Review Summary: Grand Belial's Key's first effort, while a good one, shows the band still in the forming stages of their recognizable sound.
By this point, Grand Belial’s Key has achieved a somewhat legendary and notorious reputation. They are regarded by many as one of the founding bands of the USBM scene, and although generally well known and highly regarded among black metal enthusiasts, they remained a quintessentially underground act throughout their career and never gained any commercial success whatsoever (not that they would have allowed it). As such, I would like to say that they are a highly influential group, or that their sound has been rehashed countless times ala Darkthrone or Burzum, but it’s simply not true. There is very little I’ve heard that sounds much like this. There’s an obvious similarity to Arghoslent (for those unaware, the bands share a guitarist), and one can hear traces of such albums as Rotting Christ’s “Non Serviam” and Master’s Hammer’s immortal “Ritual”, but nothing quite captures the same unique feeling.
What is this sound? Although it is indeed unique, it is not by any means something strange, progressive or avant-garde. Grand Belial’s Key managed to create a sound that was individual, recognizable, and new while still being familiar. Listening to GBK, one will find influences of not only black metal, but death, thrash, doom, and traditional heavy metal, in addition to hardcore punk and rock, all mixed together tastefully and cohesively.
But beyond a unique and engaging sound, what really makes a band is its songs. And in that respect, “Mocking the Philanthropist” is strong, although the majority of this strength is in the album’s first half. Each song displays what the band are best at: catchy riffs with a rocking but - what else? - “blasphemous” atmosphere. “Foul Parody of the Lord’s Supper” begins the proceedings nicely. Fans of Arghoslent will notice an immediate similarity to “Defile the Angelic”, both in lyrics and in music; the two songs goes from mid-paced dark and heavy riffing to a slow finale with a powerful guitar solo. Following, we have “Shemhamforash”, which to my mind is the best song Grand Belial’s Key ever wrote. With a much more blackened feel than the first track, it’s evil, catchy, powerful, and at 1:47 presents one of the best riffs in all of black metal. The next two songs, “Reflections of the Coffin Lid” and “The Slums of Jerusalem”, belong together, in my opinion. They both continue in the album’s defined style of riffing while introducing highly hummable tremolo melodies reminiscent of their Norwegian contemporaries, and the latter ends with another slow coda. The token 8-minute epic, “Castrate the Redeemer” begins a little faster and contains more varied riffing, from the usual style, to more atmospheric and militant sounds and manages to be entertaining throughout. “Sumerian Fairytale” presents a bit of a change of pace. Starting with a call-and-response between an organ and the band and proceeding through a range of thrash, traditional metal, and hardcore riffs for ultimate headbang-ability, and implementing melody to great effect. To close off the first “act” of the album, we have “At the Blessed Grotto”. Although not a metal track, it is actually one of my favorites on the album - it’s beautiful. A lone organ presents wonderful melodies, with the perfect change of stop. The piece has this amazingly mournful feeling, and it almost reminds of Baroque organ music without the rigidity and form.
Unfortunately, from here, the quality drops significantly. The second half adopts a much darker sound, but the riffs just don’t engage in the way they do on the first half - in fact, they’re quite stale; by now, we’re quite familiar with GBK’s style, but nothing is done to make it different or exciting. Every song seems to be at the same tempo, have the same feel, and nothing really sticks out. Occasionally, a riff will appear, such as the intro of “In Rapture by the Fenrir Moon” or at 2:20 of “Conspicuous Imagery Adorns the Nunnery”, that will feel like the album is about to get going again, but it never picks up, and the dragging will easily bore and frustrate the listener. Fortunately, for those that can endure the passable mediocrity through to the final track will be rewarded. “The Holocaust Trumpeter” returns once more to basic Grand Belial riffing and once more ends with a slow finale. But this time, rather than an emotional or doomy riff, GBK decide to go with an undeniably epic and apocalyptic march, which ends the album on a strong note, even though it had been waning.
And so, despite the unfortunate drop in the second half, the album is a fairly good one. But there is another issue that needs addressed, namely the sound/production. Now, black metal is obviously not known for great production, but as any listener who knows what they’re talking about will tell you, the low quality of production is there to enhance the atmosphere of the music. On, Mocking the Philanthropist, the sound is just amateurish, sounding like a hastily recorded garage band demo. The guitar tone, so crucial to the heaviness of the riffs, is too vague and weak, the drums sound unnatural, and vocalist Cazz Grant mumbles in the background with a confusing echo effect that ruins the experience. Lucky for these guys, they corrected all these problems on their next album, “Judeobeast Assassination” - The guitar tone is thick and nasty, and the vocals have a very foul, evil sound that truly suit’s the over-the-top vulgarity of the lyrics.
Overall though, this is a good album, just not a great one. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone as their first GBK album (see the aforementioned “Judeobeast Assassination”) but it does have some great material and a few of their best songs. Certainly worth a listen for anyone in the mood for a different approach to black metal (Or for some USBM that isn’t a suicidal, gothic whine-fest.)
Reccomended tracks: Shemhamforash, The Slums of Jerusalem, The Holocaust Trumpeter