Blut Aus Nord – What Once Was…Liber I Review

Funny story about a guy who writes without all the evidence….

What you’re reading now was posted about a day after what you are about to read. From the moment the upload of What Once Was… Liber I hit the internet, Blut Aus Nord fans were a tad confused. The rip was only about 30 minutes long, yet all profiles of the album on the internet stated that the album should be over 40, and official statements about album speed/length were nonexistent. The logical conclusion was that the rip was done at 45 RPM, commonly incorrect for a 12” record, which are 99.999% of the time to be played at 33 RPM. I listened to the record at 33 RPM. I also digested and reviewed it that way, coming up with the following…

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Enigmatic. Peerless.

Perhaps no two words better describe the career of France’s mysterious Blut Aus Nord. It is exactly the enigmatic nature of their convention-shattering black metal that renders them peerless, and their continually invisible public image in the wake of resounding acclaim renders them further enigmatic still. Each release since The Work Which Transforms God has brought with it anticipation and riddles, sometimes with mixed results (MoRT), but often with staggering brilliance (Memoria Vetusta II), all while expanding the inscrutable characteristics of their career. The band’s newest release, the limited and exclusively vinyl What Once Was… Liber I, is the first in a series of albums intended to focus on a primitive approach to black metal. Although the series is meant to be separate and run parallel to their main catalog, this album is no further musically from the mean Blut Aus Nord sound–if there is such a thing–than any of their other albums, making the release as enigmatic as the band itself. And even on this almost covert release, their refusal to let their vision rest on its past glories further exemplifies their standing as a band with zero peers.

Each album in Blut Aus Nord’s 15-year recording history has brought its own flair and style, but certain constants exist throughout. The most signature of these is the backwardly riff-oriented, almost gravitational guitar work of Vindsval. On What Once Was… Liber I, he combines an approach similar to the more “normal” songs from The Work Which Transforms God with the intended primitive black and death metal. (The title’s Burzum homage isn’t just for fun). He also adds in some of the most twisted and whammy-sunk leads ever conjured up by the human mind, so much that you have to check if your turntable is malfunctioning. Vocals take on a very textural quality here, with layers of (utterly indecipherable) screeches and (equally indecipherable) guttural growls washing over the riffs and programmed drumming, the latter of which is as industrial as ever. All is presented as one long song broken into eight sections split over two sides of an LP.

The result: What Once Was… Liber I is a living, breathing monster, and among the most organic albums ever pressed to wax despite the programmed elements. Each huge hit is like a crashing plunge into the black and unknown depths. Each tremolo riff is a tightening sinew, constricting as the unknown beast struggles for air in the abyss. Each twisted lead is an expression of bewildered terror. Only one musical theme offers release, an open-riffed “chorus” (or as close as the album gets) which is repeated with small variations on each side of the album, offering just enough space to breathe before the listener is forced back under. These kinds of details take several listens to fully embrace the listener, but they prove that this album is much more than just an exercise in all things eerie and disturbing.

This said, two things are essential to properly welcome this animal into your life: the actual record and a pair of high quality headphones. The thin upload making its way around the internet doesn’t do this music justice. (Plus, it was ripped at 45 RPM, incorrect for a 12” LP. If this was the intended speed nothing in the album’s packaging indicates anything of the sort, so I went with vinyl logic.) The necessary immersion can only be achieved through the dedicated listening experience that a turntable and expensive pair of headphones creates. Dedicate yourself to this music as much as its creators did. You only owe it to yourselves.

Bottom line on these bottomless depths: Blut Aus Nord has successfully warped the infected roots of primitive extreme metal, crafting one seriously suffocating, atmospheric, and damn riffy 40 minute journey. So why put a limited release on such a killer experience? The vinyl-only factor can be partially understood, as it forces the aforementioned dedicated listening experience, but even that limits who can hear this music the way it was intended. (Believe it or not, only a small percentage of the world still owns turntables for listening use alone.) So why? Because they’re weird. Because they prefer to be an enigma. There aren’t even liner notes, credits, or an indication of which is side A and which is side B. But within these mysteries, What Once Was… Liber I is an outstanding album that stands strong amidst its predecessors, making it essential for fans of the band (that own a turntable) to seek it out while it is readily available. Blut Aus Nord has once again proven why they are truly peerless: not necessarily because they play and write better than everyone else, but because no one else plays and writes what they do.

Bring on the next chapter.

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So, on the day that the original review was posted, I decided to email Debemur Morti to make sure that I had analyzed the album correctly. Should I have done this before posting? Of course, but I enjoyed the album so much at 33 RPM that I didn’t even fathom that it should be played at 45 without so much as a note in the album. Naturally, my fears were true, and the album is indeed meant to be played at 45, rendering the internet rip correct and parts (only parts) of my review in need of the following addendum:

Both speeds sound like Blut Aus Nord, period. The correct speed certainly brings this album closer to being a more complete version of Odinist, only far darker and more organic. At the correct speed, it isn’t quite as deep as I described it (naturally the tones are higher), but rest assured that it is every bit as much of a monster, and those leads are just as twisted. The vocals are certainly more understandable, but do not lose their textural quality at the correct speed. Finally, at 45 RPM it doesn’t hint at primitive death metal nearly as much as primitive black metal, which is just as alive. In short, the album kicks horse arse when played either way.

Despite the 33-to-45 blunder, my take on the album is not all that different. It is still more enjoyable with a nice pair of headphones and a focused listen than it is with a pair of earbuds. It is also still amongst the band’s best. However, it does change the mystery from “Why is it vinyl-only and limited?” to “Why didn’t the band state that the play speed goes against all 12” convention?”

Because they likely wanted the listener to interpret the music free of constraints. Because their enigmatic nature demands it.

Posted by Zach Duvall

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Obnoxious overuser of baseball metaphors.

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