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The Other Side (1994)

The Abyss was an obscure and short-lived black metal side project from the members of Hypocrisy. Very little information is available regarding the motivations behind creating this dark entity, no lyrics were ever printed in the CD booklets and not a word has been spoken about the two albums that were released under this name in all the years since. However, The Abyss should not be relegated to being a mere footnote in the lengthy discography of Peter Tägtgren. It deserves much more than that. Released in March 1995, The Other Side is one of the best black metal albums to emerge from the dark forests of Sweden and should be revered as such.

My first exposure to this band came as a result of seeing a review of Summon the Beast in Metal Maniacs. Intrigued by the impressive cover art, which seemed all the more grim since it was printed in black and white, I began searching for their releases. My best friend at the time beat me to it, getting his hands on the band's debut, of which I was skeptical since the cover seemed like the total antithesis of the one that first caught my interest. If I'd found myself in a position of having to choose between the two, based on appearances, I would have made a serious mistake and walked out of the shop with the wrong one. At any rate, I only became more interested in the album when he told me that it featured the three members of Hypocrisy, something that the reviewer failed to mention. Being quite enthralled with many of their songs, and the entire Osculum Obscenum album in particular, I suddenly had high expectations of The Abyss. I was not disappointed in the slightest.

What the listener will find here is classic mid-'90s black metal in the northern style. The band shares few traits with their brethren in the nascent Swedish scene, owing much more to Norwegian bands such as Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum. In fact, my initial impression of The Other Side was that it reminded me a bit of Gorgoroth's Pentagram, which was released around the time this was being recorded, an album with seemingly similar inspirations. Though hardly surprising, considering the musicians involved, the songwriting is excellent. The compositions are quite dynamic, with pretty much every song running the gamut of tempos and feeling almost like mini-epics, each building to its own climax and yet also forming a cohesive whole. Mikael Hedlund and Lars Szöke prove to be more than capable guitarists, unleashing blistering riffs, accompanied by intense percussion from Tägtgren. The booklet states that each member shares vocal duties, but it seems that Hedlund is responsible for the majority of the throat-shredding blasphemies. His voice is reminiscent of that of Af Gravf, of Marduk, as well as Hat's work in the aforementioned Gorgoroth. His style makes it fairly difficult to discern any of the lyrics, exacerbated by the fact that nearly everything is written in Swedish, as well as the generous use of reverb. Nevertheless, his tormented cries suit the cold, melancholic guitars.

"Marutukku" bursts forth from the blackness in a maelstrom of fast-picked riffs, violent drumming and hateful vocals, laying the foundation for what is to come. In less than three minutes, The Abyss succeeded in establishing an identity and contributed more to black metal than most bands manage throughout their entire, worthless careers. "Tjänare af besten" possesses a rather mournful feeling, taking the listener deeper into the darkness and weaving sombre tremolo melodies into the violent and intense framework of the song. Everything comes together, masterfully, with each riff flowing seamlessly into the next, as the bleak harmonies build tension, pushing the listener closer toward the edge. Much like the first track, the second eventually gives way to a slower, more melodic section which serves as a release for the misery that has been growing, stabbing you right in the heart like a shard of ice. It's during these moments, as the gloomy and sometimes eerie atmosphere envelopes the listener, that the distinctive sound of their primary band begins to bleed through. As the final depressive notes fade into nothingness, "Psycomantum" erupts from below, with a blinding speed and fury similar to the opening of Mayhem's "Life Eternal", bearing a more sinister and wrathful vibe than the previous song. At times, the severity of this track threatens to overwhelm the senses with a torrent of vicious riffs and maniacal screams. There are also brief nods to Hellhammer, which is most appropriate since the next piece is a cover of "Massacra". By doing this, they ensured that the tribute song would blend in with the rest a bit more. 

The way that each song leads into the next one, building on what came before, is brilliant. As a result, The Other Side really feels like much more than a mere collection of random songs. None of the tracks are one-dimensional or monotonous, and each one could stand on its own very well. However, when put together and arranged in such a logical manner, it all gives the impression that this is some epic record, despite clocking in at just under half an hour. As the journey into the frozen void continues, we come to the much more intense "Mörkrets vandring", a hellish and almost schizophrenic track that would not have been out of place on an album like Hvis lyset tar oss, though in the hands of the Count it wouldn't have been this tight and powerful. As the anguished cries echo through the endless dark and the pace slows, one might expect this song to gradually fade away as the earlier "Tjänare af besten" had done. Instead, the mood becomes kind of unhinged as everything speeds up and returns to a heightened state of tension. "Sorgens dal" hearkens back to Bathory's Under the Sign of the Black Mark, at times, with a few hints of Marduk's Those of the Unlight for good measure. The feeling of utter desperation truly sets in as the mournful intro of "Slukad" fades in, accompanied by some brief 'operatic wailing'. The listener is nearly lulled into a trance, within the first minute or so, until the song speeds up. The sorrowful guitar harmonies are unrelenting, accentuated by the tortured vocals. This utterly desolate feeling that is created by this song really drains the life from your body. Appropriately enough, the last proper track does have some feeling of finality to it. Of all the songs on here, this is the closest to feeling like Hypocrisy (minus a riff or two).

The Other Side is highly recommended, and is actually one of the better black metal albums to emerge from Sweden during this period. For as good as it is, it's a little surprising that this recording is cited so rarely. As this was the first full-length to be recorded in Tägtgren's new studio, the sound is more clear and powerful than a fair amount of other black metal albums from this time; however, in late 1994 he had not yet 'perfected' his skills in making things sound overly slick and soulless, so the production is not a problem and suits this material just fine. (Sadly, the same cannot be said for the second album from The Abyss.) At any rate, this is essential for anyone into Swedish black metal. Whether you are a fan of their primary band, or just early just '90s Scandinavian black metal in general, be sure to give this a listen.
(31 Jan. 2009)

Summon the Beast (1996)

Released on Nuclear Blast Records in November 1996, Summon the Beast is the second and final full-length from The Abyss. The black metal alter ego of Hypocrisy had reared its ugly head once more, yet this is a far cry from the material found on their debut, The Other Side. This time around, the approach was significantly different, resulting in an album that lacks many of the qualities that made its predecessor so enjoyable. These guys were capable of much more but, evidently, they did not care enough about this side project to invest a great deal of time into it. Notwithstanding this, it is not entirely without merit.

Summon the Beast was recorded in July 1996, mere weeks after Marduk had recorded Heaven Shall Burn... in Peter Tägtgren's Abyss Studio, and the influence could not be more obvious. My first impression of this album was that it sounded like Dark Funeral, another band who had recorded at the same studio not long before, yet definitely lacking the dark atmosphere and quality of songwriting found on The Secrets of the Black Arts. It was only later, once I made the mistake of picking up Marduk's fourth album, that I understood this to be the primary inspiration for Summon the Beast. Stylistically, it bears such striking similarities as to come off as a clone. Everything from the style, execution and the production job is nearly identical.
As opposed to the members sharing duties as on the debut, Mikael Hedlund handles all of the vocals and it gets tiresome, very quickly. His voice is very dry and croaky, much like Abbath of Immortal, which is not all that interest. However, the problem lies in the fact that he apparently took his cues from Legion's awful work on the aforementioned Marduk record. Often, he is just trying to squeeze in too many lyrics and refuses to pause between the lines or to even make an effort to suit the vocal patterns to the music. Of course, this possesses the infamous (and detestable) Abyss Studio sound, which does its best to neuter the true spirit of black metal, at every turn. The bass and drums are far too high in the mix and everything feels compressed into a small space, with hardly any room for the guitar riffs to breathe or for their impact to be properly felt. Whereas the guitars took center stage on the The Other Side, this feels very much driven by the percussion and that is largely due to the way everything was mixed. Even if the drums were lowered, the incessant blast beats just pollute the album and detract from the guitars.

The songwriting is very monotonous and straightforward, for the most part, coming off as something that was slapped together over a weekend. Despite all of the flaws, Summon the Beast should not be entirely disregarded as there are several memorable guitar melodies, throughout the album. Even though it seems like a carbon-copy of Heaven Shall Burn... in many regards, The Abyss prove to be infinitely superior as composers, improving upon most of the techniques adopted from their Swedish brethren. In contrast to the dull and boring Marduk L.P., this album actually possesses a handful of memorable tracks. In particular, the melancholic tremolo riffs found in songs like "Damned", "The Hymn" "Feasting the Remains of Heaven" and my personal favourite, "Cursed", are rather haunting and stand out enough to warrant tolerating whatever shortcomings exist. It should come as no surprise that the most poignant moments of the album are the highlights, as this was also the case with Hypocrisy's output during this period. As for the rest of the material, most have at least one decent riff, with the exception of the title track, which is probably the only song that is completely bereft of anything remotely interesting. 
Overall, the final recording from The Abyss is not essential by any means. Those who were pleased with their first album are likely to be disappointed by this rather mediocre offering. If the haphazard songwriting wasn't enough to demonstrate that the band members did not really take this seriously, one can examine the barren packaging. While the cover art is cool, the insert contains a random nature photo with the band's logo added in, which appears to have nothing to do with the general aesthetics of the album. They also just reused part of the cover art for the back and the tray insert, as well as recycling the same close-up of the skull for the CD art. The purpose for mentioning all of this is to show that very little effort went into any aspect of Summon the Beast, from beginning to end. Musically, it's a shame to see such wasted potential, considering the talent of the musicians involved. Either way, even if all of the material was as good as the standout tracks mentioned above, every bit of it would still be plagued by the slick Abyss Studio production. In the end, it is fair to say that the album is worth a listen, but don't expect too much.
(19 Jan. 2007)

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