To the layperson, blackened death metal may look like a tagline too far. But even a casual sampling of artists tasked with playing this style should make one see the light (or the black). Take the ear candy of melodic death metal, the euphoria or Iron Maiden, add a smattering of gothic melodrama to the riffs, lyrics, and vocals, and combine this with an excess of tremolo strumming, and you get some way to encapsulating this style. Or at least how it differs from either black or death metal. One of the artists we will be looking at this week is a death metal band that played black metal, the other is a black metal band that played death metal. Which one is which? You decide (I’ll decide).
Sweden’s Dissection need no introduction. Mired in controversy and eventually ritual suicide, they are responsible for two of the best known and most universally loved Swedish metal albums going. The first of these, 1993’s ‘The Somberlain’, tends to live in the shadows of the follow up ‘Storm of Light’s Bane’ (1995); and I for one have always been conflicted about which is the superior release. The heights of the first half of ‘The Somberlain’ may be higher, but it is the less consistent release.
‘The Somberlain’ boasts some heavy weight metal anthems, broken up by minimalist baroque acoustic interludes that perfectly break down the album into bitesize chunks. The guitar tone for the metal tracks is sharp and clear enough to bring out the complexity of the twin guitar leads. The drums however, at least the snare drum, is too tinny for music of this pace and intensity. The playing is creative and competent, but the snare clashes with the sharpness of the guitars which means the latter is at times lost in the middle, especially during the faster passages. An attempt has been made to compensate for this by lathering the snare with reverb, which only serves to draw yet more undue attention to it. Vocals are a standard mid-range rasp that allow the lyrics to carry forward without distracting from the music.
However, the music is captivating enough to soar above such small quibbles over production. After the massive opener and title track the album slows somewhat, and disappointingly seems to lose momentum. There are plenty of decent riffs and leads to sink your teeth into certainly, but they are trapped amongst too many off-the-shelf metal riffs that are ultimately forgettable. I hesitate to call them filler, because Dissection set the bar so high for the first third of ‘The Somberlain’ that by comparison tracks like ‘Frozen’ and ‘In the Cold Winds of Nowhere’ just cannot compete. It must also be said that by the second half of the album that snare sound becomes tiresome. It would work on a harsher album, but melody and layered composition are the aim of the game here, and anything not in service of this is an unwanted distraction. It would be unfair to say that this is a front-heavy album and all else is filler however. There are many riffs to love scattered throughout and its place in history is well earned.
But this style is capable of so much more. Dissection may be the best known of the Swedish blackened melodic death metal style, but they were also the closest to conventional rock, crowd pleasing anthems, familiar chord progressions, in short: ear candy. Dawn on the other hand were a different kettle of fish. Their debut ‘Nær solen gar niþer for evogherx’ which dropped in 1994 is an extravaganza of neoclassical metal that oozes class. This music is much more fluid than Dissection’s, from the acoustic opening to every riff that follows it rides seamlessly from one passage to the next with each riff perfectly placed to complement or contrast the last.
This is probably closer to black metal than Dissection, but it is not by virtue of this alone that makes it superior. Rather it is the lack of radio friendly riffs that makes it such a superior effort. The drums are nothing special but they don’t need to be, the blast beats crash and flow under the guitars, perfectly pitched to complement them in their intensity or hang back during slower passages. The guitar tone is sharp and icey, allowing each riff’s impact to be fully ingested before the next. Vocals are similar to Jon Nodtveidt of Dissection although maybe pitched slightly higher, allowing for more emotion and passion when required. There is the occasional acoustic or clean passage to break up the music. With everything hanging on speed and emotional intensity it is easy for the listener to become fatigued. An easy way around this is to break the music up with minimalist interludes like this.
It may take repeated listens to fully grasp the structure of this album. At times the riffs blast by with such speed and enthusiasm it can appear to collapse into a confused mess, an over-abundance of ideas. Such fretwork gluttony is common to death metal, and has sometimes been referred to as a ‘riff salad’. And herein lies the similarity to death metal in the music of Dawn. Rather than building a structure through moods and atmospheres like a lot of black metal, the structure is built around an overabundance of riffs, which determine where the music will be taken. They determine not only structure, but rhythm and tempo as well. So whilst superficially this may look like over excited black metal , at its compositional core it has more in common with a certain school of thought common to death metal.
So, despite the hype, I’m going to recommend Dawn’s ‘Nær solen gar niþer for evogherx’ over ‘The Somberlain’ this week. I do not resent Dissection’s fame, as a popular take on an extreme metal style they played it very well. They also mastered the art of consistency on their legendary follow-up ‘Storm of Light’s Bane’. It’s just that when it comes to blackened death metal, underneath the surface there were many more artists, perhaps with less exciting album titles, that just played it straight up better. Dawn would go on to release ‘Slaughtersun (Crown of Triarchy)’ in 1998 which upped the intensity but could not maintain the same sheer number and construction of imaginative riffs. But both of Dawn’s LPs (‘Slaughtersun’ and NSGNFE) deserve a brighter place in history than they eventually earned.