In a scene as overcrowded as black metal, it’s tough to nail down exactly what gives a band the It Factor. This is particularly true when at least 85 percent of the bands sound 85 percent the same, and 85 percent of them are also 85 percent bad. It is therefore not only hard to stand out, but hard to get folks to pay attention when you have the talent to do so.
So it is both encouraging and rare that a very short demo like Chained to a Wolf, from Sweden’s Katakomb, stands out despite fitting that “85 percent the same” descriptor. Nothing here is new; the demo is rife with swirling tremolo riffs, blast beats, harsh vocals, and a generally malevolent tone, all presented with a distant, somewhat raw production. You could drop that very sentence into the reviews of about 19,383,003 black metal releases and no one would blink an eye, because it would be accurate.
Katakomb is not winning through originality, then, that much is obvious. This anonymous one-man act instead finds its success purely by being good at the chosen art; a possible sign of that aforementioned It Factor. The tremolo riffs swirl, to be sure, but the songwriting ensures true bombast, calling to mind the most active whirlwind riffiness of Taake, or Satyricon at their most atmospheric, while carrying certain melodic traits of such bands. If those names are an indication of anything, it is that yes, Chained to a Wolf is largely indebted to the 1990s, but filtered through the subsequent years of genre refinement. It isn’t hard to also hear bits of mid-period Deathspell Omega or even Blut Aus Nord (minus the industrial flairs) in the bending riffs, ample dissonance, and occasional passage that gets downright trippy.
The demo’s only real fault is more a head-scratcher than source of true complaints. Right before the 8-minute mark, second track “Márnamai” switches to soft, romantic, clean-sung music that (I assume) is being sung by the elderly owner of a small restaurant in the 19th Century. It’s fairly pleasant and folksy, but there’s no need for six minutes of this stuff on a 20 minute demo. (Of note: “Márnamai” is Greek for “I stay,” ironic because this part of the demo doesn’t seem to end.)
That aside, the black metal material here is both quite promising and great in its current form. The above dropped names stand proudly with some of black metal’s all time greats, and Katakomb’s early success comes not so much from aping these bands, but learning from them. Countless bands copy, but tragically few truly understand. Fingers crossed that Chained to a Wolf is a sign that the man behind Katakomb is among the latter.
Let’s just hope the first full length isn’t 35 percent Old World balladry.