Review Summary: With Dark Gods: Seven Million Slaves Von expand their previously limited palette to great effect.
And so here we are. Over 20 years since the original line-up joined forces and recorded some of the most primal, coveted and - within certain circles - influential black metal demos of all time, Von have finally released what is essentially their début album. 2003 saw some of those ancient, shadowy songs dragged to the surface and compiled on Satanic Blood Angel, whilst 2012's Satanic Blood was the Hollywood remake: sole-surviving original member Venien re-visiting those ancient shards of obsidian-hard hatred - refashioning, re-recording and re-birthing them afresh for new generations.
Although well-received, Satanic Blood was essentially a reconstructed relic, a historical document given a fresh veneer, a vindication for Venien that his band's early legacy remained as potent and important as ever. But for those already acquainted with Von's singular, primitive output, Satanic Blood offered little new, and furthermore begged the question; were re-recordings of former glories really all one of the founding fathers of black metal had to offer?
Having finally laid the ghost of Von's prehistory to bed, chief architect Venien has returned with the answer; Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves. A sprawling, miasmic album that if not worlds, is certainly a few sub-genres away from their characteristic, minimalistic nastiness. The two minute bursts of insular, lo-fi venom have been largely replaced by lethargic, undulating, doomy epics and expansive, cold atmospherics. But this new-found sense of space, depth and melody, combined with a flexibility in regard to tempo and length, is less surprising than it is revealing. For better or worse, black metal has evolved, mutated and been forced far beyond those original insular tenets laid down over two decades ago. Vienen has 20 years worth of evolution, expansion and cross-pollination to sift through and integrate into this modern-day incarnation of Von - the influential have become the influenced.
Not to say Seven Billion Slaves is derivative. Its narrative may be little more than a blunt retelling of the Cthulhu mythos, but there's ample variation of pace, sound and mood (50 shades of dread, misery and hate) to keep it by and large an interesting and evocative listen. Where Von fall back on their own celebrated template there's little to hearten the listener, but when drawing on sources outside their own limited palette the new spectrum sings.
Opener 'They Have Come' is a spooky instrumental where reverb-drenched guitar and tasteful percussion sit atop a sinister underbelly of distant screams and howling winds and 'Hands of Black Death' and 'DevilWhore' employ melodic guitar leads evocative of the dark, regal beauty Dissection perfected on The Somberlain. The most important track is 'Ancient Flesh Of The Dark Gods' - a loose, sludgy, ten-minute smouldering epic, that crawls, trudges and sprints ahead while an eerie hypnotic riff echoes endlessly. It's quite a transformation for a band whose previous career highlights are minute-long stabs of pure evil, displaying an ambition and scope formerly missing.
Some may have expected something more radical from a band as pioneering as Von. But Watain have popularised, Liturgy inflamed, Alcest transmogrified and Nachtmystium juggled with the genre so much over the past decade that black metal's a hard place to be pioneering these days. And it would have been easy for Vienen to slink back into the shadows after 2012's Satanic Blood, leaving behind a succinct, respected body of work; when viewed in this context Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves is possibly his boldest move yet. There may be nothing new under the sun, but in Von's world it's always night anyway.