Black metal is an abomination and a leech of a genre—an unholy bastard of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal where Venom emerged almost as a joke with over-the-top aesthetics and attempts to be the most evil band in the world in order to stand out from the horde of other groups emerging around them. This created an evil, raw take on breakneck pacing that emerged and planted the seeds for speed metal alongside bands like Raven and Tank. Later, thrash bands (cough Metallica cough) would cite Venom as an influence—no doubt drawn to the speed and attitude of their predecessor—and Bathory would go on to strip down thrash to a more sinister, primitive approach with their 1984 debut.
Black metal as an idea more than a genre continued to infiltrate and grow off of thrash with the earlier efforts from Sodom, Tormentor, and Sarcófago—still not quite a style on its own, but instead festering and infecting a slice of the thrash explosion in the mid-to-late 80s with its raw and overaggressive pushes to become the most outlandish and extreme.
Then, black metal began to take on its own life as it emerged from its host with a unique identity and its own perceived criteria. This is most easily cited with the Scandinavian movement. Still, though, the umbilical cord to thrash remained through these transformations: Sabbat in Japan, Desaster in Germany, Nifelheim in Sweden, Absu in the United States—the unholy semen of black metal continued to push into the fertile grounds between the black and thrash metal. What’s particularly interesting about the latter two is they seemed to move back towards thrash amidst the second wave, bringing with them elements of the now-realized genre of black metal.
Eschewing any sense of foreplay, the album slides abruptly into the thick of it with “Circle Of Skulls.” The throbbing pulse of the drums quickly fills out the brief intro riff at breakneck speed, coating the soundscape in thunderous fills between the blasts of the kick and snare. The roto toms sound like bones clattering over skulls—that high ’n’ tight tuning that will forever hold a place in the annals of thrash history as the Pleasure To Kill drums. The riffs are well thought out, splashing bits of flavor between the chords and keeping the guitars lively. In fact, the whole song is brimming with activity, and there’s not a dull moment to be had, whether it’s in passively listening to the entire thing or focusing in on the individual instruments, something is always happening. The solos trade off in furious shredding up and down the neck in an impressive display of technical mastery. The song is an excellent start—at the very least, Nine Altars is shaping up to be a fun romp in the sheets with some burning hot blackened thrash.
As soon as the next track starts up, it’s clear my initial assessment was incorrect; “Circle Of Skulls” was just the foreplay. “The Irkallian Born” really starts twisting the nipples with an intro solo that builds its way up out of the riff. In truth, this is a characteristic that makes many of the solos across the album so great: they work their way up, building to these charismatic climaxes of guitargasm. The flavor notes are just as present in the meat of the song as before—they leap out like twitches of repressed sexual energy, dribbling over the riff like pre-ejaculate that just unleashes into more and more solos, with both guitars intertwining in some seriously sexy twin lead work that frantically rings the devil’s doorbell before falling back into the song. The rhythm section gets some attention in the breakdown section, highlighting the thick bass as it wraps its legs around ever-shifting, never-still percussion and thick, veiny riffage.
The energy of Nine Altars never really relents, as “The Irkallian Born” jumps quickly into the tension building intro of “Night Rapture.” Those girthy thrash riffs take a firm, commanding hold, and they continue to impress with their melodic hooks structured over several bars with the flavor notes getting even more complex and technical. The way Primeval Mass have a knack for sculpting memorable hooks from the frantic chaos is certainly highlighted here before the song progresses out of more predictable verse / chorus territory and into an absolutely beautiful section of twin leads. Have I mentioned yet how fucking sexy the guitar work is on this album? They unleash in yet another torrent of solos beneath the return of the vocal’s harsh rasp for increased impact, but the best is yet to come.
I initially didn’t even notice that “Amidst Twin Horizons” was an entirely instrumental track during the first few listens through Nine Altars. There is so much going on with the instruments here that the vocals aren’t missed at all, and when that kind of magic is going down, it’s best to just shut your mouth and let the music do its thing. The way the guitars gallantly guide the song through classic, triumphant heavy metal leads completely rides the track to sinister, sensual victory. The traditional influence is simply creaming all over the guitarwork and songwriting here, and it pays off in spades. The rhythm section adds its own flavor, working their firm, masterful hands around the spine of the song with the guitars providing wave after wave of total ecstasy in a wash of searing highs and juicy mids.
If the album continued at this rate, it would be perfectly excellent in it’s own right, but Primeval Mass aren’t out of surprises yet. While the previous four tracks certainly aren’t vanilla—extremely far from it—“Burning Sorcery” goes from slightly kinky to straight up sexually deviant. The flavor notes take a more atonal approach, sprinkling blue notes and wild pinch harmonics over unconventional rhythms. The delivery of the vocals is reminiscent of Deathspell Omega in the way they are almost spat out in a vile spoken word format over the abominable noise beneath them. The bridge gets even weirder and into full-on technical thrash territory. It’s an unexpected surprise that removes any thoughts of pulling out of Nine Altars. The solos ejaculate like unholy seed all over the sordid affair—cumming one after another with each bursting harder than the previous in an ungodly display of stamina and creativity.
No Greek black metal would be complete without a reference to the country’s rich history of mythology, and “Orphne” satisfies that need by referencing one of the nymphs of Hades. The song itself returns to a somewhat more identifiable structure that’s more straightforward, but no less intense than the prior tracks. It works well in the context of the album for giving a breather after the total mindfuck of “Burning Sorcery” while keeping up the pace of the album straight into “Firecrowned.”
If there was a song that best represents the principal components of Nine Altars, “Firecrowned” would be it. The blazing intro solo, furious drumming and balance between more traditional thrash structure and technical weirdness that eventually develops paints a good overview of what’s already occurred without recycling ideas, and throwing in some punky barks adds yet another element to the album’s overall sound. The quick changes, searing solos and Deathspell vocals come back around before the song slows down in the final third, then it reconstructs itself around dissonant twin guitar work that subtly climaxes into a surprisingly melodic solo that brings things right back up to speed again.
Speaking of surprises, the final track is the first and only full-on slow song of the album. While there are a few quick drops in tempo here and there, “The Hourglass Still” is an outlier that feels more like bathing in the unholy afterglow of the previous eight romps in the thrash sack. Tacking this on at the end was undoubtedly the right call, as opposed to trying to break up the energy that remained present from the start of the album. “The Hourglass Still” plays out like a black metal ballad that pumps the last little bit of melodic leads and epic soloing deep inside the most pleasurable centers of eagerly awaiting ears in a fitting conclusion to all the insanity.
The overall energy here is nonstop from beginning to end, making Nine Altars a fully realized work with a delightful flair for technicality that never competes with the songwriting for attention, instead elevating it further and further as the album unfolds. The record plays out as a complete piece that’s best enjoyed from beginning to end, though not without distinguishable highlights—”The Irkallian Born,” “Night Rapture,” “Amidst Twin Horizons,” and into “Burning Sorcery” make up a four-song hot streak that is simply manic in it’s progression. Basically, Primeval Mass are going for the back of the throat on Nine Altars and absolutely nail the money shot.
Yeah, sex is cool and all, but you ever listen to some really great black thrash?