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For Snow Covered the Northland (1996)

For Snow Covered the Northland is the first full-length album from the Swedish black metal band Ancient Wisdom. Previously known as Pain and then as Ancient, this band was formed in 1992 by Marcus Norman. The original line-up also included Fredrik Jakobsson, of Throne of Ahaz. After a couple demos, the band entered Garageland Studio in December 1994, to record their debut album. There were some technical issues with the recording, but it was finally released in 1996.

The album begins with "A Hymn to the Northern Empire", which sets the stage for what is to come. This intro starts with the mournful howling of wolves, soon joined by a sombre piano and tortured vocals. The feeling is very dark and a sense of dread falls over the listener.

"In the Land of the Crimson Moon" starts out with tormented screams and a melancholy guitar riff. This is slow-paced and possesses almost a Doom-like quality. There are some keyboards, yet they seem to fit in well with what's going on. The melodies become darker and more miserable as the song progresses. The vocals are very anguished and add well to the gloomy vibe of the song. This isn't terribly far removed from some of the stuff that Throne of Ahaz was doing, just a little more slow and melodic. Very briefly, there are some clean vocals, but this is never the focal point. The song slowly fades out, as a new keyboard melody joins the affair to accentuate the main riff.

The next song is "They Gather Where Snow Falls Forever". It opens with another mid-paced riff that is joined by a sorrowful lead solo and more agonized screams. After the first verse, the pace picks up a little, but not too fast. It almost feels like a cross between Throne of Ahaz and early Bethlehem. By the middle, there's a nice solo that lends some epic feeling to the song, followed by some utilization of classical guitar. The main riffs returns for a couple minutes, then gives way to keyboards and more clean guitars, joined by the miserable vocals. This is very atmospheric and works well to create a cold and dismal feeling.

"Through Rivers of the Eternal Blackness" follows this, possessing a faster pace and the first real use of tremolo riffs on the album, though used only to accentuate the main power chords. This icy effect is only temporary, but gives way to a very nice lead solo that is introspective and though-provoking. Lyrically, it's quite similar to early Immortal, though the overall tone is far more depressive. The feeling is somewhat reminiscent of the more bleak moments from the first Ophthalamia album. Perhaps, that results from the doom vibe that is infused into the sound. This is best described as majestic and epic, while being dismal and somewhat painful to hear. In the latter half of the song, there's one particular solo that feels as if it is cutting right through you, pulling your empty heart out of your chest and utterly annihilating it. You are left hollow and useless, with blades of ice falling from the sky and piercing you. The sound is quite familiar. Then it becomes clear that this final riff was stolen. It was lifted directly from the ending of Metallica's "Fade To Black". The band loses points for this thievery, but it still works well within this context.

"At this place I have always longed to be
To enter the dead, I have crossed the endless river"

This hymn of mourning is succeeded by "The Journey of the Ancients". The atmosphere of the previous song carries over into this one, as it begins with a slow and hopeless riff and more anguished vocals to fill your mind with thoughts of dread and despair. The pace picks up a bit, soon joined by another haunting solo. It's fairly minimalist, but effective. That could very well describe the song as a whole; it's somewhat bare and simplistic, almost lulling you into sort of a trance.

"As Snow Covers the Northland" is an instrumental that features more clean guitars, creating an eerie feeling that soon turns quite despondent. It's rather brief, but the effect if haunting and gives you yet another push toward the edge of despair.

Funeral bells chime in the cold northern breeze, signaling the beginning of "No Tears At His Funeral", which soon unleashes yet another mid-paced riff of sorrow and desolation. There is some variation in the pace, and the riffs become more and more grim and hopeless as the song progresses. The strained vocals only add to this. The emptiness is all-consuming, and you are being pulled down by emaciated hands that stretch out from beneath the surface. The black grave beckons...

"Forest of Summoned Spirits" starts out with a rather mid-paced riff, though the drumming gives some speed to the opening moments. Soon enough, the open-arpeggio riffs are joined by tormented screams and some keyboards. The tension is slowly building and the shadows move ever closer. Once again, the solo work adds much life to the music, so to speak. It's difficult to say such a thing, given the dreary feeling possessed by this album.

The next song is the longest one on the album, clocking in at over eight minutes. "A Raven's Reflection of the Ancient Northland" feels like a gravestone being dropped on your chest. It is slow, dreary and utterly desolate. The riffs are mournful and recall to mind sorrowful memories from the cold dark past. There is a brief section where things speed up a little, but this is only to add some sense of dynamics to the song, as it soon returns to the slow and plodding riff which strangles the hope out of your useless body. This is followed by an exceptionally hypnotic melody that is lifeless and cold, imbuing the listener with a true sense of nothingness. It's almost as if a vacuum exists within your chest and the pain is unreal, but soon a fleeting solo passes through and fills you with yet more distress. As the song slowly fades to oblivion, so too any remaining hope that you had foolishly held onto.

"The Serpent's Sleep Is Not Eternal" is another instrumental piece, consisting of clean guitars and thunder in the background. The vibe is somewhat peaceful, in the sense that you can now feel the end is soon drawing near and the suffering of a lifetime is soon to pass.

The next song sustains the feeling of doom and misery. "At the Other Side" begins with more mid-paced riffs, with the occasional section of increased speed. It's slightly reminiscent of the first song from Bethlehem's debut album, during certain moments. There are some riffs that don't seem to fit in, around the middle of the song. Thankfully, the song transitions to something else though the atmosphere that was crafted with the previous songs seems to be lacking, somewhat.

"The Sleep Within" is the final song, and starts out with a relatively heavy mid-paced riff, sounding almost like something from the first Throne of Ahaz record. However, there is a bit of a death metal feeling to some of the riffs. Perhaps the album should have ended with the last instrumental. The sound is mid-paced and filled with doom, but there's less of the cold sorrow that permeated the rest. The song ends with more appropriate riffs, conveying a sense of doom through a style borrowed from early Black Sabbath.

For Snow Covered the Northland is an ambitious work, containing nearly 60 minutes of music. It can be described as atmospheric black metal or even as some doom hybrid; maybe even falling into the category of dark metal. Really, none of these labels is necessary. What you'll find here is something absolutely miserable and yet beautiful in its own dark way. It's strange that this album seems to be so unknown. Seek this out, if at all possible.
(2 Feb. 2010)

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