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Next review: » Samael - Above
Released: 2009, Century Media Records
Reviewer: Aaron Yurkiewicz
One could make the argument that Switzerland’s Samael were the progenitors of the current avant-garde black metal scene. 1991’s WORSHIP HIM was a raw and traditional Bathory induced black metal effort, but the progressive leaps and bounds featured on ‘92s BLOOD RITUAL and ‘94s CEREMONY OF OPPOSITES left many fans scratching their heads and keenly intrigued at the same time. With the support of tunes like “Rain” and “Jupiterian Vibe”, 1996’s PASSAGE seemed poised to catapult the band to the big leagues, but then things got sketchy. The band made a sharp left turn full of techno and ambient influences that saw many fans jump ship. Following up 2007’s poorly received SOLAR SOUL, Samael have released ABOVE; a sort of crossroads for the band.
Part of what made Samael so menacing was their cold, mechanical approach to their melodic brand of black metal. When they drifted from the metal part of that equation is when things got ugly. ABOVE attempts to bridge the two once again, giving the fans the blistering assault they’ve been jonesing for while still allowing the band their indulgences. ABOVE is fast, like a case of red bull and amphetamines fast. Drummer/programmer/co-founder Xy effectively blurs the lines between live drums and programmed beats. The percussive elements of the drums feel live, while the double bass work is so fast that it can’t possibly be human. You’re never quite sure which is which, but either way, when you couple ridiculously fast drum work with the ridiculously fast guitars, it’s impressive to say the least. Mainman Vorphalack and guitarist Makro offer up some traditionally melodic riffs but they’re are often suppressed by the louder than loud drums. In some spots the dark, harmonious guitar work carries the songs and in others they’re shrouded in fuzz and percussion. The opening track, “Under One Flag,” is a key example; as the opening twin harmonies get lost in the verse, but then reappear towards the bridge and the chorus.
Vocally, Vorph adopts a more traditional black metal scowl, but it sounds as if they’ve been filtered through distortion effects. The resulting sound is cold and distant, which I imagine is exactly what the band was hoping for. However, whether by choice or by consequence, the vocals themselves sound too distant and are lost in the overall mix (even more so than the guitars). It’s a shame, as Vorph is usually a pretty prolific lyricist.
Songs like “On Top of it All,” “Earth Country,” and “Illumination” are all traditionally Samael; sinister enough to fit in with their more abrasive metal contemporaries, but just spacey enough to be uniquely Samael. Regrettably as good as the songs are one their own, they tend to mush together from track to track due to the coat of noisy paint that permeates ABOVE. The digipack version of the album features a remix of the track “Black Hole,” which while written for and featured on ABOVE, the remix sounds like it was a leftover from the CEREMONY or PASSAGE releases. The sound is beefed up and clear and the instruments sound more organic. It’s a hell of a tease for any fan that remembers the band from those days, but it offers hope enough that Samael might dare tread that ground once again.
Honestly, I’d written off Samael a long time ago. Having no expectations for what the Swiss troupe would deliver, I was pleasantly surprised at the end result. ABOVE is not without its flaws, but it’s a decent return to form from a band that’s been to the edge and back. Always a step or two ahead of their peers, Samael have taken a few necessary steps in reverse (or at least eased off the accelerator) to allow their audience a chance to catch up.
1. Under One Flag
2. Virtual War
4. Earth Country
6. Black Hole
7. In There
8. Dark Side
9. God’s Snake
10. On Top of it All
11. Black Hole (Verso Remix)
Vorph – Vocals, Guitar
Xy – Programming, Keyboards, Drums
Makro – Guitar
Masmiseim – Bass
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Next review: » Samael - Era One
Released: 2009, Nuclear Blast Records
The ever-changing Swiss chameleons known as Samael are a tough band to love. Still, I’ve loved everything the band has done, and having been a major fan since 1994’s lauded CEREMONY OF OPPOSITES, it’s been an interesting ride for me (and many others no doubt!) to watch the band morph from mean black metal beast into a trance-influenced industrial metal act. Personally, my favourite Samael era is the PASSAGE – ETERNAL years, but everyone seems to have a different opinion. One thing that most agree on is that 2007’s SOLAR SOUL was a bit of a career-staller for the band. It didn’t really break any new ground and seemed to just tread water. A re-think was needed.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the band originally meant ABOVE to be a side-project. See, for those used to the more melodic, dance-happy Samael, the opening black assault of “Under One Flag” will come as a massive shock. From the first seconds of this album, it’s clear that ABOVE is more visceral and blackened than anything the band has done in about 15 years. Vorph’s vocals are a throat-ripping howl (although mixed a bit too far back, and filtered WAY too much), and hark! Is that real, live drums that I hear? It’s actually tough to tell where Xy the human drummer begins and Xy the programmer ends, but the mixture is a pleasing one. Happily, the guitars are front and centre, standing alone where keyboards have dominated for many a year.
Thankfully, “Under One Flag” is not a fluke! The rest of the album continues the attack, right up through “On The Top Of It All”. This isn’t to say that the traditional, melodic sensibilities of the band have been shed – they are certainly still there (check out the melodic guitars of “Earth Country”), but they have been subdued in favour of increased aggression.
In the end, ABOVE will probably be as polarizing an album as every other Samael release. It’s certainly not flawless, and it doesn’t reach the heights of PASSAGE, but it’s easily the best, most enjoyable album the band has done in almost 10 years.
1) Under One Flag
2) Virtual War
4) Earth Country
6) Black Hole
7) In There
8) Dark Side
9) God’s Snake
10) On The Top Of It All
Vorph: Vocals, Guitar
Xy: Drums, Keyboards, Programming
Previous review: » Samadriel - Awakening