Barbarism and the acquisition of wisdom: Uncanny and Grave

The signature Swedish style was defined by combining d-beat punk with NWOBHM melodic sensibilities, and from this solid foundation building grand sweeping pieces of epic metal. Once rendered through the iconic buzzsaw guitar tone, it was a distinctive and instantly recognisable musical statement that became one of the pillars of extreme metal. But as demonstrated by the trajectory of its household names, innovation was not forthcoming. One could either devolve into rock music as Entombed opted to do, or release the same album over and over again as was the chosen path of Unleashed and Dismember. Later, this legacy was also further tarnished by the close associations to poppy melodic death metal championed by At the Gates’ ‘Slaughter of the Soul’, In Flames, and of course Michael Amott’s post Carnage career. But in this narrow field there were albums that either exemplified the style or pointed a way forward.

One hit wonders Uncanny – on their sole full length ‘Splenium for Nyktophobia’ (1994) – bridged the gap between Entombed’s dark primitivism and early At the Gates’ sophisticated understanding of melodic death metal. In many ways this album almost feels like the follow up to the ‘With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness’ that should have been. Simpler than the divisive At the Gates offering, but rooted in a similar prog minded approach to melodic death metal. Production wise the mix is fairly off the shelf for this era. The focus seems to be on keeping all instruments clear and visible within the mix before any overt stylistic choices. But this fits with the overall thrust of this album, which is one of melodic riff-based death metal with a pronounced ability to create dark, romantic atmospheres, bolstered by keyboards if the need arises. The guitar tone may be a little thin, but this allows us a small window into the bass guitar’s comings and goings as it rumbles its way beneath the intricate dance of the lead guitars. Vocals are also fairly standard for Swedish death metal of this time, sticking to a low-end bark of sorts, sacrificing duration of notes for raw power.

Uncanny’s grasp of melody may not be as progressive or off the wall as the first handful of At the Gates albums, but they show a determination to exhibit what abilities they do have, and on the whole it is consistently well executed on this album, and remains one of its chief appeals. They are in turn carried along by more basic d-beat passages that dominate the first half of this album. But these gradually grow more sporadic and give way to the romantic grandeur as ‘Splenium for Nyktophobia’ unfolds as a dark, majestic journey, supplementing the three-dimensional riffcraft of At the Gates for Necrophobic’s nocturnal atmospheres.

Pleasing as all this is, the main frustration with this album is the lack of longform development. All the tracks are kept relatively short, which in itself is no detriment; hard hitting numbers packed with ideas are always preferable to sparse, laboured soundscapes of artistry long absent. But the passionate and sophisticated web of narratives Uncanny are spinning here would really have benefited from an epic in the style ‘Dismembered’ or ‘Primal Breath’. It doesn’t need to be an overly drawn out affair, ‘The Nocturnal Silence’ for instance walks the line between brevity and epic flawlessly. But Uncanny keep the pace and mood pretty relentless throughout, which makes for a pleasing if limited experience when compared to the classics referenced above.

But it be would remiss to discuss this album without mentioning some off the wall choices that creep in towards the end. Having already displayed their willingness to use synthesisers in a lead capacity and not just a supporting role earlier in the album (a rarity in straight-edged death metal of the time), we get the Godflesh-esque number ‘Lepra’ towards the end which in its own right sounds awesome, but completely breaks the flow. Death metal convention dictates a low key, dungeon synth style instrumental to guide the listener into a finale at this stage of the album. But one has to admire Uncanny’s decision to tear this directive up by shoving in a crushing industrial number in its place instead. The dungeon synth is saved for the concluding title track, which is glorious in all its cheap video game aesthetics, neo-classical hooks, and pan flutes, and totally redeems whatever shortcomings to ‘Splenium for Nyktophobia’ I was babbling about two minutes ago. Crack on.

At the complete other end of the Swedish spectrum we have Grave, who, despite their immediate foray into groove metal after their debut, demonstrated the raw power and messy primitivism inherent in this style, and combined this with a richly oppressive atmosphere on ‘Into the Grave’ (1991). Chronologically, this was released slap in the middle of death metal’s heyday and pretty much sounds like an album attempting a summation of what all the fuss was about. If grandma woke up on the wrong side of the bed one day and asked you to approximate the style of Norwegian black metal I would reach for Gorgoroth’s ‘Pentagram’. If she woke up in entirely the wrong bed and asked for a precis of Swedish death metal, I’d reach for Grave’s ‘Into the Grave’. Regardless of their individual merits, they efficiently pull together many of the features grandma can expect to find once she delves deeper into the two scenes back catalogue.

On ‘Into the Grave’, Grave revel in taking no chances, keeping things as straightforward as possible, but in doing so they touch on a surprising variety of metal traditions. There are Autopsy-esque doom riffs thrown in, mid-paced Bolt Thrower ear-pounding, the patented d-beat punk of typical Swedish death metal, and plenty of those basic but atmospheric guitar solos that frequently leap out, covered in reverb and opening up the music’s size and scope. But I hesitate to conclude that their intention was to keep things as generic as possible.

Firstly, the production on this album is a force to be reckoned with. For one, it’s far murkier than is typical for this region, with heavy bass tones lurking dominantly beneath every sustained chord. The drums are equally bassy, with no high end or decay on the snare, resulting in near constant, pillow punching madness. Then there’s the fact that Grave’s philosophy, despite drawing on many exterior traditions within extreme metal at the time, is ultimately out to keep things as dirty and primitive as possible. These production choices were not mere compensation for lack of originality, but actively bolster up the ethos of muddy sludge that is this album. With sloppy breaks giving way to chaotic thrash passages, and the guitars struggling to keep up with the drums, weighed down as they are by the muddy tone.

The vocals do nothing to compensate for the constant murk that dominates the album, operating as a ghoulish but guttural growl throughout. An oppressive, subterranean atmosphere arises from the merging of these consciously basic elements. One that remains compelling for the fact that it is so familiar and warm for fans of the classic Swedish sound. By keeping the riffing rudimentary and uncomplicated, Grave managed to explore the atmospheric potentials inherent in death metal before others looked to blend it with other styles and atypical instrumentation to achieve the same effects.

Two markedly different albums to digest this week from one of the most celebrated periods and locations in extreme metal’s history. From two artists that sadly couldn’t expand on the small but curious niche of creative space they managed to carve out on these albums. Grave, although not quite a household name, are a known quantity to most death metal fans. For that reason, and the fact that Uncanny’s ‘Splenium for Nyktophobia’ is an unexpectedly interesting album to this day, and remains so after many spins, means that its getting the additional plug this week. Despite ‘Into the Grave’ boasting more subtle merits for the faithful, the reality is that it is about as generic as they come when compared to its contemporaries.

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