The Dutch band Countess is not only one of the oldest black metal hordes which have emerged from this small European country, but also one of the most productive. In their twenty-four year-long career, the musicians that are gathered around mastermind Orlok (the one constant core of Countess) have put out fifteen albums and numerous smaller releases. Their latest full-length bears the name Fires of Destiny and is the successor of the 2014 release Ancient Lies and Battle Cries.
As was to be expected, on Fires of Destiny, Countess move once more rather for continuation and tradition than for unexpected breaks and avant-gardism. Therefore, their new album is once again decorated with the picture of an ancient battle, namely the Battle of Vienna at the Kahlenberg Mountain in 1683. This huge battle lifted the ongoing siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire and is nowadays considered to have been a turning point in the long Ottoman-Habsburg wars. In order to show the magnitude and importance of this battle, Countess decided to use the classic painting of the Flemish artist Pauwel Casteels, who lived in the seventeenth century. Fittingly, the title-track of the new album also deals lyrically with the fight at the Kahlenberg Mountain:
‘Never before were we pushed back so far / Destiny unfolds on this field today / September 12th never forgotten / Ten thousand enemies shall we slay / Like the Spartans millennia before us / We stand against invading eastern hordes.’ (‘Fires of Destiny’)
Not only lyrically, but also musically the title-track is a good example of what Countess have created on their fifteenth album. Although clearly rooted in the sound of early black metal, Countess focus a lot on catchiness, melodies, and a mixture of an epic and gloomy atmosphere. All of this is basically achieved with the help of simple yet effective songwriting, mid-tempo compositions, keyboard elements, and strong guitar riffs. The music on Fires of Destiny can best be described as a cross between Bathory, Manowar, and Graveland; Countess is a mix of the rawness of Quorthon’s art with the gnarling and fighting atmosphere that Rob Darken’s project is famous for and the flavour that brews with epic heavy metal moments à la Manowar. This will undoubtedly come as no surprise to listeners of Countess, since this is basically the mixture they have been pursuing throughout their entire career.
However, one gets the feeling that they have made quite a step forward with their latest album through songs like ‘Choir of the Valkyries’, with its calm power and their non-sugared grandeur (‘As the ghostly chanting swells, the chosen slain slowly rise‘), or the opener, ‘Runenlied’, with its impulsive and lashing drum-line and fighting atmosphere. It is here that Countess sounds tighter and more on-point than ever (or at least tighter than on their latest releases).
It is possible that this has something to with the lineup change which occurred from Ancient Lies and Battle Cries to Fires of Destiny. While during the last couple of years Orlok basically composed and recorded all Countess material himself, he has now gathered a new drummer named Mortüüm to help him with his cause. It goes without saying that the drum lines have profited enormously from this transition. Additionally, guitarist Zagan obviously had the chance to influence the music on Fires of Destiny more than on Ancient Lies and Battle Cries, and this too adds some freshness to the overall sound of Countess.
Nevertheless, Countess still have some open issues which they should tend to. A well-applied keyboard can be an enormous boost concerning atmosphere, but it is important to not overdo it. Although, for example, the epic ‘Bard van het verleden’ (‘Bard of the Past’) is a good song, there are certain passages where the implementation of synthetic sounds does more harm than good. Secondly, Countess are definitely able to craft this specific kind of heavy black metal which usually focuses on rather typical topics like battles, mythology, and occasionally Satanism, but Fires of Destiny would have been even more exciting if Countess focused more coherently, for example, on historical events and struggles as they do in the title-track. There are just too many typical and worn-out topics to be found in the various songs of Fires of Destiny. As one can hear from the power of the songs ‘Runenlied’ and ‘Bard van het verleden’, Orlok is able to do his best vocal performance when singing in his native language. This definitely adds charm and identity to the compositions. Therefore, it was a good decision that Countess decided again to at least include a few songs in Dutch on their new album, but more songs in that manner are always welcome.
Despite these points of criticism, Fires of Destiny remains one of the most exciting surprises of 2016 when it comes to this specific kind of black metal. Countess are, after all, one of the few bands in the metal genre who have stayed true to a long-forgotten style and who are still able to present it authentically. Hopefully the fact that they will soon play a few live gigs and that they are now again a fully fledged band will lead to an even stronger album in the future.
02) Fly the Battle Flag
03) Fires of Destiny
04) Rise of the Horned One
05) Plague upon the Pious
06) Today Is a Good Day to Die
07) Choir of the Valkyries
08) Treason of Kings
09) See the Ravens Fly
10) Bard van het verleden