Review Summary: Genre classic or cheap copy?
A furious amalgamation of blast beats, diabolical vocals and tremolo riffs with a hint of Swedish melody that is, in a nutshell The Secrets of the Black Arts. The debut LP by Swedish black metal band Dark Funeral smashes you over and over with tracks that register only one speed setting--brutally fast. Beginning with a pointless sixteen second intro, Dark Funeral rushes out the gates with the title track, "The Secrets of the Black Arts" which brings that grim, necrosound that the Norwegians made so famous in the late 80's/early 90's but giving it a touch of melody especially when concerning the guitar harmonies. Think Dissection or Emperor-esque in terms of sound but without the musicianship or technicality. The wall-of-sound is unrelenting from begging to end as Dark Funeral seem content with bludgeoning the listener repeatedly, riff after riff. There are times when the songs take a slower approach and try to shake things up by injecting a juxtaposition to the blitzkrieg-like velocity such as in the Von cover, "Satanic Blood". These moments stand out as highlights because they give a momentary breather to Dark Funeral's otherwise hyper-fast take on black metal.
These instances are few and far between though as Lord Ahriman's and Blackmoon's guitar sounds rip though the speakers without hesitation. The guitars are bathed in a crunchy reverberation that comes off more clean than anything resembling the lo-fi, grating sound of their Scandinavian neighbors giving the album a slight death metal channeled through black metal aesthetics aura, as in "The Dawn No More Rises". Themgoroth's vocals don't strictly adhere to that classic black metal rasp either--he delivers a lower tone that could be interrupted as a blackened death metal growl along with the occasional spoken word section. This robust style of vocals however fit the music much better than the classic black metal screeches because as stated above, The Secrets of the Black Arts given its much cleaner production would sound a bit odd with weaker, underdeveloped rasps. On the kit Equimanthorn blasts away, hammering in this groove that unfortunately gets buried underneath the wall of guitars. What these Swedes do manage to transmit from the second-wave sound is the atmosphere. This cold, evil mood is evident throughout the LP and conveys the artwork to a tee. While nothing short of relentless, Dark Funeral have managed to create an album that stands on its own merits when compared to genre heavyweights, offering enough derivation from the second-wave of Norwegian black metal sound without fully loosing its essence. One of the more grim and brutal releases of the year.
The above paragraphs could have easily been written for any metal zine circa the mid-90's and is indicative of something peculiar when reviewing an album that is nearly twenty years old. Does one reflect on the album in hindsight, with full knowledge of how the genre has evolved since its release or simply try and reflect what the music communicates? Attempting to do both simultaneously, hence the above paragraphs, it's hard not to see The Secrets of the Black Arts through or without the proverbial corpse-painted glasses and how it has fit into the evolving genre that is black metal. Of course at the time of their debut, the Swedes attempted to put their stamp on the hugely influential second-wave of black metal sound that was popularized by their Norwegian neighbors. What the album seems to lack though, or better put, what a modern listener of black metal may note is that it appears to have none if any redeeming qualities twenty years down the road. By the year 1996 many black metal classics had already been released, "A Blaze in the Northern Sky", "In the Nightside Eclipse" among many others and so in terms of this album capturing the quintessential 'Norwegian sound', it ultimately falls short. That isn't too say that black metal needs to stick to preconceived notions of genre boundaries… hell, just a few thousand kilometers south French abstract and avant-garde pioneering black metal bands Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega were just begging their experimental take on black metal and would prove to be quite influential to up-and-coming black metal bands. The French scene along with other forward thinking bands like Ved Buens Ende and Ulver were already pushing genre boundaries so, The Secrets of the Black Arts in that aspect then as well, seems to come up short as the music speeds along without ever really pausing to incorporate any sense of experimentation or differentiating song structure. The repetitive, at times unmemorable nature of the album sticks out like a sore thumb in 2014.
So then what makes the album seemingly straddle that line between bonafide genre classic and just another run-of-the-mill mid-90's black metal release? Could it be the production? Maybe--the production varies depending on if you managed to snag an original copy (which came bundled in the 2007 remastered version) in that case, you are treated to a raw and underproduced album which apparently the band didn't seem to mind baring Blackmoon who refused to let it see the light of day in 1996. Again, depending on your musical preferences, that sound is either right up your alley or downright ghastly. If however, you have the 1996 version released by No Fashion Records you are treated to that tell tale Abyss Studios production, super clean and nearly devoid of all personality. If it isn't the production then possibly it's the band's presence. Taking a look at the band's photos, song tittles and lyrics, one quickly surmises what position or stance the group is trying to conjure. Remember, at the time the overly satanic lyrics and pageantry wouldn't seem out of place but instead were almost prerequisites of the genre itself. In retrospect, the kvlt-like satanic worshiping and lyrics appear to be quite silly and appealing to only the angst-filled teenagers of the world, which the reviewer may or may not have been.
So, at the end of the day, the question still remains… how did this album reach its almost classic status within the genre? Well some things are sometimes better left unknown and essentially that is what you get with The Secret of the Black Arts. An album that by all means should be passed off as nothing but a clone of a sound that was already established and better executed by other bands and yet, curiously the album remains a mainstay when discussing some of the top-tier releases in black metal during the mid-90's. A true enigma… that is to say, perhaps the secret, that is the black arts.