The first iterations of symphonic black metal – or rather any black metal that leans heavily on keyboards – was too advanced for its time in many ways. The tech available and affordable in the mid-90s was limited and clunky when put in service of the grand operas many underground artists – those without label backing – were reaching for. By the time such tech was readily available at the DIY level – the rise of home studio software etc. – black metal had all but moved on, distancing itself from the symphonic style which became tainted with black metal’s Disneyfication. The renewed fascination for retro sounds has not quite reached the point where modern artists are attempting to replicate the Casiocore synth banks of late 90s BM (to my knowledge no one is trying to resurrect the ‘Goat Horns’ template for example). Maybe the ham and cheese many of these albums are served with outweighs any residual charm. But have people dismissed this era and style too readily?
The Austrian outfit Woodtemple are perhaps best known for being the closet devotees of the Polish scene over any Norwegian variant, with the rich layers of keyboards and the strong pagan vibe of Graveland seeping through their work. Whilst it’s easy to do down imitation acts as the preserve of the uninspired and less creative minds, there is something to this pursuit that warrants closer inspection. If we take Woodtemple’s debut ‘Feel the Anger of the Wind’ released back in 2002 as our starting point, one reading of it could simply be taken as a highlights reel of Graveland’s career, which by 2002 had already morphed from energetic raw black metal to the plodding grandiose Viking metal of ‘Creed of Iron’. Woodtemple offer a mix of those militaristic, marching tempos with stirring, heroic chord sequences, and low, throbbing keyboard accompaniments that offer a backdrop of depth and size.
But Woodtemple are also reaching further back to Graveland’s ‘Carpathian Wolves’ and ‘Thousand Swords’ days with some grimmer, tritone based riffs, along with the vocals that offer a pretty convincing facsimile of Darken’s ghoulish ejaculations from those early days. Much like Emyn Muil are to Summoning, any assessment of an imitation act as faithful to the source material as Woodtemple will essentially stand or fall on the quality of this particular approach to black metal in general. Graveland themselves offered an interesting alternative to both the Norwegian style and that of their Southern European counterparts. Darken’s subsequent attempt to take this in the direction of mid-paced Viking metal was also welcome, but it ultimately stagnated, with albums flowing thick and fast offering scant variation on the exact same formula.
On ‘Feel the Anger of the Wind’, Woodtemple are doing very little to justify the need for another act putting out yet more of the same material, with innovation and development in short supply. An ethereal atmosphere is maintained throughout thanks to those simple but empowering keyboard arpeggios and harmonies, the guitars are for the most part churning out the same generic riffs set to tempos and rhythms that vary little. An imitation this convincing is neither better nor worse than what Graveland were doing at the time, but this is of little benefit to the listener. Unless of course that listener simply cannot get enough of this style despite the excessive volume of releases that Darken chucked out during the 2000s and onwards.
Moon, who actually are from Poland, offer an entirely different approach to keyboard leaning black metal. Their second LP ‘Satan’s Wept’ released in 1999 is something of an Abigor-meets-lobotomy affair. That’s not intended as a slight on Moon by any stretch, it’s more that early Abigor is that bit more sophisticated. But Moon offer a similar punch of pulsing, rhythmically tight and aggressive riffing supplemented by flowery symphonics and fluttery keyboard melodies. The whole thing would leave a horribly cheesy aftertaste in its wake if it wasn’t for the fact that Moon are so utterly sure of themselves in execution that one cannot help but get carried along. There are elements of blackened thrash within the concoction of ‘Satan’s Wept’, which also comes through in the manic, almost hardcore punk vocalisations.
The production itself is weighted towards servicing the percussive qualities of this music. The drums are clicky yet precise, and set at a level that cuts clearly through the mix without overwhelming it. The guitar tone is closer to that of standard thrash metal distortion with a view to articulating the percussive quality of the riffs over atmosphere. Such a template would not take us much beyond competent melodic blackened thrash were it not for the fact that Moon lean heavily on keyboards to articulate the melodic structure of most of these tracks. Synth tones are selected for their attack and staccato qualities over the usual soaring strings directed towards layering of tones. Often they will either follow the guitar lines with aggressive arpeggios or complimentary melodies, but they are set front and centre in the mix to the point where the guitars are apparently following the keyboard’s lead.
Much like assessing the quality of visual effects in film, we must pay attention to the year. This album was released in 1999, but most of the patches sound pretty retro even for the late 1990s. The overall cheapness of the effects is not a detriment in and of itself, but it can present a jarring contrast when set to music that is otherwise pretty well produced. And perhaps more tellingly, the keyboards are not being deployed to simply enhance the sound, but as a stand in for lead guitars. There are some solos and guitar melodies that jump out at intervals, but they are scant and largely forgettable. So we are left with this surrealist dance between dark, fast, melodic black metal of a highly aggressive bent, which is subsequently decorated by this delicate ballet of pounding synths resting on top of this muscular foundation. Most of the tracks are based around two or three central themes, which are then recapitulated through the various levers at Moon’s disposal outlined above. It’s far more simplistic than Abigor’s first clutch of albums, but the appeal – and level of execution – is kindred to their Austrian counterparts.
In wishing to expand on the role of keyboards within black metal we have ended up picking Moon; a Polish outfit chiefly referencing the style of Abigor from Austria; and Woodtemple: an Austrian outfit chiefly referencing the Style of Graveland from Poland…funny how the cookie crumbles sometimes. But obviously the thing to note here is that neither of these acts are the first which come to mind when discussing symphonic black metal. Woodtemple sit more at the pagan end, which is a style that makes use of keyboards to enhance the atmosphere, and sometimes to outline interludes and intros that bleed into neofolk. Whereas Moon flesh out melodic blackened thrash, and then use keyboards to bring the more nuanced melodies to the fore which would otherwise be buried in a guitar tone too muddy for the kind of tempos they tend to play at. Both sit at that cusp of quality where a clear vision comes up against the blunt reality of not quite being able to execute it. And both – maybe owing to these halfway houses they occupy – are styles that have seen little in the way of resurgence in recent years in the wake of every other old school style being dredged up. There is a lasting charm to both these releases, but little to be gained from a resurgence in their styles. Some moments and sub-subgenres are best left in history. In terms of the pick of the week we’re opting for Moon for the simple fact that Woodtemple take us no further than Graveland circa 2002, whereas Moon indicate a path of their own, however clunkily.