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.
Album: Quintessence (with a note on Origo Regium 1993-1994)
Year of Release: 2012 (Origo Regium 1998)
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)
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.
Abigor continue their good to excellent form with full-length number two, Nachthymnen (From the Twilight Kingdom). It marks an end to their split German/English album titles, but this isn’t really significant as their sound evolves fairly seamlessly from their previous two recordings and earlier demos. I’ve heard others describe this as the high point of the Abigor discography, and while I don’t agree with this summation (I think there are at least a couple of later albums that for me are total classics of the genre), this is undoubtedly an absolute belter of a record.
It’s firmly within the early-to-mid 90s black metal vein, obviously, and with that comes the prerequisite production values – so if you don’t like that thin, tremolo-heavy thing, then I really wouldn’t bother. Having said that, apart from the total lack of bass, this is a remarkably clear-sounding record – noticeably underground, but without devolving into the murk of the truly worst examples of the genre. Bass is sonically absent from almost all mid-90s black metal, so that’s no surprise; allegedly there is some on here, but damned if I can hear it. What is great about this record is just how much *stuff* there is going on! Re-listening to this after a decade of being pummelled by drone, post-metal, blackgaze, post-dronegaze, or whatever is the current thing, it is remarkable just how many riffs there are on this. Those furious blast parts (and the chaos black I think they perfected later) are definitely there, but this is actually hyper-melodic. If I was looking for comparisons I’d go for early Satyricon or Ancient even, but neither were quite as varied as this (at this point in their careers). There are elements that should be laugh-out-loud silly (and I’m sure others would find them so), including the use of female vocals, timpani, the wind sounds, the bell (oh, the bell!), and so on, but I don’t care. I just find myself swept along with it.
It’s better than Orkblut – it has cohesion as a piece of work that its predecessor didn’t, and the band seem happier with blending their frankly insane number of ideas into each song rather than creating separate pieces. It’s not avant-garde in the sense of Sigh or Arcturus, but this is still brimming with ingenuity, within a very traditionalist musical movement – to which they are firmly wed, and I can’t see many looking askance. It’s also, if slightly ridiculous in places (isn’t most heavy metal?), a fantastic metal album. There are bits that recall classic Maiden, there’s a significant chunk of ‘Dornen’ that could have been written by some (decent) Euro-goth metal band, and there is more than enough Scandinavian black metal influence to silence the kvltists. The more I revisit the Abigor back catalogue, the more I find myself amazed they have not achieved the same lofty heights as some of their better-known contemporaries. This is a genuinely great black metal album and if you don’t own it, do something about that.