There’s a fine line between being a tourist and an accomplished jack-of-all-trades. Take the latest from Germany’s long-running blackened act Dark Fortress, Venereal Dawn. (That title, by the way, refers to the goddess Venus, not some itchy morning you had in Vegas.) A lot of acts have tried to do the kind polished, varied, slightly proggy and generally huge take on blackened and extreme metals that the band offers here, but few achieve at this level. They either veer too far from what they do best, or they were never much good at any of the styles to begin with (lookin’ at you, Black Anvil). Dark Fortress commits neither of these sins, staying close enough to their black metal roots as to stay grounded, and offering enough variety and detail to keep this hefty, ambitious album interesting, and often downright gripping.
That variety – at times subtle, at others pronounced – is something Venereal Dawn has in spades. While there is often an Opethian or modern Enslaved approach to complex songwriting, the pieces of the puzzle will remind listeners of bands across the (mostly) extreme spectrum, with the results remaining fairly blackened-with-a-shade-of-dark-metal throughout. “Betrayal and Vengeance” gives off an almost black ’n’ roll vibe at times; “Odem” blasts like crazy, providing the kind of intensity that many bands save for a climax, but here only introduces the album’s final stretch; “I Am the Jigsaw of a Mad God” (great title, eh?) approaches slammy death metal territory at a few points; and the entrancing “Chrysalis” is like a far more interesting version of when Triptykon tries to be Tiamat. Even “Lloigor” works because of its built-in dynamic shifts and eerie clean vocals, despite coming dangerously close to over-aping Blackwater Park-era Opeth during several passages.
But while these songs certainly make Veneral Dawn a very strong album, it is the bookends that make it utterly addictive. The opening title track is a goddamn monster, building with pomp, a bit of a poetic lyrical delivery and even some Csihar-worshiping vocals before the chorus drops a fist-pumpable megaton of malevolence. A veer into prog terrain and a moody, eerie outro then work to serve the album more than the listener’s initial desire to hear that chorus one last time.
The final two tracks likewise work to the benefit of the whole while standing on their own. “Luciform” is basically the best version of the “normal” Dark Fortress track happening on the album, and boy is it a riffer. Some truly great, busy riff/chord progressions permeate the entire track, while details like extra percussion and well thought out transitions really glue it together. Then comes finale “On Fever’s Wings,” which is nothing short of a haunting masterpiece. A drenching of piano, sparse lead lines, and the unforgettable vocals of the chorus (you’ll get a serious late 90s Anathema flashback) combine into the kind of weeper that should feel completely out of place on such an album, but because of the way Dark Fortress sets it up, feels absolutely perfect. (Of course, it goes without saying that it’ll be extra ridiculous if the band keeps their corpse paint while doing this one live, and they really need to do this one live.)
In fairness, saying that the bookends are the strongest parts of the album is another way of saying that the middle isn’t as strong as the beginning and end, but the vast majority of Venereal Dawn comes across like gangbusters. Really, only the odd, scattered “The Deep” feels like filler, but at only about three of the nearly 70 very successful minutes making up the album, it gets a pass.
By its very nature, this won’t win over the hearts of those looking for the Next Big Thing, but avant-garde experimentation isn’t the mission of Dark Fortress. Rather, they are in the business of exploring lands that most feel have been well mapped, and in doing so are finding their own little nooks and crannies. Excellently accessible, and deceptively deep stuff, this one.