More notes from the b-tier: Thou art Lord and 1349

By the mid-2000s, all the major branches of metal’s family tree were drooping, weighted with creative fatigue. As the newest offshoot to establish itself, extreme metal was very much under the gaze of the mainstream. Albums were becoming larger, both in length but also texturally, with layers of complexity and orchestration being applied in ways not always beneficial to the music itself. This was in part a symptom of major label backing, but also a function of a search for maturity. Extreme metal was no longer the province of youth alone. Many of the artists at the heart of extreme metal were approaching middle age, and attempting to understand what this music could look like in a more mature setting.

Despite the enormous divergence in the quality and dignity of how this personal growth translated into artistic endeavour, there was a marked bulge in output that was endlessly *okay*. But unlike the typical understanding of what ”average” means in different musical settings, these albums boasted enormous sounds with many moving parts to them, cumbersome and unwieldy. The result, given the volume of releases of this nature being put out, was a kind of sensory overload in the listener. Much like our desensitisation to special effects in film, the most remarkable production and detailed layering of musical elements became the norm; the endless pursuit to stand out was even harder to achieve as a result.

Thou art Lord are a Hellenic black metal supergroup of sorts, famed for terrible album covers and being not quite as good as the chief projects of its mixed clientele. Well ok, that’s not entirely fair, but for whatever quality material one can find in traversing their discography, it is usually spaced out across plenty of colour by numbers Greek black metal. 2005’s ‘Orgia Daemonicum’ is as good a place as any to insert ourselves into their body of the work, if for no other reason than the fact that it bucks the trend outlined in the introduction somewhat. The production aims for a homespun aesthetic. Whilst it still carries the depth and clarity required to present the symphonic leanings of this outfit, the overall impression is very much of a garage band hammering away at melodic blackened thrash with some more ethereal leanings shoehorned in to anchor this raw energy.

The drums are raw and tinny in a premediated way. The guitar tone is relatively straightforward, lending itself to the dual demands of blunt thrash riffs contrasted with elegant harmonic leanings. Sakis unmistakable bark provides a suitably melodramatic guide through this romp of Hellenic metal, veering from passionate outbursts to near spoken word narration. Keyboards make a modest appearance, usually by way of complimenting the sweepingly epic passages in the form of strings and horns.

And this latter point is really where we must begin in describing the music itself. In many ways ‘Orgia Daemonicum’ presages the style that Rotting Christ would adopt in the 2010s. Part melodic thrash, sometimes reduced to the most basic of two chord riffs, making use of the percussive aspects of guitar playing more than the melodic. The riffs are repetitive, basic, and largely atonal. But they regularly break out into flowing melodic passages of tremolo picked riffs and soaring keyboards. The drums follow in this duality of purpose by switching from tight blast-beats and hammering double bass to a swaying, flowing rhythmic foundation that allows the music to reach for the sky.

Although this contrast has its desired effect on the listener on first or second listen, there is no staying power to this formula, precisely because it is a formula with limited mileage. The individual components are few in number, their development limited and predictable, meaning that the thrill of contrast wears thin upon repetition. There is an attempt to break this up, such as the mid paced track ‘He the Great Worm’, which again would be very much at home on a latter-day Rotting Christ album. But again, there are essentially two key elements to the piece, with little in the way of journey or motion, leaving nothing but a binary contrast. It’s as if Thou art Lord have left themselves only two creative levers to pull, leaving their avenues for expression limited and unfulfilling, regardless of the potential that is present in each atomised moment.

1349 are an odd band to tackle. For some they are the archetypal punching bag, a physical manifestation of everything that went wrong with Norwegian black metal in the new millennium. Throwing riffs and cliches around like confetti, riding on the coattails of more respected bands, and the musical chops of Frost, a drummer who has never been associated with a project fitting of his enormous talent behind the kit. They are perhaps one of black metal’s first post-modern artists, a collection of spare parts and long dead fauna reappropriated as a “true” black metal starter kit. Futher, 1349 make a point of being riff based, guitar based, or otherwise true blue in contrast to the sugar sweet orchestration of Disney’s Dimmu Borgir et al. This renders 1349 as a bizarre concoction of entry level “true” black metal and cynical cash grab.

Was there ever any point to this artist beyond a void of grievance? A blank canvas for people to pour their malice and scorn at about different facets of black metal’s decline? To answer this question, let’s look at what’s generally agreed to be their strongest work, 2005’s ‘Hellfire’. In one sense this is the direct descendent of the riff-based stylings of early Gorgoroth. The intensity and density of the sound eschews keyboards or atmospheric production values in favour of the accumulation of fast and hard riffs, giving the impression that the musicians are working themselves up into a ritualistic frenzy, the yin to the spiritual yang of early Satyricon and Emperor.

But alongside this reassertion of primitivism comes an industrial quality to the production common to many Norwegian black metal albums at the time in the likes of Thorns and Mayhem. Despite the undeniable rawness, there is an on trend mechanical quality to the music that contradicts our understanding of it as a primal act of will. Frost’s skin bashing blasts away with machinelike precision, the guitars are completely stripped of reverb and would almost be at home on a modern punk album. The vocals are also atypical of black metal, neither guttural nor high pitched, instead offering an idiosyncratic mid-range performance that borders on spoken word at times.

But to get to the beating heart of 1349 we need to unpack that word floated earlier on: “postmodern”. On the one hand, this band is a disjointed collection of near random black metal cliches, half baked riffs, and undercooked attempts at narrative structure. All is blitzed together so intensely, and drives past the listener so frantically, that in our sensory overload we struggle to remember any particular moment or indeed the broader story of the music at all. It’s the audial equivalent of a fireworks display, spliced together from the discarded fragments of history, with no pretence at understanding their wider historical context and desire to achieve longevity.  

But on the other hand, 1349 are unmistakably themselves. Out of this concoction of material appropriated from superior musical minds comes a sound that is instantly recognisable as 1349. This enigmatic thread underpinning ‘Hellfire’, and indeed the majority of their work, keeps me returning. There is a cumulative effect to their music, the density and chaos with which they pack each moment lends it an undeniable character. It’s important to note that this character does not seem to be directed toward any loftier goal besides musical content for its own sake. There is no journey or message behind their uniqueness besides a collection of black metal dog whistles. For that reason 1349 remain a specimen. An artist we enjoy bringing to the lab in the hope of learning something about black metal culture and music. Not because 1349 had a profound message to communicate, but because they were able to create a character of their own that somehow emerges from the very essence of the generic.

So in a sense we have two examples of what artistic exhaustion looks like from two distinct and world renowned scenes within black metal. Neither is terrible or ground-breaking. They are both average in the most intense and dramatic way possible. They both throw so much music at us but end up saying so little. They are both highly informative to our understanding of extreme metal, not just as it was in 2005, but also what aging looks like within this music, what fatigue looks like, and what cultural dogma looks like. Whatever messages that can be garnered behind the mask is entirely unintentional, not of their own making. And since quality is a background consideration in this context, I’m going to select the pick of the week based on which album is the more interesting subject of study. And by that metric we simply have to side with 1349. Within the music itself are clues and hints at black metal’s failures and shortcomings. Surrounding their music is a whole infrastructure of fan grievances, misguiding passions, and disillusions as to what this movement became. This alone is enough to compel me to return to works like ‘Hellfire’ every few years looking for answers.  

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