A black and white void: Taake and Satanic Warmaster

A weighty, lumbering discography made up of fairly frequent releases once or twice a year is often the calling card of a subpar artist. Very rarely can someone release consistent, high quality music that regularly. The presumption that one can is either a mark of arrogance, or a compulsive need to keep putting out material of any standard just to remind people you still exist. A more challenging but noble pursuit is to sit on works, discard those that are not worthy of your best, and risk being forgotten or written off before amassing enough high quality material to release it to the world. Artists that do the opposite risk any music of worth they actually released being buried under a wash of average output. It’s as if they’re desperate to stumble on whatever original flame there was, almost as if works of actual quality occurred by mere accident.

As far as b-tier Norwegian black metal goes, Taake pretty much define mediocrity, even when compared to other contenders in the b-tier category such as Gorgoroth, Ulver, Satyricon, and 1349. But never managing the heights of ‘Antichrist’ or the tiresome lows of ‘Now Diabolical’, Taake’s career has been one of a handful of decent riffs spanning three decades, the majority of which are front loaded towards the early output. So let’s take a look at his second full length ‘Over Bjoergvin graater himmerik’ (2002) where most of the ideas are found.

Prima facie this is a tour of mid-90s runner-up black metal, hyper charged and condensed into a somewhat unfocused but nevertheless competent work. One can hear early Satyricon, Gorgoroth, Ulver; all jammed through a busy riff blender that flips and transitions at an alarming rate. The album compensates for flat and unremarkable production by never dwelling on one idea or mood throughout the course of an entire track. But when an idea is granted space to develop – mostly towards the centre of the album – intriguing narratives and chord transitions do emerge, made all the more novel by their interaction with drums that are not afraid to toy with half tempos, and the interplay of more conventional rock rhythms alongside a tremolo riffs.

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Such moments are clearly elevated from the averageness that surrounds them, yet in their present form they remain half finished potentials yet to coalesce into fully formed compositions, which would thus raise the overall quality of this music. It’s as if Hoest knows the building blocks of good compositions but either fails in the execution or grows bored before it can be brought to fruition. For instance on tracks ‘III’ and ‘IV’ we have two examples of a playful exchange of riffs that build to a finale. On ‘III’ the finale bares a relationship to what has preceded it, it makes sense within its context. Put simply it makes sense compositionally. On ‘IV’ however, Hoest goes for a pop punk riff to conclude the piece for no other reason than he clearly liked the riff but couldn’t find anywhere else to stick it in the album. The same basic technique is used on both these examples, but ‘IV’ lacks the musical foundations to hold it together, opting instead to force unrelated ideas through the same filter to disguise lack of cohesiveness.

Such an analysis may appear pedantic, but its core intention is to demonstrate why the appeal of albums such as this lack longevity. Intriguing ideas scattered throughout are hampered by lack of longform vision.

Satanic Warmaster are the bane of black metal completists everywhere. But in amongst the release incontinence – or rather in the first clutch of releases – we find the laid back ‘Opferblut’ (2003). It’s an unremarkable but well-crafted piece of flowing and driven black metal imbued with more subtlety than the name ‘Satanic Warmaster’ suggests. At its core is simple but purposeful tremolo picked mournful harmonies set beneath either mid-paced blast-beats or a galloping rhythm. The production is of garage level quality, with that all important reverb washing everything else out and allowing the music room to breathe. Vocals are unremarkable, registering at the high end of black metal screeching and kept pretty distant in the mix, they add nothing to the emotional impact of the music.

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‘Transylvanian Hunger’ may be one of the most imitated black metal albums of all time, and Satanic Warmaster are probably more responsible for the dumbing down of this style with endless repetition of the techniques it exemplified. But on ‘Opferblut’ we see a more measured and patient release that certainly takes influence from Darkthrone’s classic, but inserts a melodic and emotional core to the style that has something of its own character. What results is an enjoyable and relaxing listen for those well versed with black metal, one that drives forward with intuitive transitions and shifts in key, the predictability of which is one of this album’s chief pleasures.

We’re in no doubt that these were modest beginnings for Satanic Warmaster which never flowered into anything much. But unclogging the music of excessive ideas can lead to more understated features being brought to the fore. The shifts in key from harmony to atonality or simple collisions of tempo are given additional weight and breadth in this minimalist context. Satanic Warmaster – along with the like of Judas Iscariot – are part of that third wave of black metal that took one or two ideas from the second wave and expanded upon them ad nauseum. Out of this was more average dross than music of note. But nevertheless it kept black metal true to a certain level of sincerity and subtlety at the turn of the century so lacking in more mainstream interpretations of the form. Despite being a half-finished work, releases like ‘Opferblut’ may be modest in ambition and short on originality, but they reach to the unpresumptuous core of black metal, and for that reason alone are worth revisiting on a rainy day.

Satanic Warmaster’s ‘Opferblut’ is an unambitious foray into well-trodden ground whilst Taake’s ‘Over Bjoergvin graater himmerik’ is a Frankenstein’s monster of various traditions within the Norwegian school diluted with indie and rock riffs which at best are in poor taste. So in this battle of the unremarkables I am forced to revert to a more basic and subjective metric: which do I found more enjoyable to listen to? It may be the case that Taake’s is the more ambitious and far reaching album, the ideas and intent may well have been present, but I maintain that it fails in execution. However, in this instance this does not make for a listen I wish to repeat, so for that reason ‘Opferblut’ is my pick of the week. A bland and unremarkable tour of black metal that yet manages to be a familiar and comforting listen all the same.

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