Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part I: Sempiternal Deathreign - The Spooky Gloom

Many people track back the origins of death/doom metal to either or both Paradise Lost's slowing down the ugly death metal that swept over from overseas on their debut and Winter's apocalyptic deadening-up (opposite of livening-up, if you've never heard the term before it's because I just made it up) their massive Celtic Frost influences. And rightfully so, these two bands really got this sub-subgenre kicking and provided a template for following bands to expand and transcend, or in some cases merely imitate. That does not mean, however, that there weren't some early pioneers going for a similar approach. These must not be considered more influential because they did their stuff earlier, like some historical revisionists would have you believe, but looking back from the mid 2010s to the late 1980s they can give you a good insight into how young musicians approached the idea of coalescing death and doom metal influences into a new style of music.

Alongside Americans Dream Death, who basically took a Celtic Frost template and injected a little more of a death/thrash type of aggression into the heavy parts while slowing down and expanding on the slow parts, Sempiternal Deathreign from the Netherlands is most likely the closest to proper death/doom metal the 1980s ever came. They might actually have had their share of influence on later bands, as a whole slew of Dutch death/doom bands would follow in similar footsteps, and it is possible that even Asphyx might have been familiar with them and drawn ideas from them. Outside of the Netherlands, however, I don't know if there were all too many people familiar with them before the rise of the internet made them all the more accessible.

Sempiternal Deathreign, completely lacking any advance knowledge of what death/doom metal was supposed to sound like by 1990s standards due to their limited psychic abilities, crafted a sound that was unlike anything else at the time and is unmatched to this day. Not content with simply slowing down parts of the death/thrash that was so prevalent in the underground in the 1980s, they are one of the few examples of bands to play what I call "literal death/doom", as in literally taking influences from both death metal (in its mid-to-late 1980s shape and form) and traditional doom metal, rather than just the former with an emphasis on slow parts. In fact, the traditional doom metal influences on this album have such a strong 1970s sound to them that they couldn't be further from "slow death metal". It's kind of hard to pinpoint the exact sources, as my knowledge of 1970s music is thankfully limited, though Black Sabbath is always a safe bet. But quite frankly, many note progressions in this album's atmospheric doomy parts, such as the guitar solos in the opener and closer, or the opening riff of "Devastating Empire Towards Humanity" (after the intro), remind me a lot more Flower Travellin' Band's Japanese interpretation of Black Sabbath's sound. Whether this is a direct influence, or whether the Dutch and the Japanese simply interpret Black Sabbath in a similar way (with the Dutch you never know), I do not know, but it's the closest comparison I can make. Some of the more meaty doom parts in which the rhythm guitar dominates also have a Pentagram feel to them, and there are a number of bits and pieces that might not have looked out of place on a Witchfinder General album.

But no matter what their direct influences were, they most certainly succeed at giving this album a unique hazy feel, like something you would hear in a morbid hippie commune intent on murdering Hollywood stars, had the hippie movement extended its reach into the 1980s. What really drives this image home is the sheer viciousness and malevolence of the equally important death/thrash type of parts. Sort of a cross between early Slayer and Possessed after one too many cups of coffee, they rampage through your speakers like the Tasmanian devil on the worst choleric fit of his life. That the band is not as tight as aforementioned American professionals (though not sloppy in any way, either) further enhances this feeling, as if the whole band is literally releasing all the pent-up rage of a lifetime. What really helps drive this point home is that the vocalist sounds completely off the hinge in a way that was far ahead of its time and probably is without match to this day. I can sort of compare it to Pestilence's/Asphyx's Martin van Drunen or whoever does the high-pitched vocals for Macabre, but much more honest and far less gimmicky than either. I can't help shake the mental image of the crazy, long-haired guy from Police Academy when I listen to his performance, he literally sounds like he has all screws loose in his head, and a few extra in his pocket. The way this is laid over the frantic blasting of the drums and the often nearly grindcore-like buzzsawing of the guitars makes these parts deliciously barbaric.

However, it would matter little how great the doomy parts and the fast parts are individually if they were put together poorly. And this is really why I praise this album so highly, because the songwriting, the crafting of a uniform whole from the disparate parts is impeccable and nothing short of amazing. There never is one transition which does not exhibit a coherent flow, parts go from one to another seamlessly and show an effortless talent for musical storytelling, taking the listener on an emotional journey from low to high and back again without any of the shifts in mood ever feeling abrupt or out of place. The forgivable horror camp of the lyrics aside, I feel myself transported into the world of prehistoric barbarians, with scenes of battle and scenes of pre-religious spiritual experiences showing different sides of their lives.

In essence, this is a perfect album to lean back and enjoy the experience. But it does not end there, as it is just as perfect for many other purposes you would want a metal album for, such as having a few beers with friends, or living out some pent-up emotions, or simply appreciate just how amazing this form of art can be. It is one of the most "complete" metal album I know in this regard, as there is not a time or situation in which I would find it inappropriate to play. An absolute classic in metal history, and the history of death/doom metal in particular. And an essential purchase, should you find a decently-priced copy. If not, be glad that we live in a time in which every classic is being reissued, and that this album may hit the market in an all new version soon!

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