As this little tradition of ours keeps growing, we're slowly realizing that we've gotten ourselves digging where a lot of old relics reside. The annual "Withstanding the March of Time" article has reached 1993 and to date that was, by far, the hardest list to compile. It seems as though 1993 was when so many turning points in the history of metal took place. The blooming of the doom/death sound in the UK, the meteoric rise of black metal in Norway and the eclecticism of death metal in the USA and Europe are some of the major highlights that had us arguing fervently as staff members to finally come up with ten albums that we feel need another fresh perspective.
This inevitable narrowing down has left some massively influential albums just a few steps away from making the cut. Katatonia's monstrous _Dance of December Souls_ comes as the most surprising choice, while At the Gates' often overlooked gem _With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness_, Death's _Individual Though Patterns_ and _Dreams of the Carrion Kind_ by James Murphy's Disincarnate represent some of the finer death metal records of the time that were briefly outdone by some the timeless masterpieces you'll read about below.
So as the old-timers dust off their proverbial memories and the young fellows try to forge a more accurate perspective of metal from days gone by, the Chronicles of Chaos staff, represented by seven writers, presents to you ten of the most time-enduring metal albums from 1993. Here's to metal, in all its glory!
Anathema - _Serenades_ / My Dying Bride - _Turn Loose the Swans_
(by: Pedro Azevedo)
Two landmark albums in the history of doom/death, and particularly its more romanticized British branch, _Serenades_ and _Turn Loose the Swans_ have aged rather differently over the past twenty years, their respective historical significance notwithstanding. _Serenades_ now has the air of a dust covered relic; a debut full-length that gathers up the early efforts of a young band looking for an identity. _Turn Loose the Swans_ is a far more assured second full-length, brimming with talent, confidence and consistency, still able to hold its own against any modern rival today.
_Serenades_ mixes Anathema's take on doom/death ("Lovelorn Rhapsody", "They (Will Always) Die" and "Sleep in Sanity", ordered by personal preference); some less death-y material ("Sweet Tears", "Sleepless") that showcased the strained and anguished singing style that Darren White would become known for; a mix of the two approaches ("Under a Veil (Of Black Lace)", still the highlight in my opinion); and a few brief interludes (the quaint, innocent female-sung acoustic number "J'Ai Fait Une Promesse" and the passable "Scars of the Old Stream" and "Where Shadows Dance").
It was easy to become attached to several of the songs on _Serenades_ and the way they were simultaneously heavy and depressive while retaining an unusual romantic edge. The record as a whole suffers from the common curse of debut album inconsistency, but its unique approach and a number of inspired, emotional passages still make it worth hearing.
While in hindsight it can be argued that _Serenades_ served as a stepping stone for Anathema, there is a strong case to be made that _Turn Loose the Swans_ remains the pinnacle of romantic doom/death after twenty years. While My Dying Bride went in a different, albeit highly accomplished direction with its follow-up _The Angel and the Dark River_, and have since gone back to some of their doom/death elements, in my view no other album provides a better representation of this specific sub-genre.
A reimagining of "Sear Me" from their debut album opens _Turn Loose the Swans_, and a twin revelation unfolds around the piano: Aaron Stainthorpe's voice as an epitome of melancholy, and Martin Powell's violin as the ultimate doom complement. For me at the time, the song came across as nothing short of stunning -- unexpected and new, yet self-assured. "Black God" later wraps up the album in a similar manner, with the addition of some slightly less than stellar backing female vocals to the piano and violin. In between the two unfolds quite possibly the best doom/death metal of its kind you will ever hear. "Your River" takes its time to get started, gradually building up while perfectly integrating the violin with those crushing guitars. After the four minute mark Aaron makes his dramatic entrance, and near eight minutes he roars for the first time -- never has he delivered a more inspired performance than on this record. All of the music and composition follows suit in a continuous procession of flawless doom from track to track. Some parts of "The Songless Bird" seem almost mundane when followed by such absolute classics as "The Snow in My Hand", "The Crown of Sympathy" and "Turn Loose the Swans". This is doom/death as it should be. Doom. Death.
Later in 1993, Katatonia would release _Dance of December Souls_. Much like _Serenades_, its significance for those who played it endlessly in the mid-90s is unlikely to ever disappear from their lives -- even as it suffers from a harsh aging process due to similar debut album failings. _Turn Loose the Swans_, however, only seems to have become even more impressive with the passing of time.
Carcass – _Heartwork_
(by: Daniel Lake)
This year's discussion/debate about which 1993 albums have been relatively uneroded by time was passionate, at times contentious. Carcass almost didn't make the cut, whether due to uncertainty of its worthiness or near oversight. Carcass has always been a bit too clever, in a droll British sort of way, for their own good. (Song titles like "Keep on Rotting in the Free World" and "Blind Bleeding the Blind" don't help.) Add this fact to the baggage that comes with being on the scene at grindcore's birth, ushering that style out of its DIY infancy into the international spotlight (relative to its previous obscurity, anyway), then breaking onto a major label, fattening up their sound, writing better songs, and eventually pumping out the widely maligned _Swansong_... Let's say that embracing mid/late period Carcass has often been done with stiffened posture and an over-the-shoulder glance to see who might be watching.
It's time to end that debate. _Heartwork_ is a kickass blend of what once was and what was meant to be. Blast beats and furious riffing in keeping with the band's grinding past are present on the title track and "This Mortal Coil". But then the slower tempos, brilliantly executed solos, and catchy compositional chops stolen from less extreme forms of hard rock begin to fill up the rest of the album, and the dubious subgenre 'melodic death' took shape. The quality or desperate attempts at such, of the bands that followed the _Heartwork_ template cannot be the measure of the album. The fact that there were followers, that the album spawned a generation of shredders looking for that savage-yet-commercial sweet spot, makes a strong argument that Carcass found something potent on _Heartwork_. The chunky gallop, thrashy drum and almost bluesy guitar personalities, and Jeff Walker's unique serpentine rasp drive the album constantly forward without allowing a single sag in any of the record's ten tracks.
Sewer-dwelling grind purists of the time cried "hack" when _Heartwork_'s wider musical range coincided with a broader ad campaign. Time, and the brotherly bare-fisted love given the record by underground longtimers, has pronounced a different verdict. And since we're doing our 20/20 hindsight thing, there's this year's _Surgical Steel_ to consider, which, on its own extraordinary merits, reminds us why Carcass and _Heartwork_ should be held close to our... hearts.
Cynic - _Focus_
(by: Aly Hassab El Naby)
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"; a daring statement used by Muhammad Ali, arguably the finest boxer to set foot in a boxing ring, to describe his attack strategy. The statement, though simple, carries a lot of subtlety. It implies a strike-force of some type that possesses such lethal precision comparable to that of the honey-producing insects yet also possesses the grace of movement and elusive aura created by a floating butterfly. It is indeed quite rare to find things in life that leave an impression of such lethal cunning and leave behind it an everlasting aura. But of course, it is also rare to come across an album like Cynic's timeless debut _Focus_.
Just a few moments of careful pondering will reveal that, as an album, _Focus_'s potency is undeniable. Its brilliance in drawing influence from pioneering progressive rock bands from the late '60s and early '70s and weaving it into a jazz / death metal platform was, and remains, unparalleled. The sting resulting from such a brilliant fusion of genres was unmistakable. Add to that the fact that _Focus_ remained Cynic's only studio album for fifteen years until the band reunited to release _Traced in Air_, and the elusive aura surrounding _Focus_ is justified. Adventurous forays into the mystical structuring of jazz were made by metal musicians before Cynic, but none hit the proverbial jackpot with such profound consequences like _Focus_ did.
_Focus_ is the debut that epitomized and branded its name on the futuristic/experimental death metal sound firmly into the collective metal consciousness. The alien aura that Paul Masvidal created around himself with his use of the vocoder became synonymous with the Cynic sound to the extent that whenever any other band attempts to use the vocoder, _Focus_ comes to mind. Right from the get go "Veil of Maya" (now a name for a young, trendy deathcore band) introduces the listener to hybridized sound of harsh screams and fragile, soft arrangements. This continues to be the platform for the rest of the tracks and creates a continuously engaging listening experience.
Throughout _Focus_, any chance to flex any musical muscle isn't skipped. "I'm But a Wave To..." lays a jazzy foundation with drums that draw influences from the technicalities of early progressive rock drumming and then gives way to one of the album's catchiest, elongated riffs. "Uroboric Forms" takes the different approach of starting with an aggressive section, bringing things down and then finishing off on a high note. "Textures", the instrumental piece that shows restraint when restraint is called for, perfectly exemplifies Sean Reinert's technically complex drumming style and allows him to creatively add a lot of weight to the non-metal parts.
So as "How Could I" ushers _Focus_ to its end with another complex, elongated riff, the brevity of the album is overshadowed by its sheer brilliance. The fact that such a forward-thinking album was possible and came out to that much success is undeniable, yet its potency for more than twenty years remains the astonishing feat. The fact that Cynic split up (temporarily at least) the following cemented this album's cult status as a cornerstone of just how much more death metal can accommodate without being too much. _Focus_ is a lesson in efficiency and self-control; a lesson direly needed for so many bands these days.
Dissection – _The Somberlain_
(by: Daniel Lake)
The early '90s is hardly a time to be picky about which black metal albums impacted the style's attitude and progress. They basically all did. The genre's second wave spent these few years reinvigorating itself by huffing a dangerous blend of gay-blood and steeple-smoke, and outcast kids hungry for anything that would sicken their parents and intimidate their peers took it all in and howled for more. Dissection mastermind Jon Nödtveidt's legend -- built on murder charges, Satanic affiliations and his eventual suicide -- is regrettable, but it has given Dissection's independently strong albums another vehicle to carry the music out of the Swedish underground to thrill-seekers around the world.
It's interesting (to me, anyway) that _The Somberlain_ was featured last year in Decibel Magazine's Top 100 Death Metal Albums special issue, then again in the same publication's Top 100 Black Metal Albums rundown. (In both cases, the album rested defiantly at #36, which has got to mean something in a cosmic, numerological sense, though what that might be eludes me entirely.) That fact suggests either that those burned-out ink-fiends can't make up their damned minds (certainly a possibility), or more likely that _The Somberlain_ is one of those records on the cusp, not wholly one style or the other, not willing to sit comfortably and be completely defined by one set of rules or sonic conventions. Indeed, the heft of the album's guitar tone leans toward death metal's muscularity, while the tremolo runs and blasty passages veer into black metal's acrid pool. The inherent melodicism, though, suggests allegiance to an older brand of heavy, when metal didn't splinter itself into a thousand micro-genres and turning loud chords into hooky songs truly bespoke the loftiest pursuits.
And then there are those short acoustic guitar pieces that snatch the soul out of the stormy heavens and face-plant the listener into the rich earth surrounding a campfire. The moments don't last long, and successive songs catapult the brain back into the fray, but human moments of this sort bring focus and wholeness to the album that less sensitive barbarians forget, or refuse, to offer. For extreme metal novices, _The Somberlain_ provides an entry point that neither abuses ears too viciously nor shies from the aural atrocities that make the form so compelling. For experienced listeners, the album serves up a satisfying summation of heavy music's best qualities, bearing within its leathery folds an array of exciting gems that stir that old fire again and again.
Edge of Sanity - _The Spectral Sorrows_
(by: Mark Dolson)
Though it was released in Europe through Black Mark Productions in November of 1993, I didn't actually get to hear Edge of Sanity's _The Spectral Sorrows_ until late March of 1994. I remember the context perfectly: it was shortly after 1:00am on Sunday morning, and I was lying in my bed (surrounded as it was by Carcass, Amorphis and Hypocrisy posters) at my parents' house listening to the local extreme metal radio show called "In the Realm of the Senses". This particular night was to feature a "spotlight" (which always featured three songs from a new release) on _The Spectral Sorrows_. I had already been a fan of Edge of Sanity and Mr. Swanö's work since 1992, so I couldn't wait to hear brand new songs. The host John Macleod played "The Spectral Sorrows / Darkday", "Across the Fields of Forever", and "The Masque". Those were the days where you had to wait -- patiently -- for new music, since there was no Internet: we all had to rely on tape trading, random chance import orders through our local record store, or listening to the radio. When I heard those songs, I knew this would end up being one of my favourite albums of all time.
Sadly, it wasn't until May of 1994 that I was able to actually buy a copy of _The Spectral Sorrows_ (luckily the Black Mark Productions version, and not the one released through the Canadian distributor Rough Trade) since I had to wait for the local record store "In Yer Ear" to order it in. Once I got it in my hands and brought it home, though, I was blown away -- the characteristic low and dry rasps and growls of Dan Swanö never sounded better, the pacing of the album was perfect, with fast songs, slow songs, and everything in between, like the seemingly hard-core/punk inspired "Feedin' the Charlatan". And the cover artwork, courtesy of Dan Seagrave, was just amazing -- it still is today. The bluish colour scheme, the frozen waterfall (if that's what it's supposed to be), and the rocky / coral-type / swirly looking outcrops that create an opening to a moody, storm-streaked sky just fit the music perfectly. I thought the picture on the back looked pretty cool, too, since it looks like it was taken in a gravel pit somewhere in Sweden.
In terms of the music, though, the first thing that struck me back then, and still strikes me as fantastic now, is the distinct guitar tone: it's thick, heavy, and distorted, yet clear enough to hear all of the notes and tremolo picking (this isn't even close to the abysmal affair heard on Cemetary's _An Evil Shade of Grey_). The songs felt tighter, more focused and dynamic -- doubtless a result of better musicianship and comfort level thinking outside the fairly narrow boundaries that framed death metal back in the early 1990s. Though I still love _Unorthodox_ (_Nothing but Death Remains_ was sort of forgettable), there was something different about the songs on _The Spectral Sorrows_. They seemed more creative, diverse, and melodic -- not only in terms of Dan Swanö's use of clean vocals, but also in terms of the riffs and the song writing. Edge of Sanity became a lot more -daring- on _The Spectral Sorrows_ (something that was to really become a trademark characteristic of the band in later releases).
Songs like "Across the Fields of Forever" with its heart-heavy melancholic stomp (featuring the only double-bass drumming on an Edge of Sanity album save for a short jaunt on "Enigma" from _Unorthodox_); "On the Other Side" with its extremely catchy and emotive clean vocal harmonies; and, perhaps the most unique song on the album, "Sacrificed", with its Sisters of Mercy infused electro-goth vibe (admittedly, it took me quite a while to really appreciate this song). Aside from all of its merits, though, perhaps the only fault I can find with _The Spectral Sorrows_ is the snare-drum sound—its tuned way too high. Now I know that having a high snare sound was fairly characteristic of many Canadian technical death metal bands back in the late 1990's and early 2000's (Cryptopsy in particular, but The Blood of Christ and Kataklysm, too); however, it just does not fit on _The Spectral Sorrows_. It's not so bad, perhaps, on some of the slower-paced songs; however, once Benny Larsson kicks into his thrash-beat, the snare really becomes a little grating on the nerves.
In retrospect, _The Spectral Sorrows_ was (and still is) indeed an incredibly intrepid album, and displayed a lot of interesting and innovative ideas (most notably the inclusion of melody) in the sphere of Swedish death-metal. Compared to some of the Swedish death metal I bought back in 1993, like Seance's _Saltrubbed Eyes_, Leukemia's _Suck My Heaven_, Dismember's _Indecent and Obscene_, Desultory's _Eternity_, or Unleashed's _Across the Open Sea_ (just to name a few), I feel that _The Spectral Sorrows_ helped create the very foundation (along with At the Gates' _With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness_ and Dark Tranquillity's _Skydancer_) for what later became known in the mid to late 1990s as Swedish melodic death metal.
Twenty years (I'm in disbelief as I write this) after its release, _The Spectral Sorrows_ is as relevant -- to me -- today as it was when it was released. In fact, I still listen to the album quite regularly; and I still get quite a lot of enjoyment out of the experience. In comparison with releases from contemporary bands like Hearse, Soul Decay, Hypocrisy, or reactivated stalwarts, Evocation or Desultory, _The Spectral Sorrows_ sounds just as relevant and just as current.
Eyehategod – _Take as Needed for Pain_
(by: Jonathan Carbon)
The last time I saw Eyehategod the band put on a rousing performance, which began with sneering insults directed at the audience and city they were playing in, and ended with lead singer Mike Williams punching out a stage light with a microphone stand. The funny thing is, this was not 1997, rather a few years ago in Baltimore. To Eyehategod, the world doesn't change, and seeing them outlive everyone's expectations is damn hilarious. I remember one of my friends writing: "The fact that these Southern sludge junkies are alive is a testament to the fact that God isn't dead, he just doesn't give a shit." I couldn't think of a higher compliment.
The recording for the band's second album _Take as Needed for Pain_ is thoroughly documented in Decibel's book "Precious Metal". In short, the album was a continuation of the band's disdain for fast metal (referred to as speed metal) but with more of a mature approach to making an album. Recorded on the 13th floor of an abandoned department store located in the slums of New Orleans, _Take as Needed for Pain_ was the right combination of drugs, angst, depressive atmosphere, and what I imagine as stifling humidity. If there was a record to capture the feelings of drug dependence and antisocial attitudes, this record, and this band, would take the first place. Bring on the hurt.
Retrospect is perhaps the easiest position to be in when evaluating a record, and the time frame for _TaNfP_ has been clearly defined. Opening tracks such as "Blank" mark the feeling of apathy and desired numbness when entering the record. In fact, "Blank" could be thought of as a sign post marking the entrance of the record, only to be greeted by the album's second most offensive song title, "Sister Fucker". Eyehategod and _Take as Needed for Pain_ breathe animosity into their stories of self hatred, love through destruction, and drug adventures, further cementing the band's place in the development of sludge as a cathartic exercise.
Musically, _Take as Needed for Pain_ acts more as a tool than a desire. Its existence is necessary rather than wanted. Just the fact that it is the band's most recognizable and acclaimed record seems to be secondary to the fact that it was made. The album is relentless in its execution, yet aside from the bleak and violent lyrics, there is an undeniable groove that gives listeners an anchor to ride through some weird healing process. Sludge was created out of animosity by young adults with misdirected emotions. At the time, all of it must have seemed silly and overly emotional, but taken within the context of history, _TaNfP_ stands among the titans of sludge and gives a template for a breakup record against the world.
Sludge has changed dramatically in twenty years. The once emotional tar that marked the genre has transformed to accompany a variety of styles. Though progressive, atmospheric, black, and doom have all had brilliant albums with effective execution, the roots of the style still hold a special place. There have been few contenders that have come close to sludge as it stands as metal's most upset genre, and it is the manifestation of deep emotions with a long abandoned sense of optimism. _Take as Needed for Pain_ has unofficially become a milestone for early sludge. Not like it wanted to be, anyway. Whatever.
Immortal - _Pure Holocaust_
(by: Jonathan Carbon)
Last year I reviewed two seminal black metal records from the Norwegian scene -- Burzum's self-titled and Darkthrone's _A Blaze in the Northern Sky_. The early to mid '90s were a fertile time for what would be identified as black metal, with 1993 being the year of Darkthrone's _Under a Funeral Moon_, Marduk's _Those of the Unlight_, Sigh's _Scorn Defeat_, Blasphemey's _God of War_, Beherit's _Drawing Down the Moon_, and of course, Immortal's _Pure Holocaust_.
There have been few bands, aside from that one picture of Varg smiling, that have become the face of black metal like Immortal. The power duo of Abbath Doom Occulta and Demonaz Doom Occulta would become synonymous with corpse paint, ridiculous costumes, and wrestling poses. Immortal and their flair for the dramatic has become a joke among people who do not listen to metal and, ironically, even the ones who do. What is more interesting is that Immortal's music is structurally solid, with at least two of their records eclipsing others in terms of popularity and critical acclaim: 1999's _At the Heart of Winter_ is one, with 1993's _Pure Holocaust_ being the other.
_Pure Holocaust_, in retrospect, followed an interesting narrative for Immortal. Having dropped to two members after their debut _Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism_, _Pure Holocaust_ would start a three album narrative that would continue the fantasy ice theme in 1995's _Battles in the North_ and 1997's _Blizzard Beasts_. Demonaz would leave Immortal due to tendinitis, which would eventually lead to the thrash driven sound of _At the Heart of Winter_. Before all of that though, there was still madness to be reaped, and _Pure Holocaust_ was given unto the world in all of its walled glory.
_Pure Holocaust_'s production differed slightly from its debut. Where _Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism_ waded chest deep in lo-fi production, _Pure Holocaust_ was relatively clear, with its signature guitar position still out in front, but the percussion was not buried in obscurity. This is the texture that makes "Eternal Years on the Path to the Cemetery Gates" and "Frozen by Icewinds" so effective -- the album's presence and its no-nonsense approach to songwriting, combined with its reasonable production, make it a record that is ferocious and, unlike the debut, non-ignorable.
There is much comedy surrounding the black metal genre, and separating Immortal from this is near impossible. I feel that humor related to music is fine, as long as it does not get in the way of actually listening and understanding the music. Immortal may well be one of the silliest acts to ever pose and posture for music videos, yet their dedication to songcraft and execution in lowering the room temperature should never be forgotten. Laugh all you want, but prepare to get blasted in the face with ice later on.
Morbid Angel - _Covenant_
(by: Aaron McKay)
To level the playing field, Morbid Angel's _Covenant_, at the time of its release, would have had to have been _Arise_ and _The Red in the Sky Is Ours_ rolled into one in order to surmount the absolutely inconceivable brilliance of _Blessed Are the Sick_; an album so far ahead of its time it is like at the _BAtS_ release party that Trey Azagthoth's parents hadn't even met yet. Given that aspect, _Covenant_, in and of itself, is every bit as iniquitous, dark and horribly sophisticated as any fan could rightfully expect from this intentionally irreverent and influential outfit.
Unlike _Blessed Are the Sick_, _Covenant_ examines more of Morbid Angel's fiery technicality and classic histrionic lyrical imagery, at times dipping in the less focused arrangements and giving a wide berth to the more ominously savage thrash elements. For an illustration one need not look any further than "Angel of Disease" and "God of Emptiness", with elements of grounded, more entrenched rhythms. Even these tracks on _Covenant_ are no less righteously wicked and maniacal complements of these brutal purveyors of the metal extreme.
Not to tread down a well traveled path with what has undoubtedly been said time and time again about this album, but even a Chronicle of Chaos "Withstanding the March of Time" relook needs some reference to the album's drumming. It is a point of much debate if it is conceivable to improve upon excellence to a certain degree, but Pete "Commando" Sandoval seems unstoppable in his pursuit. Sir Winston Churchill said, "Although personally I am quite content with existing explosives, I feel we must not stand in the path of improvement." Not knowing any better, he very well could have been referring to Mr. Sandoval. From start to finish, "Rapture" to "God of Emptiness", Pete's blast beats, rhythm voracity and calculated tempo changes leave little, if anything at all, to want.
Morbid Angel disciples today might look back upon _Covenant_ like Metallica fans view _Master of Puppets_. Put another way, in light of 2011's _Illud Divinum Insanus_, _Covenant_ might as well be MA's _Hell Awaits_. Following that logic to its unusual conclusion, that would make _Blessed Are the Sick_ the _Reign in Blood_ of the Morbid Angel catalog.
Add in the undeniable talents of producer/engineer Flemming Rasmussen (speaking of Metallica) and engineer Tom Morris, _Covenant_ was almost an instant success. However it is viewed these twenty years after its release, Morbid Angel's _Covenant_ is a vital, substantial, formidable and often cited influence in throughout the bowels of the entire metal community.
Therion - _Symphony Masses: Ho Drakon Ho Megas_
(by: Chaim Drishner)
The early 1990s were years of great divide, of musical dichotomies galore, where extreme metal split even further into schools, the black and the death ones mainly, spawning forth many sonic curiosities in the process. Metal was in a state of self exploration, distancing itself from its obvious roots while discovering darker, often never before trodden roads. Black metal was in its infancy as a fully realized genre, but so was death metal, and circa 1993 both movements were beginning to truly set themselves apart from each other.
The trend: extremity and sophistication; on one hand, Darkthrone had forsaken death metal and even walked away from its majestic _A Blaze in the Northern Sky_ style, only to focus on purer and way more primitive and extreme form of metallic hostility that has since become the band's trademark.
On the other hand, bands that had chosen the death metal path began experimenting with it, in the process distancing themselves from the likes of the predominant sound and style of copycats who chose to continue the _Scream Bloody Gore_ legacy, only to create sonic monuments that were much more progressive and technical, incorporating paradigms that were alien to death metal's obvious lack of sophistication.
These were the birthing years for timeless albums such as Atrocity's _Hallucinations_ and _Longing for Death_, Death's _Human_ and _Individual Thought Patterns_, Tiamat's _Clouds_ and Therion's _Beyond Sanctorum_, an album that showcased the band's aspiration for progression and atmosphere; an album as challenging today as it was twenty odd years ago.
_Beyond Sanctorum_ also marked the band's permanent departure from the murky, Neanderthal, simplistic and totally uninteresting metal of death that was captured on the band's debut, _Of Darkness..._...
...Which brings us to _Symphony Masses: Ho Drakon Ho Megas_.
Just look at the cover art: a red, fire-breathing dragon presiding over bleak twilight scenery of carnage and hell, bloody stormy skies above, black birds of prey hovering above this valley of the shadow of death, and everything is painted using only deep shades of red, orange, black and brown. Like that contrast between warm and cold colors, there's more than a hint in the art itself about the musical content and its arguable stark dichotomy between heavy metal and classical music: a mechanical skeleton of sorts holding what appears to be a viola. A fucking viola!
Indeed, _Symphony Masses_ contains music that owns an exquisite balance between the crude sounds of heavy metal of the unrefined, unapologetic kind, and the melodious classical undercurrents, where tame symphony verses break time and again metal's 'glass ceiling' with undeniably dark patterns conjuring dark shamanism, diabolical Mesopotamian religious sects, Semitic dead languages and mephitic rites of the left hand path. Suddenly, keyboards were organically incorporated into the music and the great flirtation with classical music had begun.
Austere yet volatile, this relatively short album is a perfect bridge between _Beyond Sanctorum_ and _Lepaca Kliffoth_, and _Symphony Masses_ demonstrates this bridging of the gap perfectly; it holds firmly, in one hand, its semi-Oriental melodic approach that flirts with classic heavy metal's grandiosity in the form of perfect epic riffs versus a heavy usage of keyboards and deep yet clear vocals that had nothing to do with death metal's usual grunts, portrayed so well on _Lepaca Kliffoth_, while in the other hand it holds the remnants of _Beyond Sanctorum_'s violent atmospheric moments, albeit of a tamer, more calculated a type, devoid of virtually any fast drumming, blasting or anything in between, and shows almost none of that good old death metal ferociousness.
_Symphony Masses_ is an oddball of an album, in that it tries very much to remain as 'metal' as possible, while in truth its occult-like ritualistic overpowering aspects tend to make the listener forgetful of the fact that this is, indeed, a metal album after all, and into it, death metal particularly, but rather a very disturbed and in turn disturbing classical music piece of sorts. The tunes lead the listener through a maze of oriental arabesques and dissonant Middle Eastern scales of total nihilistic rituals of bloodletting and stone idols. The very achievement, in that regard, was creating a musical metallic piece that had been less heavy than anything around, yet much darker and with a more profound an impact on the listener.
Bizarre and unique -- unprecedented before and unchallenged after in sound (muddy but clear) and production (offensive and somewhat muffled yet very vivid) -- the album comprises disjointed and unorthodox songwriting techniques, serpentine and non-linear on many occasions, all aimed at conveying dark spiritual sentiments of depraved idolatry, visions of ancient devil cults and the taste of long dead and forgotten languages.
_Symphony Masses_ marks the very transitional point between Therion's older self and its new identity as a pioneering symphonic / operatic metal prodigy, a band that had almost re-invented itself, and thus _Symphony Masses_ is sonic history in the making, seeing a reborn band rising from the ashes of its previous self -- a much improved musical beast.
_Symphony Masses_ is probably Therion's darkest and most unique moment, and even though the musicianship on this album isn't the brainchild of a genius collective mind, the album's brooding, darkening attributes, its raw spiritual powers and those gloomy ritual acts they revive -- are unparalleled and unmatched. Being in the metal 'business' for many, many years, seeing how it has evolves in real-time, I can say firmly no other album I'm aware of, to this very day, has sounded quite like _Symphony Masses_; this is death metal with an added value, and then some. Listening to it will make you virtually oblivious of the fact you're listening to a metal album, first and foremost -- since it is so much more than a mere 'metal album'.
_Symphony Masses_ is the soundtrack of Babylonian depravity; the voice of Sumerian human sacrifice rituals; the howling wind that tells us stories about dark mythological gods of the pit and enigmatic foul deeds... Ahead of its time and a beacon of dark light in a desert of mediocrity, _Symphony Masses_ is a timeless aural artwork of many wonders that's as singular today as it was twenty years ago.