originally written by Juho Mikkonen
Hailing originally from Rovaniemi (the biggest town in Finnish Lapland, a safe-haven for some match-fixing Zambian soccer players and a nest for many other things that seem awfully out of place or otherwise inappropriate), Black Crucifixion is an archetypal representation of an outfit whose career spans over a period that mocks the scope of an elephant’s long-term memory while still bearing little resemblance to anything you would call active, let alone prolific. Twenty years, a fistful of demo material, one EP, a lonesome full-length, a stray over-the-top live recording plus a smattering of gigs: That sporadic output would probably inspire the devil’s advocates and other whistle-blowers to grumble about a lengthy-yet unproductive career not worth fawning upon, but these one-time Laplanders beg to differ. Namely, Hope of Retaliation, their most recent offering, presents four new tunes (well, three actual songs and one interlude) and five live tracks that run the gamut of their whole discography with their sole purpose to celebrate the band’s twentieth anniversary. While the aforementioned hallucinatory polemicists might make a rather convincing case, HoR simply renders the charges null and void through sheer quality.
Granted, I walked into this record without exactly knowing what to expect. Black Crucifixion’s material has swung from the rudimentary black metal leanings, borrowing slightly from the other Finnish cutting edge trailblazers of the early 90s, to the despondent approach of Faustian Dream, the outfit’s first proper full-length which saw them abandoning the tenets of their past in favor of a newfound direction characterized by Katatonia-esque melancholic overtones and topped with sprinkles of pounding heaviness. Their recent live performances indicated that the new stuff might add to the overall weight of the band’s sound and it sure as all hell does: Black Crucifixion circa 2011 is nothing but heavy fucking metal to the bone. No asymmetric rhythms. No nuances buried under nuances. Just riffs piled upon riffs.
The album kicks off with “Retaliation”, the crushing opener that introduces the whole bag of tricks the band currently lays their money on; drums blasting away with pummeling force, guitars reveling in their tremolo-picked glory and bass roaring − not in the background, but somewhere in the middle of everything. Forn’s vocals have never really followed the credos of conventional growling and shrieking and also on HoR he applies a distinctive dry grunt, spitting out the vocals word after word, line after line with a swaggering articulation that sparks associations of late Peter Steele making an attempt at black metal vocals. The showstopping blastoff descends into a short interlude with some powerful Finnish spoken word passages followed by the third track, “Blood Soaked Snow” which is yet another extremely enjoyable slab of pitch-dark heavy metal. The absolute gem of the A-side is its epic closing number, the almost nine-minute “Bitten by the Long Frosts of Life”, which is where Black Crucifixion really gets to exhibit their knack for creating some exceptionally engrossing compositions assembled from fairly boilerplate elements. The track’s somewhat meandering intro leads into a sublime main riff supported by a nicely ringing bass line and steamrolling, mid-tempo drum beat. Continuing into an effortlessly flowing hack-and-slash gallop through simple but riveting guitars and slight variations in tempo, the song reaches its closure by reintroducing the very same main riff once again and using the aforementioned intro as a jarring outro piece which, if anything, leaves you hoping that the band would have more new songs like this in their collective sleeve.
Normally, production bears little significance when judging an album’s quality, but the knob twisting of these studio tracks definitely warrants a mention. The beefed-up low-end is very high in the mix which gives the rhythm section some well-deserved presence and authority. Unlike with many other albums where the bass has such a prominent role, HoR doesn’t sound compressed at all. Instead, the end-result here really allows the instruments to breathe which even further highlights their sometimes clever interplay, like, for example, in the aforementioned main riff of “Bitten by the Long Frosts of Life”, where the guitars soar through the sky while the drums and bass push ahead a few steps below.
The five live tracks on the B-side, covering all of the band’s previous releases from the Fallen One of the Flames demo to Faustian Dream continue with the same bottom-heavy, hard-punching trend introduced in the four new compositions. Fuck, if you didn’t know better you might think that the songs were some bonus outtakes from the HoR sessions. Besides offering five highly enjoyable rockers, the live renditions also give a fairly good demonstration of what to expect from a Black Crucifixion live onslaught: loose playing that never ventures into the territory of sloppiness and high levels of energy. Especially “Serpent of the Holy Garden”, a cut from the brilliant Promethean Gift EP, gets a whole new life from the redesigned aggressive approach, turning the song into a sure-fire anthem of the apocalypse. Overall, the fact that these revised old tunes blend so well together with the quartet of fresh compositions suggests that maybe there’s some kind of red thread running through the very fabric of the band’s career.
Albeit being a bit short with its 38-minute playing time, HoR is a suitably eccentric tribute to Black Crucifixion, showcasing glimpses of their past and maybe foreshadowing a new beginning. Although born in the wake of Finnish black metal, the outfit never reached (and probably never will) the same influential notoriety comparable to such acts as Archgoat, Beherit or Impaled Nazarene; notwithstanding the fact that they wrote one of the most interesting chapters to be added into the Genesis of Finnish dark arts with Promethean Gift, after which they jumped off the bandwagon just when black metal was beginning to hit its stride and fell into the same relative obscurity they emerged from in the first place. Luckily it’s never too late to start catching up with lesser known blasts from the past and, in this particular instance, HoR might just be the perfect place to dig in for one obvious reason: it’s Black Crucifixion’s finest work…so far.