Review Summary: Pretty much one of the greatest debut's i've ever heard.
Heart Of The Ages is somewhat of a paradox when mentioned in the same breath as Hvis Lyset tar Oss, Bergtatt, Dark Medieval Times, Di Mysteriss Dom Sathanas and In The Nightside Eclipse. Mostly because this is a second wave black metal record that differs so much from it’s brethren, it’s hard to imagine something so creative and expansive coming out during the misanthropic church burning/murder sagas. Well, regardless, Heart Of The Ages is one of the finest second wave black metal records to have ever been released and it’s a damn shame that this record and much less the band have remained in obscurity for so long. Formed in Kristiansand, Norway during the booming early nineties, In The Woods… started off as a death metal band called Green Carnation until ring leader Tchort decided to bail for Emperor. The remaining members quickly regrouped and changed their name to In The Woods… while completely revamping their sound in the process.
Adopting a traditional black metal aesthetic of melodic tremolo picked chords, unsettling shrieks, and lo-fi distortion laden atmosphere, In The Woods… were discontent to stop there. Throwing (most) black metal conventions out the window, the band introduced lengthier more progressive songs with melodic keyboard/piano runs, cleanly sung male/female vocal harmonies, and soloing to counteract against the harsh backdrop. This proved a sound dynamic for the band although this format would last for only one album before they completely ditched black metal for more experimental waters. Heart Of the Ages is the band’s first and last full on attempt at blending black metal and progressive/experimental music together. And for anyone who’s interested, it certainly ranks up there with the second wave greats such as Bergtatt and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss.
The vocals are one of the most interesting aspects about this album. A three prong attack including clean male vocals, harsh male vocals, and clean female vocals are organized and performed extremely well throughout this drawn out affair. Especially on the opening twelve minute behemoth “Yearning The Seeds Of A New Dimension”. Opening with a buildup of synth and doom inspired riffing, the listener could easily be put off that this is a black metal record. Especially so with the vocalist’s (Jan Transeth?) moody singing style which at times resembles Aaron from Primordial. Pretty soon though you’re greeted by the harshest shrieking this side of Oslo. The cleans/shrieks trade off for most of the record without sounding forced, annoying or out of place which is nice. Then you have the piano dominated “Mourning The Death Of Asae” which features the female soprano singer for the first time. Synne Diana utterly dominates the song, lending somewhat of a Lord of the Rings vibe to the melancholic three and a half minute lament. I could see this song being played at Norse funeral pyres before the dead get set ablaze and shipped off to the sea. The closer “The Divinity Of Wisdom” perfectly captures all three vocal formats in their finest performances to date. Black metal fury, operatic wailing and rhythmic head banging all rolled into one. What’s not to love?
The guitar approach is split up between a couple of guitar players, not exactly sure how many or who’s particularly involved. Regardless, the combination of tremolo picking and mid paced chugging is expertly crafted to the album’s merciless demands. Bathory’s influence brings to mind as many of the guitar passages presented here bear a semblance towards the epic and empowering qualities of the legendary Norse band. Melodies and solos come included. Once more bringing up the closing track “The Divinity Of Wisdom” and it’s magnificent lead towards the closing point. The overall guitar performance is impressive not only in being heavy and head bangable but being flexible enough to adapt to tempo changes and loud/heavy dynamics.
Concluding the individual instrument assessments is a competent rhythm section that seamlessly bounces across the guitars and vocals with ease. The bass tone is present enough to make a significant impact and catchy enough to inspire some serious foot tapping or whatever you crazy kids do these days. Drumming is dexterous and momentum based with double bass, really loud cymbal crashes, and thudding snare hits being effectively used during the more aggressive sections. The production, neither grim or overbearingly polished doesn’t really seem to affect the drums or any instrument in a negative aspect.
To close things out gracefully, Heart Of The Ages is one of the best things to not only come out of the Norwegian second wave black metal scene but Norway in general. Fusing Scandinavian black metal and classic heavy metal with an experimental avant-progressive edge was a ballsy endeavor. In a militant notoriously close minded time period where Faust straight up mirked a guy for no reason and Varg was busy stabbing and burning his way to notoriety, this was indeed a ballsy endeavor. One that ranks up there with unblack metal. Overall, Heart Of the Ages is an album that metalheads and non metalheads should be able to equally appreciate. Not too oppressive and not too melodic, the balance is struck evenly between the two by the criminally underrated entity that is In the Woods…