Sunday, October 28, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 11

A Blaze in the Northern Sky (1992)
If I were less concerned with being fair and providing some variety, I could easily fill this list of thirteen evil albums with nothing but black metal releases. What could possibly be more wicked than a whole genre founded around the Dark One himself? The early black metal recordings have rawness, aggression, and dissonance to them that feels utterly primal and profane. Though the first hints of it emerged in the 1980s with the English band Venom and the Danish band Mercyful Fate, the genre really took off in Norway in the 1990s with outfits like Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor, Immortal, and Darkthrone. The last of these, Darkthrone, became a legend in their own right for consecutively putting out three of the most highly-regarded contributions to the black metal scene.

A Blaze in the Northern Sky represents a turning point in the band's career, as well as a melding of old and new music. Prior to this album, Darkthrone actually played death metal for their debut, Soulside Journey. For their sophomore effort, they decided to throw the label a curve ball that came in the form of a wall of fuzzy distorted guitars, roughly mixed and overpowering drums, and hoarse, distant screams - not to mention songwriting far more minimalistic than anything off the debut. Even so, the material does constitute somewhat of a 'bridge' between the old death metal style of the band and their newer style, which would be refined into a purer form for the two follow-up albums, Under a Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger. Many of the riffs are heavy death metal chords 'translated' to the new style. According to Fenriz, the band's drummer, this decision was not received well by the label, but A Blaze has turned out to be one of the iconic releases in black metal.

One reason why I love this album as much as I do is because it took a lot of inspiration from Bathory and Celtic Frost, but used it in such a way to create something darker, bleaker, more intense, and more evil. Bathory and Celtic Frost were two of the godfathers of the black and death metal genres, each with very distinct styles and infectious melodies. A Blaze is like the unholy offspring of these bands. It opens with a deep, ominous ambient soundscape, where single tom hits on the drums echo every few seconds, before more eerie noises and sinister chanting begin, and a tortured voice leads up to the sudden explosion of a pounding black metal pulse, as if some wretched monstrosity was summoned up from the pit of Hell. The intro, aided by the cover, provides the mental picture of a cult of robed figures chanting infernal words in a circle around an altar in the middle of the woods, as the wind and some unseen malignant forces hum softly at first, before building up to a frightening bellow.

Dramatic? You bet your ass, and that's part of what makes it so great. In fact, the entire record sounds like the band took some battery-powered equipment out to a clearing in the forest and musically unleashed the demons in the dark of night. The reverb and lo-fi production give it that sound of a tortured soul crying out from somewhere deep in the darkness. And as one might expect, the lyrics are all about the occult and Satan, indicated by such tracks as "In the Shadow of the Horns" and "The Pagan Winter." Darkthrone lives up to their name, producing albums that consistently sound cold, dark, and abrasive. While their black metal style is arguably perfected on the two follow-ups to this record, A Blaze in the Northern Sky establishes a gritty, malevolent atmosphere that they don't quite succeed as much in capturing, I feel.

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