Akercocke – The Goat Of Mendes

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – I’ll Get My Goat…
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: The Goat Of Mendes
  • Year of Release: 2001
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Peaceville
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CDVILE95/610952

Many a band has foundered in the face of following up a brilliant debut album of the kind that Akercocke had released in 1999, in the shape of Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Relatively speaking, bands have a lifetime to write a debut and almost no expectation or external pressure. Suddenly finding themselves at the forefront of cutting-edge extreme metal, with the eyes of a newly-formed fanbase on them, The Goat Of Mendes would very much determine whether the promise of their debut could be fulfilled, or whether they would simply become another band who burned like a match, brightly, but momentarily, before the fire is extinguished. The plethora of ideas contained on their debut, together with the hints of a greater musical versatility that they were unable to fully explore on the previous album certainly boded well for the future, and suggested that it was unlikely that they would run out of steam quickly. It takes only minutes for The Goat Of Mendes to confirm that this is indeed the case, and in fact the band’s second album exceeds its predecessor in all respects, building on already solid foundations to create a monument capable of comfortably weathering the corrosive passage of time.

As if to underscore the fact that The Goat Of Mendes very much takes everything that worked so brilliantly on the previous album to another level of sophistication and intensity, the opening track ‘Of Menstrual Blood And Semen’ commences in a way that is eerily reminiscent of ‘Hell’ from its predecessor, a maelstrom of painfully dissonant guitars quickly giving way to aggressive, speed-laden death metal, with their trademark schizophrenic, overlapping vocals trading deep guttural growls with higher-register black metal screams. And where Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene was marred, at least in part, by it’s weak production, there are no such misgivings this time round. The guitars retain their trebly, almost Morrisound crunch, the flashes of synth add sonic depth to what otherwise might feel a slightly dry mix, and most importantly for a band for whom complex rhythmic patterns are such an integral part of their sound, the drums are crisp and powerful, and now weaponised to the level that David Gray’s skilful contribution merits. The sheer energy and vitality of this (and virtually every other) track on the album is hugely invigorating, but there is much more to enjoy than merely the simplistic brutality of warp-speed tremolo riffing. Akercocke have a wonderful ability to ally the linear riffing of early-90s death metal (particularly Morbid Angel) with the kind of tension-filled unusual chord voicings of prime Godflesh, which lends a modern, almost urban feel to their metallic assault, and this is particularly apparent on this opener. The inchoate songwriting ability of the debut is allowed to fully flourish on The Goat Of Mendes too, and many of the best tracks are spectacular epics that contain numerous memorable sections, but move fluently from one section to another. After the frenetic start, ‘Of Menstrual Blood And Semen’ is the first such example, moving through a complex instrumental segment, which recalls Absu with its use of Eastern-sounding modes, before the guitars make way for a lascivious-sounding electronic section, Akercocke’s broad range of genre influences coming to the fore, before everything comes to a majestic conclusion after seven captivating minutes.

The Goat Of Mendes is rarely anything less than spellbinding, but its status as a modern-day extreme classic hinges on a trio of songs that are superficially quite similar in their utilisation of the band’s newly confident ability to deploy catchy clean vocal melodies, far outstripping some tentative steps in this direction on Akercocke’s debut release. Of course, the incorporation of clean vocals into the armoury of almost any extreme metal act has long been viewed by some as indicative of a craven shift into more commercially viable territory and therefore as a kind of betrayal of true metal values, but this kind of thinking is tedious and simple-minded. It is of course undeniable that Akercocke enjoyed greater success after the release of The Goat Of Mendes, and the more palatable nature of some of their tracks in a mainstream metal setting may indeed have had something to do with this, but just as likely is the simple fact that their first album had been acclaimed in such a way that a greater level of hype and anticipation for its follow-up would inevitably translate into sales, This was also greatly assisted by the fact that it was released by Peaceville, a significant and credible metal label with strong distribution. Additionally, it should also be stated that the antipathy towards clean vocals in metal is both laughable and hypocritical, given the line that can almost always be drawn from any extreme metal band back through thrash, NWOBHM and eventually to Black Sabbath, where clean melodic vocals are of course an integral part of the genesis of metal. Clean vocals are simply another colour to paint with, another texture that can be used to increase the number of possible paths that any given song can explore. Clearly, depending on a band’s core sound, there will be some paths that might remain perpetually off-limits – it’s difficult to imagine any parts of the back catalogues of Autopsy, Cannibal Corpse or Von being improved by contributions of an operatically-trained tenor. However, for a band as versatile as Akercocke, adding another string to the bow can only enhance what they do, and that is resolutely the case here.

The first of this trio of parallel universe hit singles is ‘A Skin For Dancing In’. The title alone, at once both alluringly salacious and primitively animalistic, is enough to draw in the listener, and the musical content more than matches its promise, a perfect aural creation of the decadent images of the nocturnal bacchanal that it evokes. This track runs virtually the entire gamut of the Akercocke sound, but as ever, the band’s ability to combine what should be disparate and incongruous elements into a single glorious whole prevents things from becoming in any way disjointed. The drum ‘n’ bass rhythms that have been hinted at previously are in full effect in the first section of the song, with the chunky understated guitars taking a back seat through the electronically-augmented verses, before what could be seen as the second movement sees the band blast for Satan as enthusiastically and ferociously as they ever have, frontman Jason Mendonca sinisterly intoning ‘Escape into the woods’, and adding to the atmosphere. From there, the song takes flight through a series of complex rhythmic changes, David Gray’s drumming once again propelling the band to new heights, and otherwordly guitar harmonies decorate the brutality of the riffing. Finally, the chorus releases all of the pent-up tension in a rush of gothic grandeur, lush synth instrumentation recalling the wave of late-90s melancholic metal, where it seemed that a small section of the scene discovered goth and prog simultaneously, resulting in the glorious, sweeping weirdness of bands such as Tiamat, …In The Woods, and Winds. Approximately five godlike riffs later, a song of quite outlandish brilliance comes to an end, and one imagines that they can’t possibly repeat the trick once more, having surely exhausted their well of ideas.

For many bands that would be the case, but Akercocke are not many bands. ‘Horns Of Baphomet’ is the sound of lightning striking twice, another multi-part epic this time operating in a slower, more stately tempo, Mendonca’s plaintive alto a suitable match for the sombre melodies of the chorus. ‘Horns Of Baphomet’ demonstrates the band’s growing ability to create beautifully layered music, with the subtle use of gossamer light acoustic guitars blending almost imperceptibly with crunching arpeggios facilitating fluid transitions through the many dimensions of the track, before Akercocke show their ability to master death metal of a slow and grinding nature, as well as the blasting tremolo that tends to be their preference. ‘He Is Risen’ completes what feels like a trilogy of monstrous scale, again showcasing the band’s magnificent ability to combine complex and intricate death metal riffing, with dissonant chords, and black metal vocals and atmosphere. The horn-assisted pummelling blast that drives the song relentlessly towards its conclusion is possibly the high point of the entire record, standing as a testament to the manifestation of a grander vision than most bands can even aspire to, let alone realise.

Akercocke – The Goat Of Mendes

If the aforementioned tracks heralded the arrival of Akercocke as a world-class metal band that could stand comparison with any of their peers, this is not to imply that the rest of The Goat Of Mendes fails to impress. In fact, the album is remarkably consistent, and there are thrilling moments to be found throughout. ‘Masks Of God’ benefits from the record’s smart sequencing, surprising with intense, Suffocation-style technical death metal from the first beat, contrasting with the slightly more measured approach that the band tend to adopt to building a song ordinarily, and the groovy thrash feel that runs through much of the rest of the track uncharacteristically emphasises the rhythm guitars, at times even approaching the mechanised rattle of Fear Factory, before a pyrotechnic instrumental section brings us back to more familiar territory. Even the brief classical interlude of ‘Fortune My Foe’, a mournful piece of chamber music, is in keeping with the overall mood of the album, and skilfully serves to connect Akercocke’s music to something less obviously rooted in the 21st century, suggesting that they are able to tap into an ageless evil, in the same way that the classical guitar pieces on Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality add an arcane mystique to the sound of another legendary British metal band.

Reinforcing the perfection of the album’s sequencing, it is hard to imagine The Goat Of Mendes concluding with any other track than ‘Ceremony Of Nine Angles’. Running to nearly nine minutes, the track is an almost unbearably intense epic that pushes the band’s bombastic ambition further than ever before. The tremolo blast is a common feature of the band’s sound, but the technicality and choice of notes tends to draw from classic death metal, rather than the kind of icy, minor key modes that characterise black metal. On this track, however, Akercocke dive headlong into black metal territory, attacking the opening riff with the kind of fevered mania of Impaled Nazarene, circa Tol Kormpt Norz Norz Norz…, gradually building to a symphonic climax that recalls Emperor or Abigor. The band truly slip the leash across the ferocious final minutes of the album, with Gray’s tom rolls going off like artillery rounds, and layered choral drones generating an overwhelming wave of sound that finally breaks as Mendonca is heard speaking a final incantation: ‘Thou art my master: Satan!’. The whole thing is nothing less than an ecstatic hymn to the power of the horned one, and displays the kind of awe and power that one imagines would satisfy him.

The Goat Of Mendes is nothing short of a monumental achievement. Deservedly hailed as such on its release, if anything, it has improved with age, so rarely has it been surpassed since, within its milieu at least. Frequently, one cannot help but feel that contemporary extreme metal albums sometimes opt for duration over quality, as if the mere passing of time denotes epic scale and scope, and what could have been an excellent 40 minute album instead becomes a 75 minute test of endurance. Akercocke’s second album, however, is a 60 minute album that is hugely grandiose, and yet feels like a tight, concise album of the type that Death or Deicide would have released in the halcyon days of classic death metal. Lengthy tracks fly by, primarily because of the strength of the material and the fluency of the composition, which ensures that what could seem cold and calculated in fact feels organic and (in)human. This album is a towering classic that fulfils the huge potential of Akercocke’s debut, in a disdainful display of metal might for the ages.

Score: 92%

Abigor – Fractal Possession

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Fractal Possession
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Fractal Possession
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: End All Life
  • Format: Digibook CD
  • Catalogue Number: EAL 052

Abigor mainstay P.K. returns after a six year absence (since 2001’s somewhat lukewarmly-received Satanized), re-recruiting drummer T.T. and new vocalist A.R. for 2007’s Fractal Possession. Abigor are quite rightly held in the highest regard within the pantheon of black metal artists, in large part because of their incredible mid- to late-90s output. This took the core backbone of early 90s Norwegian black metal, with a faintly “medieval” twist, but never felt like a direct lift of greater bands, owing to their prodigious talent and almost ADHD approach to song-writing that I have described previously as “chaos black”. Understandably there were huge expectations when a new album was announced, with many fans yearning for a return to the early Satyricon- and Emperor-influenced sounds of yesteryear, rather than Satanized’s more futuristic take on the genre. However, pandering to the kvltist fanbase has never been what Abigor are about.

The first thing to say about Fractal Possession is that it is really, really good. The second thing to say is that, despite the obvious quality on display, it is hard not to feel that Abigor are a little bit late to a party that peaked some years previously. Fractal Possession fits firmly within the Moonfoggery of mid-period Satyricon, Dødheimsgard, Thorns et al. and even to an extent Mayhem’s Grand Declaration Of War (although it is not as daring as the latter). The album kicks off with a vaguely industrial opener (‘Warning’), all robotic voices and radio sounds, which sets the scene for much of the rest of the album – in fact the subtle use of electronics, samples and keys is a real strength of the album. Abigor have never been shy of a good sample or keyword line, but this time they are used differently, creating a colder, more mechanical sound in keeping with the band’s new lyrical stance – still blasphemous and in praise of Satan but now with a technological spin (stand-out track ‘3D Blasphemy’ references the “biomechanical Antichrist”). Again, there is clear influence from the likes of Mysticum and Aborym here, although Abigor embrace industrial to nowhere near the same extent as either, using those influences as flavour more than an outright genre-shift – this is still very clearly black metal, despite its experimentation.

New vocalist A.R. puts in a solid performance – his slightly lower-pitched black metal rasp (in comparison to Silenius’ for instance) suits the music perfectly, and it’s actually nice on this occasion to be able to make out the lyrics; his experiments with clean vocals and the Maniac-style declaratory stuff is more of a mixed bag. When it works, it briefly reminds of Garm or Aldrahn, but when it doesn’t, it sounds out of place (the close of ‘Vapourized Tears’ is suspiciously like latter-day Katatonia – a band I love, but this just doesn’t fit with the rest of this album). The layered guitar sound retains some of the sense of melody from older Abigor, and is unquestionably tightly arranged and performed, and I personally like the slightly stop-start nature of some of the riffing. Also in common with older Abigor are the sheer number of riffs being utilised across the whole album, even if it sounds superficially more straightforward, owing to the impressive production that renders everything audible, which was still a bit of a rarity in black metal in 2007. The drumming of T.T. is predictably incredibly varied and impressive, and he has admirably turned his hand to the mechanical sound of the New Abigor.

This isn’t perfect and could easily be dismissed as an example of bandwagon-jumping by a previous innovator within the scene. I’m more charitable and think this is an excellent example of third-wave black metal embracing new influences and creating something of musical worth. Even if Abigor at this stage were not doing anything wildly ground-breaking, that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is an exceptionally solid set of songs that hang together as a coherent album and represent an impressive return from the proverbial grave for a band many had written off towards the end of the 00s. Recommended.

Score: 78%

Abigor – Quintessence

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Quintessence
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Quintessence (with a note on Origo Regium 1993-1994)
  • Year of Release: 2012 (Origo Regium 1998)
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: End All Life
  • Format: A5 Digibook DCD
  • Catalogue Number: EAL066

This is a curious and fascinating release from Austrian mainstays Abigor. It comprised at the time, both the best of their then current thinking in the form of a re-recorded and reimagined version of one of their strongest albums (Channelling The Quintessence Of Satan), and a compilation of their very earliest demo recordings from the early 90s. This intriguing mixture of essentially non-original material is likely to be of great interest to the diehard black metal fan not already cognisant with this material, given the justifiably high regard the band is held in by black metal fans in general, but probably of limited interest to more casual acquaintances.

Because of the nature of a release like this, a note on the specific contents is necessary, especially as some of this material has been officially released beforehand – I also own a copy of 1998’s much less comprehensive Origo Regium 1993-1998 (jewelcase CD, limited to 1500 copies on Napalm Records, NPR052). I will not spend any time repeating myself by reviewing that as well; suffice to say that it comprises a selection of demo tracks from the four complete demos presented in the Quintessence package. Disc 2 of Quintessence contains Abigor’s first four primitive demo recordings in full (it slightly mysteriously misses 1994’s “In Hate And Sin”, but there is more than enough to get your teeth into here). These are presented in slightly achronological order, starting with demo #2 (“Lux Devicta Est”), then #3 (“Promo Tape 2/94”), #4 (“Moonrise”), and finally Abigor’s very first foray into black metal, “Ash Nazg…”. The line-up for each of these four demos was P.K. (guitars), T.T. (drums, guitars, “bass”, keyboards), and Rune (better known as Amestigon’s Tharen; vocals).

There is much written about the Abigor demos online, and it’s well worth pointing out that if Abigor had not gone on to release their legendarily strong string of early albums, this demo collection would go down as one of those unmissable collectors’ items documenting the fascinating development of black metal across Europe (and indeed the world) during this period of time. As it is, we are left with a bunch of recordings of tracks that would latterly be regarded as classics when better recorded on their fantastic debut Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age. The six track “Lux Devicta Est” (1993) offers less than polished versions of ‘Diabolic Unity’, ‘Kingdom Of Darkness’ and ‘Midwintertears’, but even at this immature stage demonstrates Abigor’s unique preoccupations at the time. It incorporates their obscure mixture of Norwegian tremolo-picked blackness with keys, samples, and the faintly medieval atmospheres favoured by their first few albums. It is clear that the band are heavily influenced by classical tropes, and the intricate and chaotic musicianship they would later perfect is present, despite the weak production values. When I say weak, as with all things in black metal, this is a relative thing. To my ear this is pretty decent, especially in comparison to some of the far murkier corners of my record collection (Absurd, Moonblood, anything from the LLN, even Deathcrush). Tharen’s vocals are not as strong as those of Silenius when these songs were re-recorded for the debut, veering between an Abbath-esque croak, Regan (of The Exorcist), spoken or chanted passages, and a high-pitched screech that even reminds me of Fleurety or Bethlehem. They are functional rather than awe-inspiring, but the flaws in the vocals and production, and the unfavourable comparisons to Verwüstung aside, the inherent genius in the musical DNA of these songs is plain to hear. What some may regard as schizophrenic leaping from blasting Norseness to acoustic guitar and near-ambient interludes (foreshadowing the likes of Summoning) actually is a hugely refreshing reminder of a time when black metal was not so strictly defined by genre tradition, and bands all over the world felt they were free to put their own stamp and bring novel ideas to the table without fear of scene reprisal. The sheer inventiveness of even the early Abigor recordings shames many of the later, more conformist black metal bands, even as Abigor I am sure would see themselves as being part of black metal’s Satanic orthodoxy. ‘Crawl Back To Your Cross’ is a highlight for me, being a song not re-recorded for use later on, and so has become a forgotten gem.

“Promo Tape 2/94” and “Moonrise” (1994) are similar in quality, presenting early versions of near-classics ‘Eye To Eye At Armageddon’, ‘Universe Of Black Divine’ and ‘My Soft Vision In Blood’. Abigor’s tactic of combining virtuosity and medieval themes is the defining vision of the band, and placing it in the context of their wider body of work, a perhaps wrong-headed comparison I keep coming to is that of Satyricon – starting with an approach that was firmly backwards-looking, but over their career moving towards more modern or even futuristic concerns (Satyricon went urban with Rebel Extravaganza, Abigor went sci-fi with Satanized). Obviously, Abigor have never achieved the mainstream appeal of Satyricon during their evolution, but it is a testament to the bands of this ilk within the wider black metal scene, that the very best artists tread their own paths without slavishly imitating others. The final three tracks are from Abigor’s very first demo, “Ash Nazg…” (1993), and the production quality and musicianship reflects this – raw, primitive, and very much a curio rather than essential listening, but as a completist it is nice to have it here in its entirety. Even on this, the baby version of ‘In Sin’ (and the parts of ‘Shadowlord’ that were later incorporated into it) are worth a cursory listen from those with an interest in the early 90s black metal scene in all its myriad forms.

The second disc is a re-recording and reimagining of 1999’s undisputed classic Channelling The Quintessence Of Satan. I have always had a broad suspicion of bands re-recording earlier albums, as often I question the motivation behind it. What novel ideas are they bringing to the table, and if the answer is largely minimal, what is the point? Channelling is already one of my top 3 Abigor albums (Supreme Immortal Art being the high watermark, with Channelling and Nachthymnen competing for second place). The re-recording is nonetheless a masterclass in modern black metal – it fully embraces Abigor’s chaotic aesthetic, with a pristine cold production that doesn’t pander to modern symphonic tendencies, and re-makes already solid gold tracks, invoking mid-period Emperor, although new frontman A.R. elicits as many comparisons to Attila Csihar as he does to Ihsahn. T.T.’s drumming is as blistering as ever, and while the band’s commitment to not repeating riffs may leave the listener initially perturbed, this is a classic example of an album that benefits from repeated listening with headphones, as you pick up new refrains and ideas on every listen. This is about as good as it gets when it comes to late 90s black metal – even though this re-recording dates to 2009. It is firmly within the mould of Scandinavian BM of the time, and has therefore lost some of their medieval predilections, but is an untouchable piece of chaos black. Whether it is any improvement on the original I guess is a matter of personal preference; it is sort of redundant, and as with the original needs to be listened to as a complete work of art rather than a set of individual songs, but it is pretty damn perfect.

A quick note on the packaging: as everyone knows I am a massive sucker for pretty packaging, and Quintessence is an excellent example of how to do this – a handsome A5 digibook format, utilising the Dürer artwork from Channelling…, but also includes photos of the cassette demo inlays and early shots of the band from the 1993-1994 period. This certainly makes it much more attractive to the collector. So ultimately… not exactly essential, despite the quality of material on display here. This is a collection aimed at completists, not casual listeners, but definitely worth picking up if you want to scratch beneath the surface of 90s black metal.

Score: 75% (for the demos collection) / 85% (for Quintessence)

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art

Author: BD Joyce

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Supreme Immortal Art
  • Year of Release: 1998
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR040

Supreme Immortal Art is Abigor’s fourth full-length album, and the title is suggestive of an immense arrogance and assumption of superiority on the part of the Austrian black metallers. Remarkably, it lives up to the sobriquet, standing tall as a singular and towering example of mid-to-late 1990s symphonic black metal. It’s not totally unique – there are clear similarities with Emperor, Obtained Enslavement and even to a lesser degree Satyricon and Dimmu Borgir – but there are also enough nuances and touches of individuality to enable Abigor to occupy a position head and shoulders above many of their contemporaries in what at the time was a crowded field, and stand comparison with the giants of the genre. This album is an extremely cohesive release that conveys a scale and grandeur that belies its relatively slim running time, and demonstrates that epic has nothing to do with the duration of a song, and everything to do with creating an immersive alternative universe that pulls the listener in, eliminating all external interference.

Supreme Immortal Art does this from the outset. It’s immediately obvious from the brief but bombastic intro, atmospheric synths swirling around martial drums, a little reminiscent of the loosely-related Tolkien obsessives Summoning, that we are entering that magical black metal territory, where music ceases being something that can be mechanically dissected into its constituent parts, and transforms into an all-encompassing cyclone of majestic feeling, inexorably drawing the listener into something arcane, something beyond. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that this music is singularly black metal, in the sense that it clearly not simply an evolution of what has come before, but something distinctly different. In the early works of Mayhem or Darkthrone (once they had fully transitioned from their death metal debut Soulside Journey), the influences of Celtic Frost, Bathory and the classic triumvirate of Teutonic thrash are detectable even as they are transformed and synthesised into new forms, but Abigor show little clear connection to prior iterations of extreme metal, offering a wall of sound that can only really be compared with their symphonic black metal brethren listed above, although even then, Abigor’s use of non-linear song structures, and their chaotic and restless sound, show enough subtle differences from their peers to distinguish themselves.

At the conclusion of the aforementioned intro, ‘Satan In Me’ explodes into life, a maelstrom of raging guitars periodically emerging from eerily discordant washes of grandiose synths, and perma-blasting drums. The lack of any real riffing combined with the complexity of the composition, is initially disorienting in the extreme. Repeated listens, however, allow the churning and ever-changing chords to begin to resolve themselves into something that becomes surprisingly memorable, even before the spiralling lead guitar melodies that pepper the latter half of the song provide something approaching a hook. The confounding nature of the song structures that frequently develop an initial idea through modulations of key and tempo-changes, rather than returning to recognisable motifs in recurring patterns is accentuated by what one presumes is an intentionally uneven production. As we know, symphonic black metal fairly quickly became a sub-genre smothered by slick, glossy production values and over-familiar synth sounds – thankfully Supreme Immortal Art evades this pitfall with ease, and the production instead creates a true assault on the senses, with drums, orchestral programming, keyboards and guitars taking turns to dominate the roiling turmoil of demonic polyphony that characterises Abigor’s sound.

The nature of an album such as this emphasises the primacy of the experience that the listener undergoes as he / she listens to it. Not unlike a religious ritual, Supreme Immortal Art is something to devote one’s attention to, and even to participate in. In this way, the mesmerising and enveloping nature of the songs truly captivate in a way that simply cannot happen if it is treated as background music to some other activity. This also means that it is difficult to identify any specific songs as obvious highlights or lowlights – the LP is more understandable as a single movement of music, and would lose little were the gaps between the songs removed altogether. That said, there are sections of the album that linger a little longer in the memory than others. For example, ‘Soil Of Souls’ initially introduces itself with mid-period Bathory-style acoustic guitars, mysterious and majestic. This is brief respite, before the band unfurl a sustained blast which is adorned with highly unusual and intricate melodic progressions, a world away from the more basic chromatic tremolo progressions of some of their peers, before the synths become the lead instrument throughout a spectacular mid-section, which leads to the climactic and gradually ascending neo-classical guitar figures which close the song, accompanied by cavernous, reverb-heavy toms. Indeed, T.T.’s performance behind the kit is rarely less than magnificent throughout Supreme Immortal Art. The drums are occasionally a little low in the mix, but he mixes prolonged double-kick blastbeats with more interesting rhythms that provide a personality and variety that prevents Abigor’s specific strain of black metal from ever sounding cold or mechanical. It is important to note that this does not have to be a bad thing – Mysticum and Aborym both confirm that melding an industrial edge to black metal can be utterly fascinating – but the more organic feel of T.T’s playing is perfect for Abigor.

Similarly intriguing is ‘Eclipse My Heart, Crown Me King’. Another labyrinthine track, the opening segment showcases rapid palm-muted rhythm guitar work against a backdrop of halftime drums and synth, before being joined by an apparently vast choir of voices, which rises, as if from the infernal depths of the vortex that Abigor continually find themselves teetering on the edge of. Memorable instrumental passages follow, keyboards and guitars interweave faintly Scandinavian folk melodies, against a barrage of relentless blasting before the band abruptly pull the reins of the four horses of the apocalypse dragging the song to it’s cataclysmic end, complete with equine sound effects! Not for the last time, Abigor call to mind a less psychedelic and somewhat more orthodox black metal version of Arcturus, although where the latter band have their sights fixed firmly on the infinite expanse of space, Abigor open a portal to the fiendish abyss below.

Elsewhere, ‘Blood And Soil’ thrills with operatic vocals straight out of Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ erupting into ferocious black metal guitars, and deft cymbals accenting the baroque cadences of guitars and synths, unusually locked into unison, as opposed to operating in counterpoint as they do for most of the album. As the album draws to a conclusion, the penultimate track, ”Magic Glass Monument’ mutates from a relatively conventional slice of In The Nightside Eclipse-era Emperor worship, through some unexpected major key chord progressions of the kind one might ordinarily expect to find in the kind of folk / black metal popularised by Ensiferum and Finntroll, before the woozy synths of the final section plough a similar furrow to some of Sigh’s more playful work – black metal reflected back at itself in a funhouse mirror, a disturbing distortion of expected forms and norms.

There is very little in the way of criticism to levy at Supreme Immortal Art. The vocals of Silenius, while complementing the musical blitzkrieg, are somewhat generic and add little else than texture. In addition, some may decry the admittedly dated sounding synth sounds that pervade the album, and it is fair to say that what may have sounded authentically spooky in 1998 now sounds a little contrived and passe. Similarly, the orchestral instruments are unavoidably synthetic – one imagines that the band’s budget could not stretch to the kind of string and brass sections that would’ve been needed to bring the band’s most avant-garde ideas to life. Some may find this artifice distracting and off-putting, although in my view it simply adds to the aesthetic, evoking as it does a period of time during which some of the most enthralling music of all time was made, with refreshingly little regard for any prospect of mainstream acceptance or critical acclaim. Supreme Immortal Art is a staggering achievement, a blizzard of ideas which hangs together remarkably coherently. It’s also exactly what I personally want from black metal as a genre – the quotidian fervently obliterated by awe-inspiring cacophony, as Abigor build something that defies description as simply a collection of songs or compositions, but instead stands as a timeless monument to what can be willed into existence by the dedicated mind.

Score: 90%

Abigor – Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan
  • Year of Release: 1999
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR062

I thought Abigor’s previous album, Supreme Immortal Art, was close to perfect – a bombastic, baroque, swirling chaos of a black metal album that managed to stay just about the right side of falling over the edge into unformulated noise. It managed to maintain a balance between complexity, experimentation, grandeur, and quality songwriting, and remains a high watermark for “symphonic black metal”. A year later they delivered Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan, which, although a very different beast to its predecessor, represents for me the second of Abigor’s two truly great black metal records. After this I felt there was a slow decline in quality from the band, but around 1998-1999 they could do no wrong.

There is a significant line-up change – versatile frontman Silenius had left to concentrate on other projects (ambient black metal band Summoning, and martial industrial act Kreuzweg Ost), and was replaced by Heidenreich vocalist Thurisaz. Thurisaz is clearly less varied in his approach, but with the stylistic changes the band has made this isn’t a criticism – his rasp is a typical reverbed black metal one, contributing more to the percussion than to the overall feelings evoked by the album. The major change is just how metallic this feels. That might sound like a slightly odd thing to say, reviewing a black metal album, but hear me out – go listen to Supreme Immortal Art with all its orchestral touches and arrangements, and then listen to this straight afterwards. There is still much complexity here, but this is an altogether more brutal affair. The production has been beefed up significantly from previous releases, with the guitar and drum sound very much to the fore (the vocals are quite low in the mix compared to their previous output). There is very much a whiff of Abigor’s Apokalypse EP about this, but (and I doubt the band would appreciate the comparison) there are also similarities on occasion to both the early 90s Swedish melodic death and black metal scenes.

The drumming – as usual – is phenomenal, although less varied than some other Abigor releases I have reviewed. The percentage of blastbeating is higher than previously, which adds to the record’s intensity, rarely but effectively reducing the tempo to provide slower, more portentous moments. Guitars retain some of the tremolo-picked riffing from Apokalypse, but this time rather than recalling classic period Darkthrone remind more an unholy mixture of classic Emperor and Dissection. Keyboards play no part this time round, although samples of pseudo-industrial noise and strings occasionally punctuate the otherwise straightforwardly black metal assault.

I want to be clear – I think this is an utterly brilliant black metal record; perhaps not quite of the standard of Supreme Immortal Art, but certainly an excellent example of how a quality black metal album can be produced, encompassing both complexity and brutality. Despite their differences, this and Supreme Immortal Art will ultimately be Abigor’s long-standing legacy within the black metal scene. The band themselves felt there were some issues with arrangements and production values (hence their attempt to re-record / re-arrange it later on; something for another review), but once again I feel this is near perfect. I miss Silenius’ vocal versatility, but I admire the band’s continued commitment to variation and progression from record to record. Go listen and be impressed.

Score: 88%

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Supreme Immortal Art
  • Year of Release: 1998
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR040

Before reviewing this, I had a quick look through the opinions on the Metal Archives website (often a useful cultural barometer for this type of music, even if it is infested with kvltists, and has yet to impose a sanctions policy for hate-speech). I was somewhat surprised to see that Supreme Immortal Art, Abigor’s 1998 utter masterpiece, has been seen as somewhat divisive. Surprised, because if you don’t think this is one of the high watermarks for the mid-to-late ‘90s black metal scene, you are frankly just plain wrong.

Reading some of those reviews has meant I am going to write something slightly different from my original plan… more of a case for the defence. But this is not the defence of something that is probably objectively rubbish, but I just happen to love (there are plenty of those, whether books, films, or records). This is the case for the defence of a record that I genuinely believe to be one of the finest examples of black metal ever recorded. I’m not exaggerating – I think it’s that good. At some point I should probably write a Top 40 for the genre, and this would certainly feature.

OK, where to start? Supreme Immortal Art is Abigor’s first proper stab at “symphonic black metal”. The obvious touchstone is Emperor, and their spirit is evoked often. Abigor have never been quite as accomplished as the Norwegians they clearly admire, but they’re not doing a terrible job of punting in that direction. Building on their earlier strengths, every song here has both complexity and melody, but – and crucially, I think this was what was lacking on their last couple of releases – there is an emotional depth and swoop to the composition. Sure, there’s rage and hate and all the usual stuff you expect from a black metal record, but there’s a grandiosity to proceedings that wasn’t present before.

Some comment has been made about the prevalence of keyboards, and the production. It is certainly true that the drums are lower in the mix than usual, and if I have a quibble this would be it. TT is one of black metal’s most inventive drummers, and for his efforts to be buried in the mix is something of a shame – a remaster would be well-worth listening to. But to criticise the album for being keyboard-driven is short-sighted (I’m being generous there; the “no keyboards” crowd can genuinely go fuck themselves). This was 1998, and many of the greatest black metal records of the time were using keyboards, as bands had realised that vocals/guitar/drums could be limiting (Abigor had abandoned the pretence of bass guitar a couple of releases ago). Supreme Immortal Art exists within the great pantheon of amazing releases around the same time from Emperor, Tartaros, Obtained Enslavement, Limbonic Art and others – and is better than most (Emperor, notwithstanding). Ben asked me whether I felt there were any stand-out tracks… I think this should be regarded as “a piece”, but if pushed, I guess favourites would be “Soil Of Souls” and “The Spirit Of Venus”, but I think listening to these tracks in isolation is a mistake – they are part of a much greater whole.

This is an album that builds on Abigor’s previously demonstrated ability to construct complex yet melodic compositions, while adding a symphonic aspect that takes this to another level of black metal excellence. I’m going with 90% purely because of my quibble about the drum production, but I really cannot recommend this more highly. If you haven’t heard Abigor before – start here.

Score: 90%

Abigor – Opus IV

Author – Brendan Blake

Abigor – Opus IV
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Opus IV
  • Year of Release: 1996
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR 020

OK, the first thing to note about this album is that is not in fact an album – it’s two EPs recorded in separate sessions, firstly Horns Lurk Beyond The Stars (recorded November and December 1995), and Blut Aus Aeonen (recorded May 1996). Although there are similarities in style between both halves of the album, and indeed to some of their previous work, there is a significant difference in the quality of the production, and I guess my major criticism of Opus IV as an “album” is this lack of consistency. I think it also suffers by comparison with the two albums bookending it – the self-assured Nachthymnen and the absolute masterpiece that is Supreme Immortal Art. Having said that, I still think this is brilliant, albeit patchy.

‘Horns Beneath The Stars’ is genuinely fantastic – leaving behind the occasionally slightly twee medievalisms of some of Abigor’s earlier output, this takes on an eerier, more otherworldly tone. Abigor haven’t abandoned melody – it’s still very much in there, but the dissonance is greater; opener ‘Crimson Horizons And Ashen Skies’ starts with a blastbeat and a scream, and is largely pedal-to-the-metal until the end, despite the odd keyboard or flute addition. What is maintained from (in particular) Nachthymnen is the sheer density of riffs and drum patterns throughout the entire EP. And like that prior work, this abundance of ideas works incredibly effectively, never descending into outright chaos, but often teetering on the brink. There is also a subtlety to this – not a word you’d often use with a relatively raw black metal band. Keys, acoustic guitars and flute are used sparingly but effectively. Silenius manages a varied vocal approach, incorporating a traditional black metal rasp, a pained shouting style, and more sinister near-spoken word (too often this sounds just plain cheesy, but here it works). At its best, this reminds of classic Emperor, although without the sheer grandeur and pomp of Ihsahn et al., but I don’t make that comparison lightly.

The second half, ‘Blut Aus Aeonen’, is, by comparison, somewhat of a letdown. That’s not to say that it’s bad, but it feels like something of a regressive step back to the likes of Orkblut. Now, I really loved that release, and I like this, but for me it just doesn’t have the quality of “Side A”. There is a notable dip in the production quality, sounding altogether muddier than the first four tracks. Production is often not something to moan about when it comes to black metal, but the disparity is somewhat jarring. Nonetheless, there is plenty to admire, with the usual mass of convoluted riffing, varied drum patterns, and the now to be expected acoustic guitar, flute and keyboard interludes. Overall? It’s a great Abigor record, and definitely a must for fans. It’s not their best, but to label this less than ‘excellent’ seems churlish. It is an interesting bridging album between the mystical Nachthymnen and the more transcendent Supreme Immortal Art. Highly recommended, and proof that Abigor have at this stage barely put a foot wrong.

Score: 84%

Abigor – Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age
  • Year of Release: 1994
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR 005

I like to think that over the years I have grown as a person, and part of that is musically – my taste has broadened immeasurably, and I look back at my previously narrow-minded views with a significant sense of embarrassment. Nonetheless, even now, revisiting early 90s black metal is a trip to my happy place, reminding me of why I fell in love with this music in the first place. And so it is with the first album from Austrian black metal act Abigor.

Released in 1994, most of the black metal listening public were heavily focused on what was going on in Scandinavia (with good reason), and as such quite a number of genre near-classics were and are often overlooked in favour of the more high-profile Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor et al. I remember reading about the Austrian Black Metal Syndicate at some point in the mid-90s, formed apparently in response to the Norwegian Black Metal Circle, and consisting of the likes of Golden Dawn, Summoning, Pazazu, Vuzem (later Hollenthon)… and Abigor. Many of the original Syndicate are long-since gone, but it seems that Abigor are still going strong. Their debut, Verwϋstung / Invoke The Dark Age, while not their greatest album, remains an outstandingly strong opener in what has been a lengthy discography of ‘true’, but not boringly reductionist, black metal.

After a series of demos and promos of varying quality, both production- and songwriting-wise, Abigor made the decision to a) replace their vocalist (Tharen a.k.a. Rune is out, Silenius is in), and b) base their debut around re-recorded and re-worked demo tracks, with the addition of a couple of ambient keyboard interludes, courtesy of (oddly) Rune. The first thing to note is that, in comparison with their demo material, the sound is vastly improved. Black metal often favours a deliberately raw production, and this is certainly jagged, but unlike some of their contemporaries this is pretty crystal, albeit with the de rigeur near total lack of bass. Secondly, Silenius’ vocals are vastly superior to the demo takes by Rune, being higher-pitched and displaying a far greater breadth of emotion, even if that breadth extends only from hatred to despair and sorrow.

Abigor often get lumped in as one of those bands jumping on the Norsk bandwagon, but I think this is wholly unfair – this is a melodic, diverse, and thought-out record that shows a remarkable degree of individual personality for a debut album from a supposed second-tier outfit. Use of keyboards, acoustic guitar, subtle variation in vocal styles, and a genuinely varied drum performance from T.T. are welcomed, and make this stand out from what was to rapidly become a very overcrowded pack.

You know when a black metal album has really worked as a collection of songs and left its mark when individual tracks stand out in and of themselves, rather than them merging into a morass in your memory as soon as you’ve turned the record off (obviously some records are aiming for this effect; this is not one of them). In this case, Verwϋstung succeeds, offering a number of black metal not-quite-classics in the form of ‘Kingdom Of Darkness’ (with its Seventh Seal-sampling opening), the near doomy parts of ‘Eye To Eye At Armageddon’ and particularly ‘In Sin’, and genuine contender, ‘Weeping Midwintertears’.

Abigor would go on to create bigger and better things – including at least two bona fide black metal classics – but this is an underrated and confident debut from a band that really deserve more of your attention than you have given them to date.

Score: 82%

Abigail Williams – Becoming

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail Williams – Becoming
  • Artist: Abigail Williams
  • Album: Becoming
  • Year of Release: 2012
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CANDLE292CDSE

Abigail Williams, as I have mentioned before, are a band that attract a certain amount of internet ire. It’s not difficult to see why – their sound has shifted dramatically through sub-sub-genres of black metal throughout their career, seemingly tracking whatever happens to be flavour of the month at any given time, and as such have picked up accusations of being a “hipster black metal band”. I rather see them as, at worst, a kind of cultural barometer of what is happening in the contemporary black metal scene, and more generously as a band continuing to listen to and being influenced by bands producing new music and evolving over time as they try and find their own identity within the wider metal scene.

Firstly, to address the supposed issue of “hipster black metal”… I hate this term, as I think it’s an ignorant and lazy way of dismissing bands or their albums without even really giving each release a fair hearing on its own merits. There is a subset of metal fans that adhere to a kind of snobbery, bordering on musical fascism, which likes to dismiss bands because of their perceived lack of adherence to a kind of “purity” or musical honesty, trashing their albums based not on the quality of material produced, but rather their idea of what constitutes being “true” to the idea of black metal. Personally, I’d rather judge an album based on whether I enjoy listening to it or not, but excuse me for being a simple fan of music rather than a crusader.

To put this in context, Abigail Williams (or more specifically frontman Ken Sorceron, as the rest of the line-up changes with bewildering frequency) started as a sort of blackened metalcore band, before moving into the realms of symphonic black metal on their first full-length (In The Shadow Of A Thousand Suns) and then to an even more stripped down and raw black metal assault on their second (In The Absence Of Light). Now on their third full-length Becoming the band takes another step into emulating contemporaneous acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Agalloch. Don’t get me wrong, this is in many ways highly derivative of superior bands, but it is nonetheless actually a really, really good album.

Opener ‘Ascension Sickness’ starts with the near-obligatory wind sounds of mid-period Bathory et al. but effectively strives towards the epic feel of early Emperor, and I detect a whiff of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss-era Burzum in the drumming during the ambient/acoustic build-up to its conclusion. The opener is largely typical for the progression of the rest of the album, with its mixture of tremolo-picked black metal riffing, quieter acoustic parts, some more traditional heavy metal sequences, and valuable contributions from their cellist (plus some bonus violin on the final track, ‘Beyond The Veil’). Sure, this is highly reminiscent of Wolves In The Throne Room, with vocal nods to the likes of Xasthur, but I fail to see how this is a bad thing. The closing track in particular deserves a place in black metal history as an – and I confidently predict rapidly forgotten – underrated classic.

Fans of the likes of Agalloch, Deafheaven, hell, even Primordial should find a great deal to enjoy in this release. To sum up – yes, it’s derivative, but let’s be honest here, there’s not a great deal of heavy metal out there that isn’t to some degree or other – almost part of the fun of reviewing stuff like this is spotting the musical references. This is a strong release from a fairly characterless band that will be ignored by many for reasons other than its actual content, and I think that’s a shame. Personally, I’ll be chalking it up as a positive – and for me, their best album to date.

Score: 75%

Abigail Williams – In The Absence Of Light

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail Williams – In The Absence Of Light
  • Artist: Abigail Williams
  • Album: In The Absence Of Light
  • Year of Release: 2010
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CANDLE238CD

Quite early on into the great undertaking of BD Joyce and I to review our respective record collections alphabetically, I am forced to address a particular issue – that of the mediocre record. I personally have a massive soft spot for middle of the road black and death metal, which means I am more than happy to sit and listen to these middle-stream albums, say, over Sunday lunch (as I am doing now), without feeling the need to wax lyrical about their respective merits. I personally own a vast number of records that are not intrinsically terrible, and I am happy to pass time listening to, but ultimately contribute little to musical or genre history. Abigail Williams are one of those bands that fit into that bracket where if they were a support band to a superior act, or part-way up a festival bill, I’d probably go and check them out, but as a headline act are likely always going to be found somewhat wanting.

So I come to Abigail Williams’ second full-length release, In The Absence of Light. There has been another stylistic shift since their last album, with Ken “Sorceron” (yes, I know black metal pseudonyms are a bit infantile, but sticking to the Ken just highlights the silliness, and not in a good way) basically replacing the previous line-up and stripping out the symphonic (i.e. the keyboard) elements from the previous album and delivering a much more straightforward version of Euro melodic black metal. Emperor and Dimmu Borgir remain obvious touchstones, but to the band’s credit there is an increased emphasis on melodic soloing that recalls classic acts such as Maiden and Priest. While the masters have acknowledged their older influences (Emperor, Ihsahn (solo), Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth for instance), it is pleasing to see these still permeating with younger acts.

This is a highly credible, well-executed piece of melodic black metal (no metalcore here, before anyone says it). It’s well-produced and I’m certainly not not enjoying listening to it, but I doubt it has the sticking power of anything classic, important, or groundbreaking, even within such a mini “sort of” genre as melodic black metal.

Score: 65%