The 1990s were still a time when regional influences had a meaningfully role in the perpetuation of musical ideas. There was a marked difference between styles from different areas and one could point out why, tracing – maybe a little clunkily at times – the genesis and procreation of signature sounds. One obvious example of this is the highly melodic and neoclassical route that death metal took in Europe, outside of British grindcore and archetypal Swedish death metal. The distance these artists had to the dramatic decline in American thrash metal by the 1990s, and equally their proximity to European heavy metal, deeply embedded in classical traditions and folk music, all contributed to a strain of ambitious, epic, and complex death metal that elevated the genre into a legitimate and enduring artform.
For any fan of symphonic metal, Greece’s Septic Flesh are a household name. Their first three albums are among the best of the era and style. The first being 1994’s ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’, which – unlike many debuts, which tend towards the primitive – is a pretty broad introduction to the direction that Septic Flesh would take on subsequent releases; expanding on different ideas found in this blueprint along the way. Among their many oddities is the fact that they used a drum machine whilst playing in a style where good taste dictates the need for fluidity and spontaneity afforded by the human touch. But as anyone familiar with these albums will know, percussion is an important but relatively minor chapter in this story. To get around the limited creative capacity for fills and interplay with the other instruments, the drums stick to relatively straightforward beats, with plenty of tempo and time signature shifts. The guitars then compensate for this with syncopated riffs made up of ascending or descending scale runs via a dual lead attack. For this reason, to the inattentive listener, the lack of finesse in the drums is hardly noticeable.
Epic and technically competent death metal abounds. Riffs are defined and crafted with a view to counterpoint, their interaction is fluid and serpentine in its ever shifting grace, seamlessly melding tempo and rhythm to fit with the dramatic payoffs and cadences of the music. Keyboards are also a key feature to Septic Flesh’s signature sound. Jumping out at significant junctures, and often working through independent yet complementary melodies as opposed to simply bolstering up the impact of the guitars. And of course, there are plenty of intros and interludes that build into or follow on from the themes unpacked in the metal tracks. The most prominent on ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’ being the closing number ‘Mythos (I. Elegy / II. Time Unbounded)’. It’s curious to note how perfectly they blend the ornamental elements of guitar tones and keyboard effects with the music they are being used to convey. It shows a perfect balance of aesthetic understanding melded with the underlying tectonic musical plates that make up the architecture of this album.
Vocals are hard to describe. Prima facie they are a simple, guttural death growl. But they are lent a certain regal charm in the otherworldly, transcendental universe that Septic Flesh inhabit. They take on an almost mythological, monstrous quality, that I can only suppose emanates from the music they are set to. It seems natural that they would give ever greater prominence to clean vocals on later releases. But the complex and finely tuned machinery of Septic Flesh’s sound won’t brook over zealous tinkering. A well timed, steady distorted voice at least avoids the risk of tampering with the delicate guitar harmonies, the balancing of which defined their music at this time. For that reason one cannot help but conclude that whilst this release may be a little unfocused, it is the purest statement of their intent; with follow ups ‘Esoptron’ and ‘Orphidian Wheel’ developing specific features already found within ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’.
Finland’s Sentenced could never settle on one style for long, I suppose we call them ‘shapeshifters’. Sadly, as with so many artists with a similar urge to grow and change, the result – however earnest the intentions – is a slow and predictable decline into shit. But jump back to 1993 and we find Sentenced’s second full length effort ‘North From Here’, and one of the crown jewels of European death metal. This is such a unique piece of cold, northern death metal that for once it’s actually not an exaggeration to say that words don’t quite do it justice. For large passages it could be described as a death metal version of ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’. The production may be warmer, and of course everything leans towards the percussive, staccato, and restless nature of death metal. But Sentenced borrow liberally from traditions found in horror film scores in a similar manner to Ihsahn’s preoccupation of the time. The interweaving guitars are not guided by the lurking desire for a cadence, or complementary melodies, but instead will frequently devolve into harsh dissonance and off-kilter tritones. Enhancing this unsettling tendency is a relatively shrill guitar tone by death metal standards, that settles and stays in higher pitches, weaving through idiosyncratic counterpoint, and providing space for the bass to both drive the music as a whole and explore its own melodic potentials.
Vocals too are more typical of black metal, sticking as they do to an aggressive but higher end rasp. Contributing in turn to the overall coldness Sentenced were clearly aiming for given the lyrical themes on this release. The result of this dense and complex compositional interplay is unexpectedly rewarding. If, as a treat, we’re judging books by their covers (album and track titles etc.) then it would be easy to assume this would be another melodic, maybe a little cheesy, but ultimately obvious ode to Northern landscapes, perhaps with some twinkling keyboards and wind samples thrown in for good measure. But no. Sentenced shun any temptations towards the ‘epic’, or the sweeping melodic metal designed to invoke a vivid but ultimately domesticated image of Finnish landscapes. Instead what we have is an unsettling, eerie, and ultimately dangerous invocation of natural landscapes, played out through an idiosyncratic approach to melodic progression, and their intersection with the requisite ever-shifting rhythms of death metal.
It’s harsh, dissonant, but most importantly it puts the listener on edge. It’s an homage to the dangers or even the apparent maliciousness of nature in the eyes of humanity. This is also born out in the progressive flourishes Sentenced often indulge in. At the most basic level one could appreciate this display of technically proficient musicians honing their craft. The themes may be carried through each track to the point of achieving conceptual unity. But the music itself is restless, with dual guitar and bass lines jumping out from all sides at unexpected junctures, and drums that never settle on a rhythm for more than a few bars. In terms of how dense these compositions are, it’s up there with ‘Unquestionable Presence’. And this only augments the abrasive qualities that define the end result. A pleasant stroll through a winter wonderland it is not.
It’s another tough decision if we’re going to get to the bottom of which album is superior this week; almost to the point of sacking it off as a needless exercise. But we’re going to side with ‘North From Here’ this time around, for two very specific reasons. One is that it remains to this day a unique album. Which indicates that this formula has proved very hard to replicate (not for lack of trying). The second is simply its focus on a specific concept and atmosphere, and the attention span required to see this through to a whole album’s worth of material. ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’ certainly succeeds in a similar way. But it’s more of a broad-brush stroke than a forensic commitment to an idea. But of course, both these albums raised the stakes for the ambition and scope that death metal should be aiming for in the waning years of its tenure at the top of the metal food chain. Sadly, neither artist could sustain such high quality beyond a few years worth of material. But their legacy remains intact nevertheless.