The family business: Zemial and Agatus

One curious feature of black metal’s evolution throughout the 1990s was the fact that most European scenes outside of Norway were actually peddling something relatively accessible, even to untrained ears. Throughout southern and central Europe, old school heavy metal, ghoulish melodrama, and ambitious narrative structures were being married to surprisingly catchy riffs. One comes to wonder why it’s the Norwegian variant that became the most popular, and ultimately grew to define the common notion of what black metal sounds like. Setting aside the obvious murders and arson as the chief reason for this, maybe the time has come to offer a more nuanced understanding of this period. It’s not that any one scene was superior to Norway, or that it was criminally overlooked due to the media attention afforded by the larger than life characters found in the far north, but rather that we should contextualise their output as one among many that were also producing quality work. And these were born of different perspectives and musical traditions, that were then worked into the black metal framework. So let’s dive in shall we.

The discography of Zemial – the mastermind of one Dimitrios Dorian – offers a history of extreme metal since the 1980s in three simple steps. From the primitive, murky beginnings, to the occult later translating into epic cinematic scores in the form of Viking metal, to a seamless marriage of old school blackened thrash with prog rock on the near immaculate ‘Nykta’ released in 2013. But delving all the way back to the debut LP in 1996, the cult classic ‘For the Glory of UR’, we meet a very different beast. The scant output from this artist has led to this album wallowing in relative obscurity, but it is nevertheless cherished by many scholars of the scene. Despite the evident musicianship showcased, the production is pretty rough, belonging to the mid 80s as opposed to 1996. Drums exhibit only a hint of the free jazz drums he would later explore on more recent work, but here they offer a tight performance that is a little under-serviced by the mix. Vocals are that excellent combination of high-pitched and manically aggressive, in the vein of Absu (no kidding), which perfectly fits the thrashier, occult metal that Zemial were working with.

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The influence of ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’ is hard to gauge at this point, but from the get-go it’s clear that ‘For the Glory of UR’ is one of its most direct offspring. It’s that magical combination of the boisterous dirty thrash that made up the origins of black metal with remarkably ambitious song structures and theatrics. It’s a classic example – again found in the tradition of Bathory – of doing more with less. This is clearly an album born of limited means, but with care and attention applied to the song writing, along with liberal but tasteful use of keyboards, one can transcend these humble tools and create a work that resonates through time.

In many ways this album functions as the missing link between the Rotting Christ tradition and the first wave of black metal. There are many riffs that would have been at home on ‘Thy Might Contract’, in that they take a NWOBHM riff and apply palm-muted tremolo picking atop a mid-paced blast-beat. But Zemial connect up these riffs with melodic progressions that are very much of the 1990s, by repurposing Bathory’s ‘evil thrash’ of the mid 80s and the epic, Viking metal direction they were headed towards at the time. Despite this album being barely half an hour long, it achieves this impressive marriage of traditions without either sounding derivative, or a complete mess. It also affords us the chance to see how these different techniques played off each other, and how extreme metal was experimenting with different combinations to find the next direction, towards something more transcendental and permanent than the thrash and death metal that had preceded it. This album offers a fantastic marriage of occultist metal aspiring to modern forms of romanticism which makes up the essence of Greek black metal at this time, through the development of traditions well outside the remit of those further north.

For an album that harnesses many of these same elements and ends up being a work of a completely different nature, look no further than Dorian’s brother Chris Dorian Kokiousis (or as he should be known: ‘Eskarth the Dark One’) and his project Agatus. Here we find Dimitrios carrying out drums and various other duties on the work of Agatus, including the debut ‘Dawn of Martydom’, also released in 1996. Although we are on much more familiar territory here as far as the Greek ‘sound’ goes, this is a far reaching debut that offers many intrigues to unpack. The production is near perfect for this brand of old school epic metal. Sure there’s plenty of reverb lying around to cloak the thin drums and guitar tone, but this is not applied excessively, nor are the keyboard interludes and intros. Vocals sit in the mid-range and carry an earthy, warm vibe to them that perfectly offsets any potential coldness to the rest of the sound.

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This album aspires to the level of epic film scores both in the traditional framing of the melodic core that makes up the riffs, but also in the way the music is rendered at the mixing stage, and the flourishes of keyboards and theatrics that are layered on top of this highly structured music. At times the riffs are made of the most basic three chord progressions, but they serve as either link riffs, or constitute a rich tapestry of narration and logical progressions as this music unfolds. Elegantly simple leads are placed on top of this rock solid foundation, adding new contexts and carrying the music forward into the next progression. Drums provide an almost inhumanly consistent rhythmic framework to facilitate the interplay of the riffs, carrying the music through galloping rhythms or outright blasts depending on the passage. Fills are deceptively complex without detracting from the overall direction of the music.

It’s an album that – along with Varathron’s ‘Walpurgisnacht’ – not only draws influence from the pre-thrash melodic sensibilities of classic heavy metal, but also improves upon them. I mean this not just in the sense that applying them to a more extreme context gives them more power and character. But also by replacing the rock and blues elements still present in the vast majority of heavy metal with pre-modern melodic traditions, this music further sheds metal of the limits and burdens placed on it by contemporary western music, the primordial soup from which it emerged. This makes for a fascinating melting pot of styles which are harnessed into a masterwork of epic black metal.

Both these albums offer a valuable insight into metal’s quest to transcend its own environment, and hold lessons which are still of great value today. At the same time they are both rewarding listens in their own right. In regards to the pick of the week, it’s really a numbers game. ‘For the Glory of UR’ succeeds as a classic example of occult metal; one found at the crossroads between the old and new, between the primal and refined, between Dionysus and Apollo. But despite this it feels unfinished in places, even taking into account the appeal of lo-fi albums of this nature, there is a sense that more could done. This is especially true when one considers what this project went on to achieve on both followups ‘In Monumentum’ (2006) and ‘Nykta’ (2013). ‘Dawn of Martydom’ on the other hand is a breath-taking work of epic metal that deserves a more prominent place in posterity than the one afforded it. There are few out there that can boast such a consistently engaging, varied, and ambitious work of metal. Despite that, both these albums receive a strong plug from HM this week.

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