Because heavy metal bands change direction and because heavy metal fans stake whole pieces of themselves on the results, the Last Rites staffers have been sharing their thoughts on some of the transition albums that most essentially capture the spirit of progression or growth or, at least, a new kind of awesomeness. If you’re just now joining this program already in progress, please check out Part One and Part Two…
EMPEROR – ANTHEMS TO THE WELKIN AT DUSK
For those that didn’t get a chance to hear Emperor’s 1996 stopgap EP, Reverence, the follow-up 1994s genre classic In the Nightside Eclipse came as quite a jarring surprise. Dealing with replacing half of their lineup from Nightside (Trym and Alver replacing Tchort and Faust), Ihsahn and Samoth spread their creative wings and delivered a crisper, cleaner and much more progressive take on black metal than their previous, grimmer efforts. Though the regal, majestic synths remained, they took a more atonal orchestral approach and the over-arching tone of Anthems was far more complex and adventurous than their landmark debut.
Some tracks still imbued Nightside’s base mystical blackened ferocity (“Ye Entrancemperium”, “Ensorcelled By Chaos”, “Thus Spake the Night Spirit”), but Ihsahn’s use of some clean croons and the band’s clean production shocked many. But where Emperor really elevated their game was in rangy, intricate tracks like “The Loss and The Curse of Reverence”, “The Acclimation of Bonds” and the album’s intricately epic centerpiece “With Strength I Burn” where the foundation for the band’s transformation into a much more avant-garde act took root. To many black metal purists, Emperor had turned into a pretentious artistic visage of their former self, to others they heralded the very elite of Norwegian extremity, and like that of their brother act Enslaved, their progression divided fans. For me personally, it took many years and absorbing the subsequent albums IX Equilibrium and Prometheus to fully appreciate this album and Emperor as a whole. But in retrospect, there’s no denying the brilliance of Emperor’s transitional album and all of their albums as a precursor to well-deserved black metal royalty. [ERIK THOMAS]
ENSLAVED – MARDRAUM: BEYOND THE WITHIN
Norway’s long-running juggernaut Enslaved has harbored a penchant for the experimental since their earliest releases, but few fans could have predicated the leap the band took on their fifth album, Mardraum: Beyond The Within. The outfit had consistently thrown in interesting and creative twists to the black metal formula on their first four LPs, but the majority of the sound was still rooted firmly in the genre’s traditions. Mardraum was the album where Enslaved stepped out of the realm of black metal and into a style all of their own, and never looked back. This creative jump was especially surprising considering that the record preceding Mardraum, Blodhemn, was a leaner and more straightforward offering that harkened strongly back to the speedy extreme work of the band’s formative days.
While Mardraum still represents this side of the band’s sound dutifully, it also shows a huge step forward in how Enslaved would interpret their genre of origin and the myriad of influences they would incorporate into their music from there on out. Grandiose clean vocals, psychedelic guitar effects, eerie keyboard flourishes, and a variety of other unusual elements were seamlessly integrated into the band’s epic brand of black/Viking metal, transforming Enslaved into a progressive powerhouse that no one was sure exactly how to categorize. The band would venture even farther down the rabbit hole with the downright bizarre Monumension and the brilliant Below the Lights, but it was the underappreciated Mardraum: Beyond the Within where they found the confidence and inspiration to evolves into the band we know and love as Enslaved today. [CHRIS MCDONALD]
AMORPHIS – ELEGY
To be fair, there are several Amorphis albums that could be slapped with the transitional label – they didn’t produce two similar-sounding discs until a decade into their existence – but one stands out. After a promising and very heavy start with 1992’s The Karelian Isthmus, the band revealed true brilliance with the folk-tinged and doomy melodic death masterpiece Tales from the Thousand Lakes, an album so influential and revered that many still consider it to be the band’s high water mark. Most groups would take this as a sign that they’ve struck gold and then mine it for all its worth, but not Amorphis. Instead, they gave us Elegy—a blast from left field that was as different from its predecessor in style as it was equal in quality.
Elegy saw Amorphis solidifying their lineup with a true vocalist and frontman in Pasi Koskinen, whose versatile skills allowed the band to expand upon the vocal aspect of their music. The resulting songs were certainly more direct than what fans had come to expect, but somehow also more complex, hiding multi-layered compositions in an almost catchy façade. In retrospect, classics such as the aggressive “Against Widows,” the triumphant “My Kantele” and expansive title track didn’t just show a band at their creative peak, they captured a perfect moment in time and helped comprise the magnum opus of what has since become a legendary act.
So great was Elegy that Amorphis would never come close to repeating it with this lineup. While they refused to rest on their laurels, the subsequent move into more rock-oriented territory (see: Elegy castrated) produced largely mixed results. Even the strongest of these albums, Tuonela, absolutely pales in comparison to the genius of Tales from the Thousand Lakes and Elegy. In fact, it wasn’t until after Koskinen’s departure from the band in 2004 and replacement by the supremely-skilled Tomi Joutsen that Amorphis would rediscover the spark that marked their mid-90s golden era. And when they did, Elegy was undoubtedly the womb from which the new era was born. [ZACH DUVALL]
FATES WARNING – NO EXIT
Anybody who’d followed Fates Warning through their now classic first three knew that there was progression afoot. The increased complexity that had by now all but supplanted the band’s NWOBHM beginnings (read: Maidenisms) was obvious. A lot of that growth was a function of John Arch’s vocals, the richness and intricacy of which perfectly suited Jim Matheos’ guitar – 25 years on I still have trouble keeping up while trying to sing along with “The Apparition.” The departure of Arch following Awaken the Guardian, then, signaled major changes. Inveterate fans expected more angular rhythms and probably additional layering and longer songs with greater melodic elaboration. But there was uncertainty, to be sure. Who is this Ray Alder fella and what will he bring to the table? Given the trends in the field at the time, were Fates fans to expect the worst by way of dumbed-down structure, European keyboards and, god forbid, hair balladry?
I can still almost hear the collective breath-catch at the title track intro when the heavy metal world laid No Exit in the tray and first pushed play. What. the fuck. is this? Softly picked guitar from within some lonely, cavernous space and holding fragile hands with a melancholy croon? I can also still hear the collective exhale as “No Exit” gave way to “Anarchy Divine” and, as a darker, heavier Fates Warning was heard to light the fuse on a pair of newly whetted Matheos solos, we believed again that all would be right. That hypothesis was confirmed with Alder’s stratospheric belting of “Enter, young man!” Turns out Matheos and Co. knew exactly what they were doing when they enlisted Alder to man the helm as they swept intrepidly into largely uncharted waters.
This new territory was of a more muted hue, solemn and surreal, but deeper and more massive, as well. The new songs departed from the Fates Warning trajectory in their relative brevity, but maintained bearing as their component parts were drawn within a fresh layer of elaboration; intermittently sharp and stunted rhythms allied with unorthodox melodies to beget compelling pieces borne by deceptively efficient vessels. Elements of the band’s past were still evident in those familiar Maidenisms scattered throughout, but these took on new meaning in the expanse of Fates’ new dark horizon. Nowhere is this more firmly instantiated than in what arguably has become the band’s trademark song, the eight-part, 22 minute, “The Ivory Gate of Dreams,” particularly the inimitable “Part IV: Quietus” (beginning roughly at 6:50).
Fates Warning doesn’t get enough credit for it, but they are without doubt the godfathers of progressive heavy metal, an honor bestowed by some of the greatest bands in the sub-genre. Though later efforts would more fully embrace the progressive at the cost of the metal, with No Exit, they blazed a trail through the metal world that would be oft crossed, sometimes paralleled, but never quite fully traced. [JOHN RAY]