I usually base the title of these features on a common thread that links the two releases together; era, style, philosophy and the like. If no such thread is forthcoming, or so contrived to be meaningless, I will simply refer to how they make me feel. And in the case of both these releases, that feeling is amoral, animalistic rage. They exist in that rare strain of intensity that can only be reached by combining the most primal elements of black metal with grindcore, elevating the unadulterated primitivism of the latter, with the foreboding majesty of the former. It’s a style that is hard to maintain over the course of a forty odd minute LP, as Impaled Nazarene’s first clutch of albums demonstrates. But over short distances it can be formidable.
Finland’s Belial released ‘The Wisdom of Darkness’ after a couple of demos, all the way back in 1992, and what a curious specimen it is. Sharing clientele with the more well known but ultimately more clownish Impaled Nazarene, the music of Belial at this point was an altogether classier act. It is at once overbearing and brutal, but menacingly atmospheric and dark at the same time. How is this achieved? Well, the most superficial of listens will reveal music that looks like death metal of the Demigod variety: heavy, powerful, and lumbering.
Every aspect of the production seems tailored to achieving this result. The guitars are all low end, what solos and leads are present are buried in reverb. The drums are given a similar treatment. The snare does a pretty good impression of cannon fire echoing in a large sports hall. And of course the vocals are a deep, guttural death metal growl, at once aggressive yet brooding. Everything hangs tight enough together however, to allow Belial to play at breakneck speeds while just maintaining coherence. The scant tempo changes announce themselves with all the bravado these musicians can muster, as if willing the entire track to collapse in on itself in chaos.
Aside from these all too rare breakdowns, the music is pretty much blast-beats and tremolo strumming throughout. This creates a dense but pleasing wall of foreboding noise, as tritones and minor keys collide together, aided by the brief appearance of strings and choirs. Despite the full and undeniably heavy experience this amounts too, ‘Wisdom of Darkness’ is a strangely empty, solitary experience. The fact that it borrows from death metal, black metal, and grindcore respectively is only part of the story. The use of keyboard interludes, occasional whispered vocals, spoken word intros, and event an extended clean guitar outro, creates an aura of space between the blocks of crushing yet ambient noise that is the bulk of this music.
Fast forward three years and we come to Zyklon-B, an industrial black metal grindcore supergroup. Made up of members of Emperor and Satyricon, this may be the band they all now wish the world forgot given the name. Given that their sole EP was called ‘Blood Must Be Shed’ (1995) and the cover featured a mushroom cloud and all the songs are about war and feature samples from genocide enthusiasts and explosions…are we to take the name with a pinch of salt? The band expressly stated that they were not affiliated with any political or racial preference. But in this day and age, now that fascists are real again and not limited to creepy alt right websites like anus.com, I imagine the band members themselves would rather bury this project.
Controversy aside, is it any good? Considering it sits on that dodgy territory of ‘cyber black metal’, which essentially mashes two genres already at DEFCON 1 when it comes to being taken seriously, this one just scrapes by as a curiosity if nothing else. The components taken in isolation are relatively unremarkable. Guitars are thin and harsh and fast in the black metal tradition, drums likewise. Vocals would possibly be more at home on a hardcore punk record, but here they are so buried in the mix as to sound distant, perhaps spacious? Which leaves it to Ihsahn’s keyboards to really save the day.
It’s really not that often that one can say this about metal of this ilk – militaristic, aspiring to brutality, aggressive – but the keyboards really tie the music together. OK, so the guitars do some of the work, utilising ascending chord progressions atop Frost’s flawless blast-beats to create a sense of inevitable dread. But the distorted string sound that makes regular appearances throughout this EP really gives it an atmosphere all of its own. Beyond the simplicity of the leather trench coat wearing, Armageddon advocate, hard industrial enthusiast, it really is elevated in the emotional department by these simple string layers. It grants a sense of sorrow and humanity to the obsession with life’s end which, if lacking, would make this a one dimensional romp in the apocalyptic.
So let’s conclude by saying that ‘Blood Must Be Shed’ succeeds only in the sense that it does the bare minimum to distinguish itself as something other than a novelty act. There are some interesting ideas in there. But all of them spring from the fact that these are well accomplished musicians to whom composing comes naturally, rather than from the over-egged concept. To put it another way, it succeeds in spite of all the window dressing, not because of it. If anything, it’s an annoying distraction to what is otherwise so-so black metal heavily informed by grindcore. ‘Wisdom of Darkness’ on the other hand is a forgotten treasure of old school extreme metal of the early 1990s. A romp through dark aggressive metal with a uniquely cavernous atmosphere all of its own. A strong buy from this modest corner of the internet.