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Hordes of the Darklands (1996)

Within a few years of the black metal explosion in the lands of the north, many others were soon drawn to this black flame and did their best to capture the same feeling. Some were untalented clowns that simply adopted the aesthetics and techniques in order to capitalize on the growing popularity of such bands as Darkthrone, Emperor and Immortal, while others were truly inspired and sought to create something worthy of the ancient darkness that spawned the hideous thing known as black metal in the first place.

Taking their name from an old Darkthrone song, Paragon Belial most certainly belonged to the second group, taking a good amount of inspiration from their neighbors to the north, while also aspiring to craft something rather unique. This band came to my attention, by chance, some years ago. I had a pen pal from Berlin that was a longtime contact of some of the members, and recommended that I listen to this. Of course, at the time, there was simply no way to get my hands on an original copy of their 1996 album, Hordes of the Darklands, since Folter Records had only made 1000 of them. So, several weeks later, I received a package from Germany that contained a homemade copy of the album, complete with a xeroxed booklet. Upon listening to this collection of songs, I realized that this was definitely a lost gem of mid-90s black metal. Not a classic, by any means, but absolutely worth hearing.

The intro almost sounds like something that one would expect from a My Dying Bride album, a simple clean guitar melody that serves to create a sombre tone. In a sense, it does not really belong there, as the song that follows does not really carry this feeling on. "The Coming of a New Dynasty" does not waste time in speeding up and unleashing the type of tremolo-picked melodies that were standard for the time period. There are some interesting riffs, though the production does not allows allow their full impact to be felt. The sound is somewhat muddy, and there is a hissing that gives the feeling that this album was first recorded onto an old cassette. In some ways, this works to add a level of charm to the proceedings, as many bands were already experimenting with newer production techniques by that time, so this more primitive approach was likely a welcome thing.

"Black Tears of Diabolical Rage" starts out with an ominous intro; another clean guitar melody that sounds like it is emanating from a dark cave, somewhere. While it is not bad, it gives the song a bit of a disjointed feeling since the main riffs possess a completely different vibe. More cold tremolo riffs blow through like raging winds in the midst of a blizzard, interrupted by a brief mid-paced section that adds a little doom to the track. In a sense, Paragon Belial is like the reverse of old Bethlehem; whereas the former utilizes doom riffs on occasion, the latter employed brief black metal sections within their doom-oriented material. The song continues to alternate between the faster and slower riffs, with a nice epic melody coming in near the end to allow it to end on a high note.

The next song is "Shadow Grave", which begins with a mournful riff that is again reminiscent of Classen's previous band, Bethlehem. This sorrowful melody digs its cold claws into you chest and prepares you for a miserable journey through the depths of suffering. This song is more mid-paced and additional guitar harmonies weave in and out to add to the bleak soundscape. The riffs seem more introspective and the song, as a whole, appears to be more well thought-out. This is one of the highlights of the album as it displays the band really working well together to create something of their own.

"Horns of Reprisal" starts out much like the previous song. This is one of the few complaints that I have with this album, the fact that several of the tracks begin in a very similar manner, with the clean guitar intros. Not only are none of them worked into the context of the songs very well, but it gives off a repetitive feeling that does not help when one is attempting to get familiar with the album. While much of the album possesses a dark feeling, this track features some rather upbeat melodies that lack the same kind of malevolent atmosphere that pervades most of the material. However, this does not affect the overall aura and is counteracted by a woeful riff that comes later in the song.

To the surprise of no one, "Cradle of Blood" starts out with a soft and depressive clean guitar intro that lasts for about two and a half minutes. Used sparingly, this can be a nice touch. In this case, though, it has been done to death. It is not bad, but this technique begins to wear thin by this point, especially when the song is as raw and hateful as it is. In other words, there is no connection, whatsoever. As for the main part of the song, it features some rather competent playing but there is the sense that it is missing something. Some of the riffs are a little less effective than others, though one can easily detect the high level of energy and passion that each member possesses. The faster riffs are the ones that stand out the best, and with a little more work this could have been quite remarkable.

"Necromancer of the Dark Valley" opens with something that sounds like it belongs in some old horror movie, which is appreciated. Again, the intro is disconnected from the main body of the song, which seems to be a recurring flaw with this band. The song is mostly fast-paced, until the middle where things slow down and a mournful atmosphere begins to unfurl and envelope all in its path. In this case, Paragon Belial may have benefited from expanding this part of the song and tossing some of the more generic riffs.

The album ends with "Verdelet (Master of Zeremonies)", which is a bleak outro that is reminiscent of early Katatonia. Listening to this is like one of those nightmares where you wake up and think it is all over, only to realize that you are still dreaming. It is very haunting and brings things to an eerie conclusion.

Hordes of the Darklands is a decent slab of German black metal. It is not on the same level as Moonblood, but more along the lines of what Wolfsmond was doing around that time. Maybe it is simply the fact that Andreas Classen is the vocalist, but Paragon Belial seems to pick up from where the black metal side of Bethlehem's Dark Metal left off, in some ways. This L.P. shows a lot of potential and one has to wonder what the band would have been capable of, back then, had they stuck together and continued working on this project. Despite the boring cover art and the handful of flaws, this is well worth checking out.
(20 Sept. 2011)

Nosferathu Sathanis (2008)

Nosferathu Sathanis is the second full-length album from Germany's Paragon Belial. For those unfortunate wretches not familiar with this band, it features two musicians that you should be acquainted with; Andreas Classen (original vocalist for Bethlehem) and Zahgurim (former Bethlehem drummer). The members of Paragon Belial kept themselves occupied with other musical projects since the release of their debut album, in 1996, Hordes of the Darklands. Many years passed since then, as the black metal scene changed and decayed. Yet, finally, this German horde rose from the shadows, after over a decade of silence, to unleash more raw and hateful black metal, the way it should be.

The album begins with the title track, which is dripping with the blood of the ancients. It opens with a mid-paced riff and grim vocals, before speeding up a bit. The vocals then become more demonic, sounding improved from the debut L.P. The old school influences are obvious here, and executed very well. Like any good opening song, this one serves well to set the tone for the whole record.

Next is "666 Calling of the Dead". This begins with intensity and pure hatred coming from Classen. The tempo alternates between violent speed and a more mid-paced assault, as the song continues. The vocals become more insane and possessed as things progress. There is a good mix of 80s and early 90s black metal, here, sounding as if it could, easily, have been released 15 years earlier. The most important thing is that the melodies are dark and memorable.

The next track is the longest one on the album. "Goatspawn" starts with a brief bass section, giving the feeling of dread, as the mid-paced riffs accompany hellish vocals. This one strongly retains the aura of doom from the previous album, while building upon it. There is a definite Hellhammer influence, yet it isn't as overt as some bands. Paragon Belial manages to take this inspiration and use it to create something of their own, rather than simply mimicking the old ones. After a few minutes, the pace picks up in a manner reminiscent of Hordes of the Darklands or Dark Metal. Things continue to build until it reaches a violent climax, where it all slows down. Only a somber acoustic guitar and sparse drums play as a sample from some unknown film adds to the evil and epic atmosphere. It all blends together, seamlessly, and slowly builds to an epic tremolo riff that will haunt you until your final days. This may be the masterpiece of the album, as the dark atmosphere is almost suffocating, as the funeral bells chime your final doom and it all comes to an end.

The tribute to Hellhammer is made clear with the next track. "Horus/Aggressor" is executed very precisely, as Andreas manages to emulate Tom Warrior's vocal style, while giving it a little more energy. This is superior to the original version, if for no other reason than that it doesn't feature the hypocritical and scum-filled presence of Mr. Fischer. Another thing worth mentioning is that with Paragon Belial's old school approach to black metal, this song fits in, perfectly, not seeming out of place at all.

"Abomoth" follows this, beginning with dark and dreary riffs, maintaining a slower pace than the last song. Andreas shows some variation in his vocals, as on the rest of the album, matching the feeling of the song and keeping things interesting. The drums are tight and keep a steady pace, even as the song speeds up. A lot of modern drummers feel the need to show off and do to much; Zahgurim knows just what is needed for the integrity of the song. Of course, Ralph is more than competent on the guitar, even throwing a brief solo into this song. Also, the bass is present yet not overbearing. Many bands place little or no emphasis on this instrument, missing out on the opportunity to accentuate the dark aura of the music.

"Solemnize Me" has a short build-up, accompanied with deeper vocals, before bursting forth with scorching speed. There is a brief section where it all slows down, as a funeral bell tolls once more, before returning to the same violent tempo. For the most part, this one retains the feeling from the Second Wave.

Traditional-sounding metal riffs begin the next song, "Grimdozer". This one contains more memorable melodies, especially around the 2:00 mark. The song is fairly straight-forward, yet possesses small bits of variation, throughout. The pace really changes in the last minute or so, as the vocals become quite unrestrained and almost maniacal.

"Necromancer" is a re-recorded version of "Necromancer of the Dark Valleys", from Hordes of the Darklands. It begins with a melody that is somewhat reminiscent of something from Sacramentum's Far Away From the Sun. The cold riffs are enough to chill your skin even in the blistering heat of neverending summer. About mid-way through, the song seems to collapse into silence, with the drums slowly dying off. Nothing is left but the sound of falling rain, a miserable acoustic guitar and demonic vocals. The riff that follows is dark and takes you by the throat. The atmosphere is dark and you get the feeling of being pulled down into the fiery depths. This is certainly one of the best songs on here.

The album concludes with the ridiculously-titled "Black Metal United & Strong". This one is rather short and has, somewhat, cleaner vocals as well as kind of a punk feeling to the chorus. It is more upbeat than the previous song, yet it's not out of place, either.

Nosferathu Sathanis is a decent slab of misanthropic black metal. This is recommended for anyone that is tired of modern-sounding music. If you want more old school black metal, pick this up. 
(20 Feb. 2009)

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