Flashes in the pan: Behemoth and Marduk

More notes from the b-tier, this time from two artists that – aside from some early flukes that would endure the test of time – were entirely unremarkable when compared to the crop of acts from the early to mid-1990s. But what is remarkable about these two artists in particular is the lasting popularity they went on to achieve regardless. It just goes to show that with an effective marketing campaign and a willingness to tweak your sound based on the latest focus group findings – or in Marduk’s case turning obdurate creative bankruptcy into a gimmick – you can achieve anything. But as with so many albums with more cultural significance than the minds that birthed them, the crucible of youth burns a fire hot enough to melt away unnecessary fat, and leave only the grains of creative beauty behind. As was the case in the mid-1990s for both these artists.

The tale of Poland’s Behomoth is not so much one of a young artist enthralled by black metal only to side step into death metal later, so much as it is an artist keen to imitate their betters. Once that failed, they moved on to a stylised form of tech-death that could easily be monetised regardless of quality. But much like Satyricon who took a similar path, there was value and potential in these pre-commercial early efforts, which so often start out as imitation in the first place. After the respectable ‘…from the Pagan Vastlands’ came their debut LP ‘Sventevith (Storming Near the Baltic)’ in 1995. Taken in context it’s a fine entry to the lexicon of mid-90s black metal, one that was leaning in the symphonic direction in the wake of Emperor, along with the likes of Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, and early Graveland. And much like Graveland of this time, it was able to channel the twin requirements of rawness with a unique and cold atmosphere that really can’t be captured by more polished production jobs.

Mellow and elegantly simple guitar work ponderously bounces along at marching tempos, offset by the occasional galloping rhythm that conjures up imagery of open and cold landscapes in the mind of the listener. Frequent but not excessive keyboards are then able to compliment this harmonic foundation, occasionally offering twinkling, cyclical melodies which give this music a mournful, cathartic quality. Vocals are very much in the black metal range, and are supressed and distant in the mix, of course with plenty of reverb applied, so that they contribute to the sense of size that this album has. Despite frequently delving into frantic passages of blast-beats and busier chord progressions, ‘Sventevith (Storming Neat the Baltic)’ has an undeniably mellow quality to it. The aim here is atmosphere and mood over riff-based ear pummelling; the latter qualities already present in Behemoth of this era, notably on the ‘…And the Forest Dreams Eternally’ EP released later in 1995.

Drums, although for the most part unremarkable, are sometimes brought way up in the mix with a lot of reverb and delay applied; at these points it completely dominates the sound and calls to mind a thunderclap across a valley, again this is reminiscent of ‘For all Tid’ which used a similar technique. It’s a good example of getting more from less. A particularly important quality if ambience and size are your aims on a relatively shoestring budget, both financially and in terms of knowhow. And that’s the real story behind this album. A halfway descent rendering of black metal as it was in the mid-90s, maybe a little late to the party in terms of the sound that it is conjuring, but still way ahead of many at the time, or since that time for that matter. When it comes to artists like Behemoth, whose style went on to wildly diverge from their earlier ethos, I always like to imagine an alternative reality where they took a different path. But in this case, given everything we now know of Nergal as a shrewd businessman disguising himself as an artistic visionary, I’m glad he stuck to impotently polishing the turd of tech-death as opposed to joining the chorus of artists in the early 2000s hell bent on gutting what was left of black metal at the time.

Marduk are another that need little teeing up from me. Halfway decent spokespeople for Swedish black metal that quickly stagnated into a no trick pony of monotonous blasting. Despite it’s patchy reputation and unfocused riffing, I believe there was potential in their debut ‘Dark Endless’. But from this half formed death metal, they quickly solidified their sound into a straightforward black metal approach on ‘Those of the Unlight’. Then by 1994 they vaulted forward into new heights of artistic achievement with the release of ‘Opus Nocturne’. Whether it was the frequent line-up changes that dogged the band at the time, or the uncertainty of youth throwing up accidental moments of genius, is really besides the point; out of this we get albums like ‘Opus Nocturne’. This is a tight, focused rendering of energetic black metal that manages to capture a broad emotional range within Marduk’s dogmatically rigid approach to the style.

Production is pretty standard for the era. Because this is black metal that focuses more on an aggressive tapestry of riffs and speed than melancholy, the drums are key to achieving this as they jump from blast-beat to blast-beat with frequent fills and relentless double bass to flesh out the sound. For that reason they are high in the mix but not distractingly so. The same goes for the bass, which is surprisingly audible and does a good job of complimenting the straightforward guitars without overshadowing them. The vocals really shine here. Although they are fairly run-of-the-mill for black metal, they are committed to the moment in combining melodrama and aggression which really elevates the music to something more epic when it needs to.

Marduk use a frantic riff salad approach to crafting each track, but they balance this with an internal logic, so that the patient and attentive listener will discovery micro moments of poetry in their interaction, fleshed out by each transition and brought to life with energy and colour by the drums. They walk a tight-rope in this regard, as it’s a style that can quickly batter the listener into becoming overwhelmed by the volume and speed with which they follow each other. But on ‘Opus Nocturne’, Marduk apply enough internal logic to the repetition and development of each idea, thus justifying the structure – however chaotic – after the fact, and allowing us greater moment-by-moment satisfaction on repeated listens. This also means that each part can be kept relatively simple. The chord progressions themselves are commonplace for black metal, but it’s the connections and interactions between each passage that really make this album shine. And from this structural foundation Marduk are able to get a lot of mileage out of the simplest melodic adornment, and the most basic of harmonies, or a welcome reprieve of a slower tempo here and there. A triumph of logic as much as creativity.

An analysis of these two albums may be fairly limited in terms of instructive efficacy. But any agenda that plays down the historical importance of these two artists is in danger of overplaying their hand when it comes to dismissing albums like this. Whether honest and successful executions of an idea or accidents of inexperience, they endure to this day as a cut above the vast array of black metal coming out by the mid-90s that would eventually prove to be the death of the second wave. The pick of the week is going to ‘Opus Nocturne’ as it is the more focused, well-composed, and ultimately more original of the two releases. Behemoth’s debut is a pleasing piece of relaxing black metal with some genuinely well crafted moments, but it does not do enough to stand apart from the pack. One must also consider that quality output before and after from this artist was lacking, and hence one would be entitled to conclude that Behemoth had little interest in furthering this style beyond imitation, before gradually moulding their project into a successful business venture. Marduk, however limited they turned out to be as a band in the long term, achieved some early successes regardless, deserving of remembrance in our history.

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