It’s easy to play up the rivalries of by gone years as if they still hold significance. Norwegian bands hated Swedish death metal. Profanatica in the US hated Norwegian black metal. Impaled Nazarene in Finland hated Norwegian black metal. Norwegians hated Norwegian black metal. It’s all terribly groundskeeper Willie. Was it a coincidence that many of these haters’ best work was produced in this climate of grudges and jealousy? Maybe. Aside from some very broad similarities of genre, the works forged in the fires of youth and resentment all had their own distinct hew. But what is more remarkable about the black metal canon of the early 90s is how ambitious the music became considering its origins as an antithesis. It was a reaction to the mainstream carnival that death metal (and before it thrash metal) had become. A reassertion of the underground ethos. But it was also an antithesis to itself. With bands and scenes mouthing each other off at every opportunity, and we all know how that turned out. Through this creative self-limitation sparked by rivalry, lasting works were put to record. But nowhere is this idea of artistry forged in the crucible of an all-encompassing “no” more apparent than that small strain of grindcore enriched black metal that appeared in Finland. By making virtues of primitivism, limited by the rigours of the grind philosophy, new creative spaces were forced open.
Impaled Nazarene were easily the loudest voice to emerge from this scene. Their debut ‘Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz…’ released in 1993 is a one-of-a-kind disjointed carnival of melodrama and farse in equal measure. But on the polished follow up ‘Ugra Karma’ the untamed energy of TCNNN was channelled into a more focused and relentless beast. This is characterised by harnessing intense blast and d-beats in service of a basic but pronounced melodic structure of sorts, and colliding this with moments of romantic beauty and amoral ear bashing in equal measure. Guiding us through this is a bizarre array of vocal techniques employed by Mika Luttinen, from animalistic barks, to death growls, to banshee wails. This music thrives on intensity. Whatever nods to melody or phrasing that can be found are compressed through the filter of lightning fast tempos and energetic rhythms. It’s as if each riff is trying to outdo its predecessor for bombast.
But as we know, intensity is a relative concept. Somewhere between pure noise and one note ambience, before things go full circle, a balance awaits discovery. A measure of restraint and discipline is needed to actually say something of lasting value. On their debut, Impaled Nazarene got around this by breaking up the album with surreal interludes and bizarre outbursts from Mika. But on ‘Ugra Karma’ the game changed, the ante was upped, and the album flows more intuitively, yet leaves one even more exhausted somehow. In this context, whatever rhythmic variations they deployed are somewhat by the by. The real reason can be found in the substrata of narratives that the guitars carve out over the course of the album. These work as a longform cycle when compared to the microstructures at the level of each collision of riffs, each battery of noise, and each vocal ejaculation. It’s a deeper current working beneath this album’s immediate flamboyance. It operates covertly, but its effects can be felt across the rest of the music and ultimately dictate all the surface level decorations that adorn the music like wrapping paper.
It’s worth pausing to shine a torch in this idea’s face for a minute. Because ‘Ugra Karma’ is one of those albums that remains uniquely compelling. In the quest to discover reasons for this, it’s not enough to say it’s just ‘extreme’ in this or that regard. Many albums before and since have got this beat for their sheer bestiality. Maybe we could look to our old friend Nietzsche in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ to provide some illumination. Because prima facie this album is Dionysus all over; a balls out riot of passion, emotion, and disorder. But there is an underlying Apollonian order to this. One that dictates the ebbs and flows of energy as they swirl across the music like geysers (or geezers for that matter). The sharp guitar tone unravels tracks in under a minute, made up of basic two-chord riffs. But with hindsight we see these brief flashes of energy in their wider context, sandwiched between longer, fleshed out pieces that are still dirt simple, but somehow convey an underlying logic and progression from start to finish. They give us a sense of purpose, of a journey, despite being constantly thwarted by these projectiles of noise.
Mika’s voice is both hero and villain in the context of music that wishes to advance forward. Sometimes he soars with the melodic chord progressions and elevates their purpose with unbridled joy. At other times he completely loses control and the music almost has to pause to catch up with the level of intensity his vocals are now dictating to the rest of the music. A spanner in the works of progress. It’s this underlying tension between chaos and order that makes this album such an invigorating listen to this day. Of course, tension is a key building block of any music. But here, we’re not referring to a tension from moment to moment, a collection of notes awaiting resolution. It’s rather that the quality of ‘tension’ sits at the very core of this album’s engine room, driving the music forward and pulling it back in lurches of energy and recoil.
Mythos was the short-lived side project of Belial guitarist Jukka Valppu. Whilst Belial were more of a death metal band playing black metal, Mythos, on their sole LP ‘Pain Amplifier’ (can’t even write that with a straight face) released in 1995, pushed the flowing melodicism of black metal front and centre. But a sheen focused on the aggressive in favour of the epic was painted on top of this, thanks to a pronounced grindcore influence throughout. The guitars, although marginally thin, would not feel out of place on death metal in the European tradition. But here they are more than up to the task of accenting brief melodic licks as well as completely covering the low of the mix in murk during the faster tremolo picked passages. The result is one of those fine marriages of opposites, the regal sophistication of black metal aspiring to esotericism, and down and dirty punk rock energy. In this instance the vocals side with the former, utilising a very traditional monstrous growl. Drums offer simple but tight blast-beats and modest fills, very much operating on the metric of less is more; the intent is to fill out the sound and add to the power of the guitars rather than offer dazzling musicality in its own right.
The resulting album is built from a foundation of dirt. The resonating mirk of the guitars, the ghoulish vocals, sometimes split across multiple tracks, the consistency of the skin bashing attack, all create an underlying swirl of darkness at the core of ‘Pain Amplifier’. But it becomes apparent that these primitivist trappings are simply lulling us into a false sense of security. Much like ‘Ugra Karma’, the riffs are on a quest to transcend their primordial soup and articulate melodies and narratives with a purpose. Oddly compelling melodies will frequently rise above the mix and grab the rest of the music and pull it forward. This works doubly well through the simplicity of their execution, but given the effectiveness of their contrast with the rest of the music, nothing overly complex is required.
But the other virtue to the texture that manifests out of this mixing pot is atmosphere. Mythos seem acutely aware of black metal’s potential as ambient music, even in a variant such as this which seems pretty distant from the ambient end of the genre. But no, the combination of an imposing guitar tone that itself will dictate the kind of riffs that can actually be composed and played effectively with said tone, a vocal performance of conviction, consistent drum patterns, and the subtlest shift in key, all amount to a unique atmosphere that could approximate a synth pad all of its own. This story of texture and timbre explains some of the compositional choices found on ‘Pain Amplifier’. Because the riffs themselves – whilst competent – are not all that remarkable. But in this context, they don’t need to be. They follow on intuitively from one another, and they all coalesce to form music with an atmosphere and feel all of their own. And that’s just as true in this heavily grindcore influenced setting as it would be Norway or the Mediterranean. The album closes with a cover of Carcass’s ‘Reek of Putrefaction’, which only illustrates this point further. Like the tiny causal event that instigates cataclysmic changes, in playing riffs that are unmistakably from the death/grind tradition in this setting the whole mood changes. When the aesthetic is this specific, the mood is transformed by even a mild shift in musical philosophy.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here are two examples of a style that has been much imitated over the years, but little understood. Sure, you can smack some primitive black metal against a heavy streak of grindcore, write some edgy lyrics about bondage and nuclear war, and lace the whole thing in ill-advised mastering choices. But this is only a superficial understanding of what these Finnish artists where achieving at the time, and of how it really differed from Norway, Greece, the US, or France. The pick of the week goes to ‘Ugra Karma’. Setting aside the elaborate explanations above, we could simply say that it (and the exhibitionist debut) is one of the pillars of European extreme metal of this era, and has deservedly stood the test of time.