Released: 2016, EMP Label Group
Reviewer: Aaron Yurkiewicz
There was a point during the black metal gold rush of the mid-90s where Ancient seemed poised and ready to break through to the big leagues. They had both the street cred of actually being a Norwegian band as well as a series of mainstream black metal releases that fit comfortably within the wave of Cradle of Filth/Dimmu Borgir/Old Man’s Child hysteria. But questionable creative choices on subsequent albums and a lineup that seemed to unravel by the hour ended up derailing whatever momentum they’d been building. The albums kept coming, but fans mostly stopped listening, and band leader Zel quietly retired Ancient around 2004.
12 years later, Ancient aims for a second shot at glory with BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD. A revamped lineup, the support of David Ellefson’s EMP label in North America, and the benefits that come with being a nostalgia act all would signal that this Ancient’s Eight Mile moment. The only thing that could possibly go wrong would be if BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD ended up sounding like a mediocre throwback of mid-90s melodic black metal from a band that hasn’t grown or learned any new tricks in the last decade.
As much as I enjoy and go back to albums like ‘96’s THE CANIAN CHRONICLE, I view it like the original special effects in Star Wars Episode IV. When it first came out, it was totally cutting edge and exciting. When you watch it today and you can see the strings holding up the TIE fighters, it's still fun, but doesn’t quite hold up the same. BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD sounds like the album that should’ve properly succeeded THE CANIAN CHRONICLE, but aesthetically that doesn’t mean the same thing 20 years after the fact. Lots of rapid tremolo picking minor key rhythms, witchy monotonous vocal scowls, and the occasional spook synth are textbook 90’s black metal, but given how far the genre has come it ends up sounding dated and less than inspired. Being less generous - the tunes themselves desperately want to be epic and atmospheric, but save for moments like “The Sempiternal Haze” and “Petrified By Their End”, BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD is awkwardly out of its depth. Performance wise, Zel was never the most prolific or flashy guitar player to begin with, but even with enlisting Ghiulz Borroni for lead guitar duty the solos sound like they’re courtesy of a 3rd year guitar student.
Despite best intentions, BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD demonstrates that some bands shouldn’t venture back to the other side in the first place. It’s an album that won’t likely sully Ancient’s reputation any further, but it won’t do anything to fix it either.