If you look at the big picture, black metal is a strangely contradictory genre. What started out with Bathory and Venom in the 80’s as a form that embraced everything that was primitive, foetal and filthy in rock n’ roll, the satanic offspring of DIY punk characterised by monochromatic artwork and bootlegged 4-track recordings, has in the past ten years emerged as the most diverse, experimental and demanding (both of its musicians and of its listeners) metal subgenre of all. You could hardly ask for a more apt demonstration of the Ship of Theseus conundrum; there may be continuity between the earliest Hellhammer demos and the recent output of, say, Negura Bunget, but the two seem wholly disingenuous when juxtaposed, the result of totally opposite aesthetic missions. It’s this contradiction that makes black metal the subject of so much fanboy bellyaching over what’s “true” and what’s not. Case in point, symphonic black metal; when does it become too symphonic to be considered black anymore? Well, given that the majority of the flak is received by bands with a modicum of visibility such as Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth and Abigail Williams, I can only assume that the answer to that question is “when it starts to make money.” God, metalheads can be such hipsters sometimes.
Personally, I’m from the school of thought that says that genre exists primarily to describe rather than proscribe, and as such the claim that symphonic BM bands have in some sense “betrayed” the principles or precepts of black metal is an entirely meaningless accusation. Nevertheless, I do sometimes feel that albums like Where the Corpses Sink Forever, the third outing by Dutch outfit Carach Angren and a concept album of sorts, telling tales of woe and horror taking place during World War II, feel conflicted in their aesthetic goals.
On the one hand, the band strives to maintain an ominous, menacing tone befitting their corpse-painted credentials, and they could scarcely have picked more appropriate subject matter, invoking as they do the ghosts of soldiers who died with their stories untold during one of the most death-laden periods in human history. And yet they continually back down whenever the music seems about to sound genuinely dangerous or disturbing. Vocalist Seregor’s malevolent Immortal-esque croaks give way to melodramatic wails of despair; the minor-key tremolo riffs drop out to make way for the mournful string sections, and the production throughout is just too crisp and polished. It’s an album that’s too glossy to be grimy, sounding too much like a movie soundtrack rather than really evoking the mud and the shellshock and the soul-deadening drudgery that forms the reality of the suicidal soldiers depicted in their lyrics. It’s dark, sure, but in a very swooning, flamboyant, Kenneth Branagh sort of way; not camp, not exactly, but leaning more in that direction than I’d like. Where the Corpses Sink Forever could probably have done to have taken a few pointers from their raw BM antecedents, or even from Metallica’s One. Say what you like about …And Justice for All, that song’s slow burn and gradual accumulation of intensity was more effectively uncomfortable and morbid than anything Carach Angren accomplish here with their wall-to-wall bombast.
It’s unfortunate that WtCSF feels defanged as a work meant to inspire horror or dread, because taking a broader view of its entertainment value, there’s a lot that it does right. In fact, this is a highly accomplished and dynamic album that successfully reconciles a variety of styles from the metal spectrum and beyond and remains consistently listenable and entertaining throughout. Unlike so many symphonic metal acts, Carach Angren don’t consign the majority of the work to the orchestration; the riffs hold up on their own merits and they come in thick, fast, constantly shifting flurries buttressed by the superb drum performance from Namtar, his ultra-tight barrage of blasting and fills closely reminiscent of Keep of Kalessin’s Vyl on songs likeBitte Tötet Mich.
Although the album only clocks in at 43 minutes, it remains persistently taut for that duration, bringing out new ideas every time it seems to have settled into a groove – at 8 minutes, The Funerary Dirge of a Violinist exhibits a surprising warmth and genuine humanist sorrow for its eponymous protagonist, and following that, Sir John demonstrates apparent influence from Morbid Angel of all things, its oozing, squirming main riff calling Where the Slime Live to mind. Even more to their credit, Carach Angren show an appreciation for nuance and texture in their orchestrations which many of their symphonic contemporaries lack. Where Dimmu Borgir or Fleshgod Apocalypse, for example, use their orchestral backing as so much hired muscle, a source of strings to add a philharmonic punch to otherwise generic songwriting, Carach Angren give their non-standard instrumentation a bit of room to breathe. There’s a dominant emphasis on Hans Zimmer-styled strings, but even within those parameters, there’s a lot to work with, from the nervous, fluttering lines that open Lingering in an Imprint Haunting to the solitary, melancholy violin in the background of The Solitary Dirge of a Violinist, to the eerie children’s choir at the start of Little Hector What Have You Done?
So yeah, it’d be fair to say I enjoyed Where The Corpses Sink Forever plenty, but I just wish it had gotten under my skin more than it did. All the right elements are in place here for an exercise in horrific musical narrative, and that potential keeps rearing its head in moments of nervy grandeur. However, the band seem to have not to have known when to stop adding – more riffs, more instrumentation, more production value – until it ended up being the equivalent of a horror movie shot entirely in broad daylight. As it stands, Where the Corpses Sink Forever fulfills the metal criteria of being fast, cathartic and thrilling, but it’s a good roller coaster where just a little more restraint might have made it an amazing haunted house.
01 An Ominous Recording
02 Lingering in an Imprint Haunting
03 Bitte Tötet Mich
04 The Funerary Dirge of a Violinist
05 Sir John
06 Spectral Infantry Battalions
07 General Nightmare
08 Little Hector What Have You Done?
09 These Fields are Lurking