Symphonic nocturnal majesty: Rotting Christ and Emperor

Musical extremity is a means to an end. This fact is perfectly demonstrated by the two artists we’ll be looking at this week. If black metal is not abrasive and obscure then it’s dramatic and symphonic, a combination which often leads to cheese. But here we have two studied sets of musicians who knew their craft and put the work into composing modern symphonies that utilised aggression and speed certainly, but did not allow their music to be completely subordinated by this. This matters, because whilst both these artists remain two of the most respected within metal circles, both fell into the cheese wagon for a period. So it’s important to understand why these works succeeded so resoundingly where others failed.

Rotting Christ remain the darlings of Greek extreme metal. Indeed their name has become synonymous with the Hellenic style, which offers an intriguing alternative to their North European counterparts. The sound is typified by a more traditionally heavy metal approach, riffs lifted straight from the 1970s. Melodic leads, mid-paced drumming with scant blastbeats, and tremolo strumming focused more on riffcraft than the wall of noise typified by the likes of Immortal. Indeed Rotting Christ should probably have changed their name after their first clutch of grindcore demos, as a decaying messiah calls to mind anything but a majestic, melodic approach to metal.

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But that is what we get with their debut, 1993’s ‘Thy Mighty Contract’. What starts as urgent yet grandiose tremolo strummed riffs ripped straight from epic film music scores quickly morphs into a slow, laboured tapestry of dual guitar leads complemented by rich synth-work, all bound together by competent yet not overly showy drums. Vocals are  more of a bark than a growl or a screech, with Greek accent fully discernible above the noise. This is definitely extreme metal, and it is definitely more black metal than any other tag available, but it’s not black metal as Northern Europe knows it. Some of the atmosphere is sacrificed in order to focus on the riffs, giving this an overall warmer feel.

If it is black metal, then it seems to have skipped the groundwork laid by the 1980s and gone straight back to Judas Priest and NWOBHM for influence as opposed to Celtic Frost and Bathory, fusing this with the occasional blast beat, distorted vocals, and tremolo strumming. If you go into this album expecting black metal with a few Hellenic flourishes you will be disappointed, for this music is distinctly Southern European in more than just surface level aesthetic.

Hellenic black metal proper takes its cues far more from classic heavy metal, playful riffs and keyboard work, with regional accents worn proudly on their sleeves. So once you get over the initial ‘is this black metal?’ conundrum this album is a joy to listen to, with many tracks that build to a climax with patience, rhythmic diversity, and no shortage of intricate riffcraft to sink your musical chops into.

Representing the Norwegian squad in this week’s black metal feature will be some band called Emperor. If you’re reading this you’ve probably heard of them. What makes them important for this comparison is their focus on studied composition, serviced by atmosphere and mood. ‘Transylvanian Hunger’ may work like a tapestry of grimness, Emperor’s first full length offering on the other hand, 1994’s ’In the Nightside Eclipse’ is more like a symphony, which pulls on rich orchestral aesthetics and cavernous production with a view to augmenting their already highly involved compositions.

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This may have been the album which set the cheese wagon on its course, but there’s no hint of pasteurised milk here. Fluid drums that seamlessly transition from out of control blastbeats to foot tapping tempos ground this celestial music. Riffs centred on ascending chord progressions combine with synth tones that are a mixture of choirs and strings inject an  almost otherworldly spiritual quality to heavily distorted and bassy guitars.

The galloping tempos and relentless transitions from catchy lead riffs to tremolo strumming somehow never grows tiresome or overwhelming, because the album progresses like an urgent nocturnal journey over hills and forests. Lesser musicians would have made this album feel like an atmospheric circle of busyness where nothing is achieved. With Emperor from start to end we feel like we have achieved our quest somehow. Vocals – whilst complemented by the rich use of choral affects – cut through the wall of atmosphere with high pitched piercing shrieks laced with reverb. A manic demonical addition to this freezing metal which would sadly be lost on subsequent releases.

Although this album would be much imitated over the years, and is arguably responsible for some of black metal’s worst musical excesses, the structure, how the tracks hang together to form a coherent piece of work across its fifty minute runtime, are the lynchpin of what makes this album so good. The atmosphere, the mythos, the aesthetic, all are put in service of well written music. One final thing to add is that this is one of the first metal albums to have keyboards running throughout, sometimes as a lead instrument, playing lines and passages of music in their own right as opposed to sporadic use to complement certain passages. One can buy the sheet music for this album and the keyboards have a manuscript all of their own, which although simple at times, perfectly services the imaginative guitar riffs.

Emperor’s ITNE has become a universal icon of Norwegian metal, and something of a benchmark for all black metal that followed. It’s reputation also stretches far beyond black metal, with many music fans I have spoken to singing the praises of this album as a piece of art in its own right. Rotting Christ’s ‘Thy Mighty Contract’ has more limited appeal confined to metal circles, which is surprising given how accessible it is. But they have also become a household name insofar as one cannot even mention Greek black metal without immediately talking about their legacy.

But in terms of the legacy, the appeal, the raw experience of listening to each album I must side with Emperor this week. TMC remains a joy to listen to, with riffs that seemingly never run short of intrigue, and whilst ITNE does not boast as many well written guitar leads, they make up for this in the quality and unity of the work over distinct riffs. And indeed, unity is the watchword here. One can pick ITNE apart and analyse each segment, and then put it back together and marvel at how coherent and, yes, unified the work is. A triumph whose recognition stretches well beyond our little niche circle of appreciation.

 

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