerges in “Darkness Be My Guide” has all the hallmarks of a traditional blackened affair, but the riff work is far more elaborate, even when compared to the more technically apt material put out by Emperor in the mid-90s. At times, it almost seems as though the band temporarily slips into a melodic death metal pocket, all the while keeping their signature sound firmly at the fore.

As the rest of the album unfolds, it becomes clear that this quintet’s quest for excellence is not hampered by shifting tempos, asides into more subdued territory or varying song lengths. The relatively shorter title offering “Dawn Of The Damned” is a classic example of how a song can be both explosive, shift rapidly, yet be more of a banger with a recurring hook. The moderately long excursions into contemplative oblivion that are “Mirror Black” and “The Shadows” are anything but moderate in their presentation, often cresting and then pulling back above the furious battery of drummer and band co-founder Joakim Sterner’s impressive kit work, and peppered with plenty of flashy lead guitar gymnastics. On the epic side of things are a pair of highly involved sonic journeys in “The Infernal Depths Of Eternity” and “The Return Of A Long Lost Soul” the showcase how a subdued, almost ballad-like atmosphere can work within a blackened aesthetic and still make room for expressive lead guitar detailing, to speak nothing for how each song builds to an explosive point of apex. About the only element at play here that is somewhat static is the textbook sepulchral bark of vocalist Anders Storkirk, which is an appropriate disposition as his black-speech heightens the narrative character of the album.

Rather than being a servant to orthodoxy, this installment of Necrophobic’s moderately prolific career sees them making orthodoxy serve them, freeing themselves up to experiment with a number of peripheral elements and even make some occasional breaks with the norm. It is still an unmistakably familiar experience to anyone who has previously delved into part or all of their back catalog, yet one can’t help but feel some less than subtle innovations taking place on the thrash-infused closing anthem “Devil’s Spawn Attack”, which sees a volley of shred happy lead guitar high jinks accompany a highly flamboyant guest vocal performance out of Destruction vocalist Schmier. Likewise, the overt Middle Eastern underpinnings adorning “Tartarian Winds” are not wholly alien to the black metal style, but the manner in which they are combined with an Immortal-like riffing extravaganza and a side-order of melodeath lead hooks are highly distinctive. It’s definitely among the better offerings to be fielded by this outfit, and also one of the more engaging and accessible offerings out of the black/death hybrid style to emerge in recent years.

Originally written for Sonic Perspectives (