Review of Beherit-Engram (Black metal)

April 12, 2009

Here’s an album I never expected to hear. Like most black metal listeners, I’ve always had a love/hate relation with Finnish black metal in general, and Beherit in particular. In 1993, they released a very interesting album called Drawing Down the Moon that was hailed as a cult classic by some and unlistenable raw trash by others. I didn’t think it was either of the two but possibly a stepping stone towards something greater. It wasn’t Horna yet or even close, but conceivably, they could have been just as good. Then they went ahead and turned into an industrial dark ambient act, releasing two forgettable full lengths. I expected they’d disbanded. In any case, I’d lost interest in them.

What was special about Beherit was always how committed to the riff they were. Every song was maniacally devoted to its riff’s purpose to the point of being overly repetitive. They always went from interesting tribal intro involving strange instruments to the standard riff and then never looked back for the entirety of the song, except for the last movement where the keys came in. Their vocalist utilized whispers and growls at low volume to give the already simplistic canvas a bit of color. Doesn’t sound special, right? It shouldn’t. But like Hellhammer, who were guilty of most of these sins, Beherit know their way around their riff. Of course, no one formed a band called “Fuck Hellhammer” so perhaps there is some difference.

Engram is a good-to-great distillation of that very philosophy, just now with more Bathory. The opener “Axiom Heroine” (ignore the heavily accented Finnish voice saying “I just hate this world” at the start) gives way to a very simple driving three-chord Hellhammer/Bathory-esque riff over which a keyboard melody writhes. This song literally sounds like snake charming set to music, or how I imagine it would be anyway. Serpentine’s the only word to describe the intro. Marco’s vocals are buried deep under the verse riff, an odd choice, considering how un-raw the production for this album is compared to their old work. Eventually, the keyboard melody reprises itself for an oddly triumphant finish. Of course, this feeling of triumph is quickly dispelled by how weak the vocals were for the next track, “Destroyer of Thousand Worlds.” What ought to have been an awesome old-school song ends up sounding wholly unconvincing simply on the back of Marco’s vocal performance here. You can hear the phlegm but can’t really feel much bile.

Where their influences really come together for the new Beherit sound is the brilliant “Pimeyden Henki” which is an aggressive ritualistic beast that marries the atmosphere Beherit are going for with interesting musical ideas and a solid vocal performance. It’s a simple song that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Marco’s voice carries presence for the first time in the album, making the ritual much more ominous. He moans like a griefstruck monk while a tremolo picked riff shrouds the musical landscape in a thick fog. The drums plod on, a grim funeral full of palpable despair and anger. Underneath, a vague clicking can be heard along with some flange effects, that thankfully don’t distract from the forlorn atmosphere. This is pagan metal, perfectly executed, a wonderful evocation of nightfall.

Of course, the paganism is often laughable for its silliness, especially on “Suck my blood” with its try-hard, then try-harder attempt at dominance. The sheer predictability of the mostly aggressive track is matched only by how artificial the ritual elements are when they show up. Beherit’s strength and weakness both lie in their strident one-note approach to music, which is what shows up their attempts at innovation as false. The techno/dance beat that shows up on “All in Satan,” while not obnoxious, seems a bridge too far when matched against their talent for the riff.

The final track, “Demon Advance”, is both the longest and the most ambivalent. Here, they legitimately make their avant-garde case with a futuristic tribal sound that, despite the oxymoron, seems convincing. Short stabs from the keys punctuate the lengthy second half while the bass rumbles over swampy drums and various hand instruments. It’s moody stuff. Legitimately progressive, it uncoils itself repeatedly over its 15 minutes, and contains multiple riffs that unlike the rest of the album, aren’t meant to be simply be catchy. At this point, after being lulled into surrender by the unrelenting riffs of the previous tracks, this song is like poison simply because of its unpredictability. Now, that’s another thing I didn’t think I’d say, a truly unpredictable Beherit song.

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