A rising damp: Belphegor and Vader

The fault lines between black and death metal have always been a curious place. In one sense artists operating in this realm do exactly what they say on the tin; marrying the soaring melodrama of black metal with the disjointed staccato aggression of death metal. But taking a broader, historical view, it shines a light on the evolution and cross pollination of artists at key junctures and in key scenes. Setting aside all the disputed claims to these terms in the late 1980s and early 90s, they did coalesce into clearly defined styles regardless of areas of crossover and any claims Cronos tried to stake on the term ‘black metal’. But out of the mid-1990s came a move to sharply reject the rigid genre demarcations that were bedding in, with many artists implicitly or explicitly identifying as simply ‘extreme metal’. There’s always cause for suspicion when an artist is too vocal and specific about how they wished to be defined; like a fifty year old insurance salesman with a sports car, they’re probably overcompensating. But then there were some that just plugged quietly (or not so quietly) away at this middle ground, and birthed what could be described as the generic face of extreme metal, once the initial spontaneity of independent music scenes wore off, and branding asserted its demands on artistry.

Pillars of Austrian extreme metal Belphegor were one such example of this, eking out a boisterous niche for themselves on the peripheries of blackened death metal. Although churning out many albums over the years which gradually incorporated deathcore and pop into the meatier mixing jobs, the essence of their sound has remained largely unchanged over the years. Jumping back to 2000 with the release of ‘Necrodaemon Terrorsathan’, we see them adopt a more explicit death metal influence. But what’s noteworthy is how this genre alchemy plays out with just a select few different ingredients to a Dissection or an Absu say. Belphegor borrowed elements from tech-death in the vein of Nile and blended this with a more traditional black metal framework. But such is the schizophrenic nature of tech-death, especially at the turn of the century, that the end result is disjointed and unfocused, now matter how forciblyit pertains to be otherwise.

A random and jagged riff salad passes our ears in monotony, bound together by the loosest of aesthetics hell bent on satisfying both brutal and crushingly evil aesthetics. The problem is that none of this means a damn thing while the riffing is so unfocused. Average tremolo picked guitar lines constructed of spare parts from whatever Marduk had lying around are curtailed from blossoming into anything meaningful, owing to the constant slam-in-corpse-paint breakdowns that prevent this music from developing beyond a series of blunt suggestions. ‘Necrodaemon Terrorsathan’ is the equivalent of a horror novelist constructing a narrative by selecting post-it notes of unrelated quotes, chosen with no other metric than edginess in mind. It would be almost farcical were it not for the fact that this style became so typical of the broad definition of extreme metal, with the help of Behemoth of course.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this metal by focus group. Production must be raw, but not so raw as to alienate a broader audience, and it must capture the brutality of the riffing. Vocals have to be an evil sounding version of the typical death metal style that was so popular in the early 1990s. Drums have to be technical, but also sound a little DIY to fool the funderground crowd. Chuck in plenty of tritones, tremolo riffs, and some breakdowns to get the mosh-pit going, polish and press, ready for mass production. The trouble is it succeeded. Belphegor hit the bullseye of what the casual fan was after, and they were rewarded accordingly. With ‘Necrodaemon Terrorsathan’ and the clutch of releases that followed, Belphegor were at the apex of the bell curve (or the Belphegor curve if you will) for b-tier extreme metal, before their lack of artistic vision became so pronounced that even the shit munchers smelt a rat.

From one pillar of European metal to another now, with Polish death metal legends Vader. After their solid debut ‘The Ultimate Incantation’ put the Polish scene on the map, Vader’s career in the 90s took an unusual path, opting for a covers album in 1996 with ‘Future of the Past’, despite their original material still in the process of maturing. Reconnecting with them in 2000 however offers a fairly comprehensive introduction to their style with ‘Litany’. There’s something about Vader of this era that’s just so relentless and on the nose that it captures the imagination, despite the fact that they were not operating wildly beyond the bounds of what anyone else in death metal was up to at the time.

The backbone of the music is made up of energetic, atonal thrash riffs bolstered by thundering percussion that just does not let up in its determination to carry the music along in a gallop of destruction. Despite their single-minded nature, the drums offer a high degree of variation and creativity when it comes to working with this straight-edged death metal, always carving out new patterns and fills to carry the music along from one segment to the next. The guitars are for the most part atonal, still carrying the distinctive synthetic tone found on the ‘The Ultimate Incantation’. In almost any other setting it would be monotonous were it not for Vader’s constant jumps from riff to riff and tempo to tempo. It makes for the right mix of brutality and intrigue, and furthers the indifferently chaotic ethos of this music. Vocals are more in the thrash range, retaining enough humanity for the lyrics to be audible; in this chaotic setting they actually serve as a voice of sanity amongst the disordered industrial setting that is ‘Litany’.

Solos are used sparingly and fittingly, opting for the Kerry King method of futile fretboard murder as opposed to some sort of melodic progression. Beneath a rhythmic setting where the guitars may as well keep time and the drums frame the mood; the sheer dynamism of this music offers a wealth of technical possibilities to the attentive listener. The rudiments of death metal’s transcendence of its rocks roots is once again made plain in the starkly brutal environment that is ‘Litany’. The drums determine the direction and pacing of each section, with the guitars either keeping a step behind or left to settle on a riff that is augmented by the percussive underpinning that evolves the music as the guitars remain static.

Two albums similar at only the most superficial level, but both represent the choices that extreme metal was faced with at the time. Hack up the legacy of what had gone before and stitch it together into a commercially viable product, one that’s brutal enough to fool some tourists into thinking they are buying into an underground movement; or drag the tired rudiments of the previous decades into more ambitious and fully formed versions of themselves. We all know what really happened and we all know it was too predictable to bother lamenting. But that shouldn’t prevent us from championing the importance of albums like ‘Litany’ over the shallow sleight of hand that was albums like ‘Necrodaemon Terrorsathan’.

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