As well as Celtic Frost and Bathory, it’s a well-documented fact that the black metal movement of the early 1990s took a lot of influence from ambient and darkwave such as Dead Can Dance. It’s also no secret that they listened to a lot of film music, most notably the work of Ennio Morricone and horror films scores. So it’s hardly surprising that once the initial buzz of black metal had worn off, some of these artists would down guitars and try their hand at ambient music.
In the case of Fenriz of Darkthrone, this resulted in his brief passion project Neptune Towers, an homage to German ambient of the 1970s. Neptune Towers sits somewhat uniquely in this history. For the most part, the hallmarks of these black metal artists are immediately recognisable in their ambient and electronica projects. More often than not they were an extension or re-imagining of their music using different tools. Neptune Towers on the other hand is best considered as something completely separate to Darkthrone or Isengard.
Fenriz sees himself as something of a music historian of late, unearthing old school gems on his radio show and championing the values analogue to anyone who will listen. This grew out of his disgust for a scene and aesthetic that he had a very big hand in creating. Hence why Darkthrone pride themselves on acting the Motorhead of black metal in recent years with their admirable refusal to develop as musicians. But looking back on Neptune Towers it’s clear that there has always been genuine passion for music for its own sake beneath Fenriz the self-styled sage and traditionalist.
And so in 1994 he released ‘Caravans to Empire Algol’ under the name Neptune Towers, the first of two LPs. Even ignoring the sleeve-notes explaining his inspiration, it is clear that this work is not to be treated as anything other than an homage to the work Klaus Schulze in the 1970s. The title, the artwork depicting a grainy Horsehead Nebula, the two tracks clocking in at nearly forty minutes, it’s clear we’re not to think of this as anything other than a tribute album. It opens with one extended, low end synth note, that gradually pitch bends in either direction, followed by a very simple bass refrain not unlike Burzum’s ‘Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität’. We are then taken through a serious of gentle transitions, that announce themselves through tone and pitch rather than key or tempo (pretty much the definition of ambient music then!).
For those familiar with the work of Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre this is a very familiar journey. A series of simple harmonies come and go, gradually building up a subtle tapestry of moods designed to invoke the sensation of solitary levitation in the listener. A musing on the void. Fenriz is surprisingly competent at evoking the 1970s sci-fi vibe and one can tell he really is passionate about this music. It is not breaking new ground, but then again it never claimed to. If one listens to Klaus Schulze’s 1975 offering ‘Timewind’ (as Fenriz recommends in the sleeve notes) one can truly appreciate not only the technological skills he applied to his craft, but his knowledge of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. While Neptune Towers is musically somewhat simpler, and benefited from the synthesiser revolution of the 1980s, one cannot dock points from him for lack of atmosphere.
Rob Darken of Graveland chose to avoid such nonsense when he formed Lord Wind. Graveland started out as a primitive, mid-paced black metal outfit, akin to an evil version of Bathory’s ‘Hammerheart’ (1990), with very competent use of keyboards. This later transitioned into heavy Viking metal as he gradually ditched the blast beats, fattened up the guitars, added liberal use of choral effects (designed to sound like Valkyries), and wrote lyrics about old battles with disconcerting enthusiasm.
When Lord Wind formed it was essentially an extension of Graveland, with the ‘Conan the Barbarian’ soundtrack influence worn very much on its sleeve. His first full length released under this name, ‘Forgotten Songs’ (1996), could roughly be described as ‘Graveland light’ for want of a better phrase. Rob Darken beings by chanting us into the album over a liberal sprinkling of wind samples. His voice is deeply distorted, but it somehow sounds more strained on here than the works of Graveland, almost as if he is trying to imitate Mongolian throat singing.
Then the music kicks in, and we are treated to fifty minutes of very basic folk melodies, underpinned by simple percussion, and sometimes given additional texture through the use of lightly distorted guitars. These do not overpower the music however. The tone is similar to the halfway clean/distorted sound he achieved on ‘Following the Voice of Blood’ (1997). But if you go into this expecting the polished instrumentation of Wardruna or Tenhi then you will be disappointed. This is folk music not only as music, but also in the sense that anyone could play these simple melodies and tap out these simple rhythms.
One can picture the scene now, a group of warriors sat around the fire telling tales of battle, sharing music and celebrating the day’s labours. The catch is that we’re not warriors sat round a fire, we’re music fans listening to music, and this particular offering is highly repetitive and does not offer anything you cannot already find on a Graveland album. Taken on its own merits it comes across as an honest experiment, but one that maybe should never have made it out of Darken’s studio. For all the allusions to an organic or ancient aesthetic, these songs sound like they were written by a computer, indeed they would be at home as background music on ‘Age of Empires’. Whilst this judgement is not damning, it does mean that the quality of this music is highly dependent on context. It simply sounds like a half finished version of something better. Fifty minutes of unrealised potential.
Darken would iron out these shortcomings on future releases, creating slicker, more spacious soundtracks that genuinely do sound like a separate entity to Graveland. But we are taking these two albums on their own merits alone, then ‘Caravans to Empire Algol’ is definitely the more enjoyable release. ‘Forgotten Songs’, because of the distorted guitar and near constant tinny percussion, is too invasive to be thought of as background music, but not stimulating enough to hold one’s attention. Neptune Towers, whilst not exactly breaking new ground, does what it sets out to do, and ticks all the right boxes for the spacey ambient music it apes. And who knows, maybe it has introduced a generation of younger black metallers to the likes of Tangerine Dream along the way. I am sure Fenriz-the-scholar takes pride in this thought.