Two more Swedish death metal offerings that have rightly been canonized, although, due to the relatively brief careers of the bands that spawned them, it’s arguable that the albums themselves are revered over and above the artists. They tap into an informal trend within death metal in the early 1990s that seems to have all but escaped the old school revival of recent times. I’d say both these albums bear a strong resemblance to Amorphis’ ‘The Karelian Isthmus’, Bolt Thrower’s ‘The IVth Crusade’ and ‘…For Victory’, and Demigod’s ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’. What do all these albums have in common? They stripped death metal back to its most basic components, and crafted riffs from a few simple parts that gradually and patiently rebuild the art-form from the bottom up. They kept the tempo low by death metal standards, either sticking to the mid-pace or slower. Because of this the listener has all the time in the world to digest the brilliant simplicity of the riffs, often split two ways between meaty power chords and minimal guitar harmonies. And from these elements supervenes overwhelming epic death metal of the first order. Taking these well used techniques out of the speed and extremity arms race taking place in death metal at that time granted the music space to breathe once more, and to realise the timeless artistry at its core.
Because this style of death metal bleeds into doom and occasionally gothic metal it’s hardly surprising that Sweden’s Cemetary would move on from their purer death metal routes eventually. But on the debut LP, 1992’s ‘An Evil Shade of Grey’ we find them sitting pretty on a sound that is at once ugly and primal yet aspires to majesty and grace. Although the guitar tone is filthy, and predominantly put in service of chugging power chord riffs, there are frequent pauses where the chords are allowing to ring out, providing space for elegantly simple lead work, duties that are oftentimes taken up by the keyboard in unison with the guitar. Despite the performance being perfectly tight, the drums are a little flat and thin in the mix, which detracts somewhat from their impact in emphasising certain riff collisions during the more frantic passages. But they keep the album flowing from one mood to the next, never dropping the tempo or activity to true doom metal levels.
Although this is not the most technical album you’ll ever hear, there is no doubt a desire behind these compositions to work depth and nuance into this style of death metal. One that sits at neither end of the spectrum in terms of extremity or speed. Cemetary’s end goal was clearly in the direction of exploring the melodic potentials within death metal, but aesthetically speaking, they have approached this from the more primitive and ugly end of the genre. The result is an album that is at once grotesque yet beautiful with a pronounced emotional core. They have taken us beyond a straightforward ear bashing that the production seems designed for, and into realms well outside of death metal’s remit in the early 1990s.
But rather than another hammy and entitled mashing of two distinct genres, ‘An Evil Shade of Grey’ approaches melody with a more patient and cohesive backbone. To elaborate; rather than simply open with a passage of dirty death metal with that iconic early 90s guitar tone, only to pull this back into a My Dying Bride-esque funereal dirge of melancholy, here the two distinct elements are worked seamlessly together. While many of the riffs at first appear solid enough contributions to Swedish death metal it quickly becomes apparent that are simply the introduction of more sophisticated themes and motifs that take shape as the album progresses. Again I must point to ‘The Karelian Isthmus’ for a worthy comparison of an album that trades in primitivism aspiring to the epic and the profound. And doing so with very little in the way of technical trickery along the way. Whilst certainly competent musicians, the real joy of this album lies in watching them turn these relatively pedestrian building blocks into a work of colour and life that far surpasses more musically complex releases of the time.
Gorement are another of the Swedish cannon that proved to lack the staying power of their more well-known countrymen. But their sole LP from 1994, ‘The Ending Quest’, is a significant album by any metric. The production, whilst not exactly raw, is definitely rough around the edges. The guitar tone is muddy as fuck, but this suits the mid-paced death metal that blasts out of the speakers; as long, sustained chords carry along doom laden leads that invoke the inevitability of our existence. In what feels like the true legacy of Bolt Thrower, Gorement make use of basic shifts in tempo from chaos to order to downright sluggish, and exploit the spaces between to create drama and majesty out of the simplest musical components. But where they really shine is how they build on this simple framework with a more sophisticated approach to narrative compositions. Whilst a lot of Bolt Thrower from this era is among my favourite in extreme metal, there is no denying that their approach was often deliberately simple in order to convey the illogical and brute horror of war. Gorement are aspiring to a more epic and transcendental artistry on ‘The Ending Quest’.
There is a clear theme tracked through each work on here, one that is usually driven through several variations by the rhythm and lead guitars, before being cut into pieces and dissected at the mid-point, and then brought back to life for the conclusion. Because this technique is consistently yet creatively applied throughout the course of the album there is a clear conceptual unity that can be followed by the listener despite the differences that become apparent as each track takes shape.
Like all death metal it acknowledges the sheer horror and ugliness to existence, and this is carried in many of the opening riffs to these tracks (and in the no nonsense mix), but from this supervenes wonder and revelry. Although Gorement reference melodic doom in the direction that many of the tracks take as they progress, there is an ever present bounce and energy to the rhythm section that not only gives the music an undeniable energy and drive, but also a sense of overpowering joy. This is true of much metal at its best. Despite it being an archetypal product of modernity, it is a vehicle for (usually younger) citizens of industrialised nations to tap into older, pre-rational perspectives. Part of this is conveying the dangerous beauty in life. The presentation is everything that polite society is supposed to find ugly, because it looks back to pre-Christian values. The animalistic vocals, the guitars distorted beyond reason, the drums that conform to rhythms and time signatures unsuited to civilised notions of dancing or relaxation. Gorement on ‘The Ending Quest’ exemplify all these thing, insert a consistent and mature aspiration to use these primitive tools to convey a sense of humanity’s wonder and horror at the world they find themselves in.
Much has been written about the old school revival that has by now – let’s admit it – played itself out. But despite some genuinely valuable works coming out of this period, it was a very specific idea of what the old school of death metal really was. There was more than just death/thrash metal and Autopsy going on in 1990. Although the pedants may wish to point out that ‘The Ending Quest’ having been released in 1994 was really the tail end of death metal’s heyday, it was – along with ‘An evil Shade of Grey’ and the other releases mentioned above – tapping into untold potentials within death metal that sit within that mid-range that is at neither end of the spectrum when it comes to extremity. Because the focus is on neither being the fastest or the most polished, the dirtiest or the slowest, both Cemetary and Gorement were able to work away at their craft under everyone’s radar, until they had achieved simple but not simplistic works of sophisticated and nuanced death metal with no gimmicks and no weak points. For that reason the task of picking an album of the week is a tricky one. That being said it simply must be given to ‘The Ending Quest’. The reason for this is simple. ‘An Evil Shade of Grey’ is an exceptional piece of death metal and it belongs in your collection. But ‘The Ending Quest’ taps into something more profound, more eternal. These frankly intangible qualities elevate it above other classics simply because it transcends its own genre and time in a way only a few albums have managed to do over the decades.