Review Summary: But his piercing eyes can make you tremble! All his countenance and voice, deep and hoarse, make me believe all the stories I heard - like that of the night at St Nicholas church…
Storytelling is an underutilised treasure trove of potential in metal music, especially black metal with its deep history rooted in all forms of occultism. Even with all the right aesthetic cues, it’s all too easy to overlook the same conglomeration of buzzwords and general imagery in the lyrics of many bands. Free-form poetry and lyrics, while a perfectly fine vehicle for vocals to enchant the music with their looming presence in order to tie together the instrumental themes, lack the engaging quality of a true fleshed-out story. King Diamond, for example, not only stood out for his iconic vocals, but for his legendary songwriting and conceptual themes that defined the lyrical and aesthetic output for his albums – as well as some of the best riffs in metal history.
It’s no surprise, then, that Cultes des Ghoules, one of the most infamously “popular” bands in the underground black metal scene, were wont to expand their style and approach the storytelling concept for their third full-length, Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love.
The band has had a rich history in theatrical songwriting and themes, with most of their tracks usually playing out for over ten minutes, with only a few exceptions. Their unsubtle explorations of witchcraft and demonic possession go hand-in-hand with their often ritualistic and barbaric style. And Coven
isn’t even their first album to feature an alternate title befitting of its nature, with their last two full-lengths being sub-titled Häxan, or Mediaeval Witchcraft and Infanticide
and Henbane, or Sonic Compendium of the Black Arts
, respectively. Their music was always crafted with these grandiose qualities of occult worship in mind, but the band never capitalised upon it like they have with their newest endeavour, which expands their lyrical and musical ideas into the context of a play, which is based exactly on what its full title implies: evil ways
- instead of love.
Thankfully, the concept of this play doesn’t come across as half-hearted or poorly realised. It’s clear the effort that went into the writing of each scene is immense. The difference in dialogue character-to-character and the way each of their unique voices – all played to perfection by vocalist Mark of the Devil – blend with the evolution of riffs and winding passages is nothing short of inspired. Throughout each track and over the whole album, the band makes the most of some of the best guitar parts they’ve ever written, which grow and change in numerous ways. As their tone slows or speeds up, played in a frolicking or doomy way, or slowed down and left bare with just a wriggling bass line and suffocating atmosphere, they keep that same thematic idea throughout but changing it as each scene transpires. The story itself is loosely based in the real-world history of a suspected Cunning Man named George Pickingill in the town of Canewdon. Opening track ‘Devell, the Devell He Is, I Swear God...’ revolves around local villagers, workers and peasants discussing fervently the nature of Old George, the peasants believing him to be the Devil, a toad-witch cursing the land. Others argue for his virtue, and claim he has helped them and the town asking for nothing in return, while a travelling mason sits back and listens to them weave their stories, himself a Rosicrucian occultist in town to confer with Old George. Throughout the track, each character is delivered in different vocal reverence. The peasants speak with ill-educated tongues, their words slurred and poor and rambling, while the travelling mason speaks without such frivolity and with more grace. Vocalist Mark of the Devil uses his diverse vocal palette to convey these wonderful tonal, guttural and languid changes with severity and passion.
“Toad-wytch, a toad-wytch he is, the Devell!”
“A toad-witch" And what’s that, if I may ask"”
“You ketch a hoppin’ toad and bury it
in a black ants’ nest till black-boones are left.”
“You serch a rare toad with a yellow ring
round its neck, and take the bone to the brook.
At midnight till the Devil come to you
and pull you over the water…”
“…and then you kin be a wytche and dew badness charms.”
The story deals with humour well, initially, especially through the banter on part of the peasants. Though its main focus is serious in tone, the balance of which fits with the music as it runs through heavy, synth-cradled passages and more bouncing, “joyful” and fun segments.
‘Mischief, Mischief, the Devilry Is at Toil...’, the second track/scene in the play demonstrates the well-spoken and God-empowered voice of the town vicar warring in the darkness against the voices of the night, played as a harsh and spectral multitude of vocals that terrify. Listening to all these scenes take place while reading the lines as they grow and change with the music is a wholly unique experience, and it’s something that needs to be taken in all at once. The story deals furthermore, throughout the full album, with the corruption of a young Dorothea, and her leaving her fiancé on the eve of their wedding to join with the Coven, and to give herself to Satan. Though if this were all to be performed as a physical play, it would only take around fifteen minutes, the effort put into its development is admirable, and the way the album concludes leaves the inkling that this is only the first part of a bigger story, and possibly that Cultes des Ghoules aren’t finished with their ambition just yet.
On past records, the production and recording quality has often come through muffled and blended together, distant and covered in reverb. For Coven
, in order to make the most of its lyrical value, the production shows the band at their clearest and most defined, musically. This isn’t to call the production clean
, just clear. The quality still retains the raw and dirty style the band is unabashedly known for, with thick, rumbling bass guitar at the forefront and heavy percussive backing – which, here, is the most pronounced it has ever been. Notably, even the reverb the band usually soaks a lot of their most atmospheric sections in is lessened here, with a more stark and plain recording ideal taking place. And with the album’s length going on half and hour longer than their previous two full-lengths, it’s allowed their compositional values to breathe much more. Henbane
felt extremely dense with its ideas and musical concepts being squeezed together so tightly, and Häxan
, while much simpler, was so lo-fi that it lent the music a murky atmosphere that doesn’t come across here. This contrast between lengths and production values leaves Coven
sounding simpler overall on a first listen than its predecessors, as the allocation of time has given the breadth of their ideas room to expand – not to mention that the music has lost much of its faster, more aggressive blasting sections. On Coven
, Cultes des Ghoules abandon speed and blasts for their more stylised doom and mid-paced sections, all the more fitting of the dialogue that glues together each scene of their play.
The last track especially, ‘Satan, Father, Savior, Hear My Prayer...’, may be the best song the band has ever conceived. This nigh-thirty-minute magnum opus stands as a monument to everything the band can achieve both musically and lyrically. Opening with a thudding riff and high-pitched organ keys, the track transforms multiple times over its vast runtime and explores all the band’s styles over the years, and newer ideas that fit well within the context of the band’s experimentation with this more open, breathable space they’ve created. Around five-minutes in, there’s even a galloping and roaring guitar solo that sounds unlike anything the band has tried before, becoming one of the best and moments in the band’s history as it runs through several iterations as the composition changes pace and different guitar tones battle through each stereo channel, synths rising in the background to perfect the atmosphere.
The album concludes with an eerie cello performance, a reprisal of a previous appearance during the third track at a pivotal moment in the story, and hopefully a teaser that this ending was only a pivotal turn into what will become the band’s next masterpiece. Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love
is a brilliantly designed, written and performed double-album, a ritualistic journey into a story of evil and lust for might of witchcraft, surpassing all the band’s previous work in terms of clarity, musical exploration and the full realisation of their own sound and potential. A true testament to the versatility and capability of black metal in this day and age, this is everything the genre should have been about since day one.
"Our cult knows the world is not what may seem
for those in slumber its distempered dream.
Thou shall learn how thy soul's path to reverse
and the world as thou know it to transgress."
"Passions of other men I truly scorn
to the tongues of the dark I am reborn
I pledge to serve thee for the good and ill
Possess me and then kill - that is my will..."
(the proper part of the ceremony begins...)