Crossing The Fiery Path: Into Thy Mighty World Of Hellenic Black Metal

The importance of Bathory to black metal can never be overstated. By 1990, Quorthon had already laid out the blueprints for every black metal scene of any major relevance, and this was three years before the genre really began carving out its own stylistic identity. Over in Norway, Mayhem were quick to take cues from The Return… and Under The Sign Of The Black Mark. While De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas wasn’t released until 1994, most of the songs were working their way through the underground tape trading scene in the form of live bootlegs and demos. Darkthrone quickly moved from their early death metal sound to one that married Bathory and The Return… with Celtic Frost’s primitive, punky approach to speed metal that, regardless of how it is being interpreted by the band, remains with the duo to this day.

The latter records of Bathory’s classic era, namely Under The Sign, Blood Fire Death, and Hammerheart, provided the roots for a sound developing far to the southeast. While the latter two albums are often cited as the progenitors of epic black metal (or Viking metal or pagan metal or whatever the hell you want to call it), the epic elements were really witnessed firsthand on Under The Sign‘s “Enter The Eternal Fire.” Quorthon essentially mixed his pre-existing, largely Venom-esque black metal with the mighty mid-tempo of Manowar. While Quorthon, that cheeky bastard, claimed to have not listened to either band, there are enough similarities between “Eternal Fire” and Manowar’s “Gates Of Valhalla” to warrant suspicion of his claims. [If this isn’t enough, compare “Gods Of Thunder Of Wind And Of Rain” from Blood On Ice to Manowar’s “Thor (The Powerhead)” off Sign Of The Hammer and see for yourself just how much Quorthon was inspired by Manowar.] Regardless of where it came from, “Eternal Fire” marks the beginnings of epic black metal, a sound that would later be fleshed out to completion on Hammerheart and provide great inspiration for what would become the Hellenic black metal scene. The more mid tempo, hammering evil and pagan nods to their ancestors inspired certain Greeks to create their own mark on the earliest days of black metal, a mark that would be further explored in the following decades.

The gap in black metal history between Venom and the Norwegian scene is fascinating. What we now refer to as “first wave black metal” isn’t a genre or a subgenre or a micronichegenre. It simply refers to a loose evolutionary time period that influenced black metal as we know it today. Everything from the speed metal of early Venom and Kat and the hyper-aggressive thrash/death of early Sodom and Sarcófago to the doomy, ritualistic sounds of Xantotol in Poland or Root in Czechia or Goatlord in the U.S. falls under the banner of first wave black metal. The secondary influences for the Greek black metal scene spawn from this era, and also tweaked the blueprints set on Under The Sign Of The Black Mark. First credit here absolutely has to go to the Czech Republic’s Master’s Hammer, whose debut Ritual is all over the Greek sound. The tempos, progression, riffing, synths, drumming — almost every Greek black metal band that plays in the style of their homeland owes a debt to Ritual. The second credit goes to Mystifier out of Brazil. Much like the aforementioned Xantotol, Mystifier’s sound is primal and ritualistic, incorporating the “jar of bees” guitar tone in a thick layer of atmosphere. While Finland’s Beherit fully explored the atmospheric aspects of Mystifier on Drawing Down The Moon, Rotting Christ and Varathron honed in on the riff composition and rich mid-tones of the Brazilian blasphemers.

Just as the Norwegians interpreted Bathory and a handful of other influences in different ways between Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, Immortal, Emperor, and Enslaved, the Greek bands have plenty of stylistic differences between them. However, there are a few common denominators that define at least the earlier incarnations of Hellenic black metal:

  • Warm, mid-heavy guitar tone: This isn’t the icy forests of Norway. The Greeks generally use a more mid-friendly guitar tone that feels like a warm, Mediterranean breeze in the winds of a trireme warship guiding a horde of Grecian warriors on their way to lay siege at Troy.
  • Sick pinch harmonics: Almost every Greek black metal band incorporates these at some point, which add to the grandiose feel of the music. The squealing highs cut through the mid-heavy mix and add an extra boost to the riffs. While not all bands use them, they are enough of a through-line in the style to merit note.
  • Mid-tempo: While there are plenty of blasts to be found in some of the Hellenic black metal bands, the real meat comes from the mid-paced sections, allowing the mighty riffs to breathe and really stretch their muscle.
  • Evolution to pagan themes: Again, not all Greek black metal bands evolved away from satanic themes, but this trait seems to pop up quite a bit. Much like Bathory’s evolution from anti-Christian to pagan, Greece’s black metal pays homage to its pagan cultural heritage and the country’s rich history of legend and mythos.

If you were to highlight one band in the Greek scene, at least in terms of longevity, consistent output, and widespread appeal, it would be Rotting Christ. While the style of their demo days was mostly comprised of sloppy, crusty grind, the band changed direction to black metal proper for their debut album, right at the sweet spot of 1993 in the throes of the second wave.

ESSENTIAL:
Thy Mighty Contract (1993)

The first track in, “The Sign Of Evil Existence,” completely sets the stage for the Hellenic black metal sound. Plenty of Under The Sign and Ritual can be found at the core: Speedy blasts give way to mid-tempo, sinister riffs with plenty of the aforementioned pinch harmonics. The primitive production is still heavy on midrange guitar tones, unlike their Norwegian brethren who leaned with almost comedic extremity into treble realms. Songs like “Transform All Suffering Into Plagues” have a greater technicality than anything Bathory did, and there’s enough death metal going on to consider that perhaps the band had heard Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky. That Darkthrone classic had plenty of leftover death metal riffs from the band’s earlier days played under the black metal mask of raw production, a trait that would follow Rotting Christ in the years to come. The synths, while fairly minimal, hint at the near-symphonic approach the band would explore in later years. Thy Mighty Contract is an indisputable classic, both in its quality and importance in defining the Greek scene, and set the standard for not only the band themselves, but their peers who would shortly follow in their footsteps.

 

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Non Serviam (1994)

There are slight production improvements between Thy Mighty Contract and Non Serviam, but the real importance here is the band essentially defining their sound as early as their second album. The synths stand out just a bit more, and the riffing is a little more melodic without losing the first-wave feel of Thy Mighty Contract. For this period of Rotting Christ, it’s all about the riffs, which makes Non Serviam a personal favorite. The chugging mid pace of the title track alone makes the album a standout, with the heavily detuned toms sounding like the thunderous explosions of war, possibly borrowed from Darkthrone’s Under A Funeral Moon trick of loosening those floor tom heads to near-timpani levels of depth. Also notable about Non Serviam are its use of chanted vocals — a trait that would later be borrowed by several other Grecian black metal acts — as well as the real introduction of Hellenic mythology on tracks like “Saturn Unlock Avey’s Son.”

Kronos (2000)

One of the wonderful things about Rotting Christ’s catalog is how well they transition between sounds. A few elements will work their way in then take a more prominent role in the following album if the band remains happy with the idea. As the melodic elements worked their way in on Non Servium, they took a more center stage on the 1996 follow-up, Triarchy Of The Lost Lovers. Simultaneously, the band began to lean into a more gothic sound that would envelop A Dead Poem the following year. Sleep Of The Angels served as another transitional album into Khronos, which serves as the cornerstone for Rotting Christ’s sound for the next decade. While still holding onto the vision of prior works, Khronos dices and slices the band’s previous elements into a well-blended cocktail. The synths are ethereal, the choirs cloud the background like a fog of war as the guitar leads cut through, and the riffs sound very 2000s in some parts but luckily don’t rely solely on the chugaluga that was popular at the time. Plenty of mighty, well-written riffs build Khronos into a Rotting Christ classic.

Sanctus Diavolos (2004)

If Khronos set the cornerstone for the post-90s vision of Rotting Christ, then Sanctus Diavolos took it to the next level. The symphonic elements are bombastic – just examine the interplay with the blasting tremolo riffs and the victorious builds on “Thy Wings Thy Horns Thy Sin.” Twin leads on tracks like “Athanati Este” scream their way around esoteric chanting (an element Rotting Christ would explore to the fullest on Rituals) to create something equally dark and grandiose, while the straightforward mid pace and dark synth work on “Tyrannical” evokes an almost industrial vibe. Remains of their thrash influence can be found on “Serve In Heaven,” keeping in mind how Rotting Christ have covered not one but three Kreator tracks. (The importance of German thrash on black metal as a whole cannot be overstated, but that’s a topic for another time.) The thunderous drum performance on “Shades Of Evil” calls back to the earlier days of Greek black metal, with the detuned toms rolling in like a Mediterranean cyclone a steady mid-pace. Sanctus Diavolos has a little of everything Rotting Christ, and easily one of the high marks of their storied career. Check out the Last Rites review here.

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

The Heretics (2019)

While the reception to 2016’s Rituals was pretty mixed, it feels like Rotting Christ used it as yet another transition record. The album leaned heavily on vocal repetition–chants and mantras over a more stripped-down (but no less bombastic) sound. On The Heretics, it feels like the band have returned, and, as they have shown capability in time and again, kept what worked and dropped what didn’t. Again, the band introduces a few surprises, such as the spoken-word monologue on “The Raven.” The Heretics feels like a more fully-realized work than its predecessor. The builds feel bigger, and while the riff writing isn’t the most creative work Rotting Christ have done in this department, they have learned to use the bells and whistles to fill the void. The composition is exceptional, using all the tools in the Rotting Christ toolbox: chants, choirs, synths, hooky melodies, blistering solos, and a blasphemous rage that still burns after 32 years.

While Rotting Christ’s earliest demo material pre-dates that of Varathron, both bands essentially began playing black metal at around the same time, with Rotting Christ transitioning from grind to black metal on their Satanas Tedeum demo and Varathron releasing their debut demo, Procreation Of The Unaltered Evil, both in October of 1989. The two bands were destined for different paths, but the earliest albums of each mirror each other in a way that defines how we can now reflect on the early Greek black metal sound.

ESSENTIAL:
His Majesty At The Swamp (1993)

When folks describe early Hellenic black metal as “swampy,” it is certainly thanks to the title of Varathron’s debut work. While technically part of the second wave of black metal, it encompasses that more primitive late first-wave sound of mid-tones and mid-tempos, with plenty of eerie synths saturating the atmosphere a la Mystifier. Putting things into perspective, this was essentially where black metal was heading before Norway changed the way bands approached dark, satanic metal. (See: Early Rotting Christ, Goatlord from the US, the Drawing Down The Moon era of Beherit in Finland, or Xantotol over in Poland.) The sound was more primitive and ritualistic. What Varathron brought to the table was plenty of slower, building riffs that would give way to blasting on tracks like “Sun Of The Moon (Act II)” and “Lustful Father.” The doomier riffing on “Unholy Funeral” and “The River Of My Souls” help bring the feeling of a thick, shadowy, humid swamp to life. The twin lead work pushes the guitars front and center at crucial moments, further amplified with the inclusion of double kick drums when maximum impact is needed. While the production is far from perfect (as is to be expected from a black metal band of this era) it adds a timeless ingenuity to the record. His Majesty At The Swamp remains a classic in the Greek scene, and absolutely essential in understanding what the Greeks were going for in their earliest days of black metal.

His Majesty at the Swamp by Varathron

 

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Walpurgisnacht (1995)

While Rotting Christ’s sophomore album mostly incorporated melodic elements on top of their pre-existing sound, Varathron seemed to be picking up more on what their Scandanavian counterparts were doing. Walpurgisnacht still sounds much like the Varathron from before, but as can quickly be assessed from the album’s opener, “Tleilaxu (The Unborn Child),” they are incorporating more tremolo riffing into their writing. However, they aren’t aping their Norwegian brethren, more borrowing a new tool to play with. The doomier, mid-tempo sections are still very much the star of the show here, with Varathron showing plenty of the Master’s Hammer influence throughout. The tempo changes clash a bit at times, but nonetheless Walpurguisnacht is still an underrated black metal classic, especially with its use of Greek pagan ancestry and spoken-word passages on “The Dark Hills” and the riffing style of songs like “Mestigoth,” all of which would be used later by bands like Kawir and Macabre Omen.

Stygian Forces Of Scorn (2009)

Five years after the somewhat trainwreck of their return on 2004’s Crowsreign, Varathron went straight for the throat with a totally unexpected vengeance on Stygian Forces Of Scorn. Almost equal parts melodic black and melodic death, in a way, Varathron crafted Greece’s answer to Dissection or The Chasm. While it may not be the most representative of the classic Greek style, the epic Mediterranean glory reverberates through the Greek mythos, choices in melody, and the touches of choral synth flavor that flourish the album. There is an almost progressive flair to the riff salad Varathron are bringing to the table as they fluidly shift moods throughout the songs. The melodic breakdown on “Legend Of Demusar” adds an entirely different dimension to the song, and the acoustic bit in “Where The Walls Weep” harkens back to early Opeth. The way the twin leads play off one another in “Lord Of Illusions” is absolute ear candy, and if you don’t believe that they are stacking the riffs, just check out “The Depths Of Gnar.” The pinch harmonics that the Greeks absolutely love are searing, taking their riff game to the next level. I can’t speak highly enough of this record, and it is one of my personal favorites to emerge from the scene in its latter years. What more could you expect from a record with a song entitled “The Depths Of Gnar?”

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Patriarchs Of Evil (2018)

Varathron have had an excellent three album run starting with Stygian Forces Of Scorn all the way up to their most recent work, 2018’s Patriarchs Of Evil (see our 2018 Staff Picks). It seems the band have finally settled into a consistent style of melodic black metal that still retains its Hellenic feel–epic and bombastic. But don’t just take my word for it, check out Zach’s review of Patriarchs Of Evil here.

Now for the first real outlier of this primer, not only of the Greek black metal scene but of black metal as a whole. Necromantia were known for their extremely unorthodox approach of eschewing guitars entirely (aside from solos) in lieu of two bass guitars. Drummer? Didn’t need one until 2007. Before that all percussion duties were handled by a drum machine. It sounds like an absolute recipe for disaster, but damn if Necromantia didn’t find a way to pull it off.

ESSENTIAL:
Scarlet Evil Witching Black (1995)

While Necromantia’s 1993 debut Crossing The Fiery Path essentially worked as a proof-of-concept piece for the band, the follow up in 1995 perfected what the band were trying to achieve. The twin bass thunders through hiss and static, washed in synthy organs and a full-on occult feel. Still holding onto the Greek tradition of mid-tempos giving way to the fast blasting, Necromantia provided a unique twist with their pulsing low-end. And if you still aren’t convinced of Manowar’s presence in black metal, well, just hone your ears onto that fat, fuzzy bass tone. Oh, and don’t skip the sax solo on “The Arcane Light Of Hecate.” It is, as far as I know, the first use of saxophone on a black metal album, and absolutely divine.

Scarlet Evil Witching Black by NECROMANTIA

 

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Crossing The Fiery Path (1993)

Still regarded as a classic, if only for its absolute creativity, the band’s debut doesn’t quite hold up to the following two records. But it’s still an interesting listen, as Necromantia are still figuring things out at this point.Tracks like “The Warlock” or “Lord Of The Abyss,” with its tribal drumming and deep, resonating bass, make this Necromantia at their most primeval, primordial incarnation, yet it contrasts with the melodic interplay on “Last Song For Valdezie.” While it was recorded and released during, arguably, the most important year for black metal’s second wave, it retains the atmosphere and overall feeling of the transition era between the first and second wave. “The Dark Kingdom (T.E.A.R.)” essentially sums up the sound Necromantia would strive to capture for their entire career. (Plus, Crossing The Fiery Path has some totally bitchin’ art ripped almost wholesale from Dungeons And Dragons.)

IV: Malice (2000)

Have I mentioned that this band has no business being as good as they are? The sheer idea of just two basses and a drum machine for primary instrumentation is in itself an experiment that, on paper, is a recipe for total disaster. While Necromantia’s third full-length isn’t really regarded with the first two as a classic release, it’s probably my personal favorite. The band pushed a little further into the “bass” of their sound, dropping a few of the more experimental elements, as well as letting the synths breathe a little more between the absolute pummeling of bass riffs that, in the band’s traditional style, carry the songs with flying colors.

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

While early on, the band’s parameters could understandably have been out of necessity or bizarre stylistic choice, Necromantia stuck with it, only adding a live drummer as late as 2007. Unfortunately, late last year, eight-string bass mastermind Baron Blood passed away from a heart attack, all but closing an important chapter in the legacy of not just Hellenic black metal, but black metal as a whole. The band have plans to release an EP in his memory later this year before laying Necromantia to rest. Baron Blood may be gone, but his legacy thrives in the rumbling low end of one of the most unique black metal bands of all time.

Another exception to the “typical” sounds associated with black metal, Zemial sink their roots deeper into Bathory’s catalog. Drawing more in their earlier days from Bathory and incorporating a more traditional metal approach to their riff construction, Zemial essentially kept the earliest days of the first wave of black metal alive, thriving, and especially later in their career, evolving.

ESSENTIAL:
For The Glory Of UR (1996)

While many of the Greeks were quick to transition to themes around the mythos of their homeland, Zemial’s earliest work was already destined for a different path. Not only was their music based further in the past than their counterparts, but their ideology as well. Zemial are unique to the ranks of the Hellenic scene in that their primary muse lies in ancient Mesopotamian mythology. (Yes, bands have been doing this long before Blood Incantation.) The album plays between the aggressive, almost punky takes on Bathory — with plenty of traditional gallop and wallop — and moments of Phrygian riffage and interludes (see “Apophis – The Serpent Self”) that add the punch of feeling behind the themes of the lyrics.

For the Glory of UR (Re-Mastered) by Zemial

 

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In Monumentum (2006)

After releasing the Necrolatry demo in 1997, immediately following For The Glory Of UR, Zemial went dormant. With the tragic passing of Quorthon in 2004, Zemial again took up arms to pay tribute to the fallen warrior. In Monumentum plays out as a memorial to the works of Bathory, embracing more the latter half of the band’s classic run. There’s a lot more of Blood Fire Death and Hammerheart to be heard on Zemial’s second full-length, easily apparent from the hammering mid-tempo of the opening track, “For A Fallen One.” Though it is clearly a tribute to their fallen hero, Zemial do Quorthon justice by keeping In Monumentum in line with their own vision of black metal.

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Nykta (2013)

Zemial’s third proper full length shows them pick up where they left off, furthering the glory of Bathory into more progressive and daring territories with full appreciation for classic heavy metal along the way. Right out of the gates, the Manowar vibes set the scene for an expansive journey that touches new and entirely unexpected territories. Tracks like “Eclipse,” “Under Scythian Command,” and “In The Arms Of Hades” exude strong vibes of the early German thrash scene of Sodom and Destruction before taking twists and turns through unexpected territories; surprises lurk around every corner, effortlessly woven into the fabric of Zemial. Nykta stands as a modern masterpiece in the Hellenic scene, and is truly an adventure that needs to be experienced to be believed.

Bathory’s Hammerheart was so far ahead of its time. By the time the influence of Quorthon’s earlier works was beginning to take hold in the metal underground, he was already shifting styles, not so much predicting a change in trends as blazing a path that other black metal bands would follow. The blueprints for the future of black metal were all there between 1984 and 1990 — ready to be explored to their fullest potential by bands all over the world. Not only did Bathory’s classic run foresee a shift in musical direction, the simultaneous deviation in ideology from the blind rebellion of Satanism to a more focused dogma of what came before Christianity.

In the Greek context, the band that most represents this transition in philosophy is undoubtedly Kawir. While a bit slow to lock into a distinctive sound, this band, more so than others, most delved into the history of their homeland for inspiration, even going so far as to write all of their lyrics in ancient Greek, resurrecting the past through the tinted lens of black metal.

ESSENTIAL:
Ισόθεος (2012)

One of the more comical tropes of black metal, or heavy metal in general, is that the first two albums are the greatest (or if you’re really trve, just the demos). The Greek scene throws this theory to the wolves, especially in the case of Kawir. The band matured into their mighty sound after a serviceable but otherwise unremarkable debut in 1997 to the raw aggression with symphonic touches on Epoptia and the strange twist on De Mysteriis-era Mayhem with Arai. It wasn’t until 2008’s Ophiolatreia that the band really found their sound, and further polished it on the follow-up with Ισόθεος. Ισόθεος is nothing short of epic: It is Greece’s spiritual answer to Hammerheart, much in the way Enslaved’s Eld was for Norway, albeit with 22 years and an abundance of other influence between them. The mighty mid-tempos, the crying out of the vocals amongst a wash of mighty reverb with calls to the ancient past, the root theme in a world long dead, the warm and vibrant atmosphere all draw parallels; yet it feels more like the warm salt of the Mediterranean Sea than the icy coasts of Scandinavia. The concept of Ισόθεος focuses primarily on an ancient ritual of deification, and in a way, Kawir’s ritual came to fruition, with Ισόθεος forever immortalizing the band as one of Greece’s finest.

Kawir – Isoteos by Deathrune Records

 

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Epoptia (1999)

The earliest days of the band seem scattered, with each of the first four albums taking on different identities to the point where they could feasibly be created by different bands, though the first three borrow heavily from the Norwegian style. Epoptia unfolds like Kawir’s attempt at something between Transilvanian Hunger and In The Nightside Eclipse. Feverishly aggressive with haunting keys splashed about for flavor, there is a certain charm to the album knowing how the band would evolve more fully into their own sound with the following record.

Ophiolatreia (2008)

Ophiolatreia was the real turning point for Kawir. The band found their own way to interpret the tremolo riffing style to incorporate folksy melodies, accompanied by the synth work, woodwinds, and deep chanted clean vocals in distinct opposition to the harsh rasp of the lead vocals. The dynamic emotions of the classic Greek tragedies is channeled by the band in their intense melodies and explosive crescendos accentuated with all the dressings of a folk metal album. Many bands that attempt this much folk instrumentation often times overshooting into the mystical, faraway land of Cornyashell, yet Kawir walk the balance beam with a practiced and genuine grace. It took time, trial, and error to get here, but Kawir stands as a strong example of a band growing into its sound, and Ophiolatreia marks the turn of the tide for the Hellenic legends.

Πάτερ Ήλιε Μήτερ Σελάνα (2016)

Πάτερ Ήλιε Μήτερ Σελάνα (or Father Sun Mother Moon) is Kawir’s lengthiest and, for my money, most epic endeavor to date. From their strongest opener “To The Soverign Sun” all the way through the almighty conclusion of “Descent Of Persephone,” Kawir are pushing forward with full sails and every bit of mystical might they can muster. While Ισόθεος may be the more important release in the band’s history, something about the vast scope of Πάτερ Ήλιε Μήτερ Σελάνα still captures my imagination in new ways after countless hours spent with the album. For me, Kawir set their own bar a little higher with this one.

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Αδράστεια (2019)

While neither Εξιλασμός nor their latest, Αδράστεια, quite capture the magnitude of Πάτερ Ήλιε Μήτερ Σελάνα, it would be a disservice to the band to call either a step back. With Εξιλασμός, the band narrowed their scope, relying a bit less on the symphonic grandiosity and folk instrumentation for a more straightforward approach to their sound to convey the Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex. With Αδράστεια, the expansiveness of Πάτερ Ήλιε Μήτερ Σελάνα‘s sound is condensed into a more reasonable length, this time honing in on the nymph responsible for raising Zeus and protecting him from his father Cronus, who had a thing for munching on his kids to keep them from usurping his power. The quality of their latest effort is a testament to the consistency Kawir have been delivering since Ophiolatreia. They could just continue to churn out works like this for the rest of their career and I would remain more than content.

Several of the black metal acts in Greece outside of Rotting Christ and Varathron have choppy histories when it comes to releases, and perhaps none more so than Medieval Demon. Taking the most literal interpretation of Under The Sign Of The Black Mark as any Greek black metal band, Medieval Demon’s sound is comprised of mid-tempo riffing under the flag of dark magics and Satanic rites while retaining the more grandiose flair of their counterparts, creating a dark epic of glory for the fallen angel himself. Of all the bands that spawned in the mid-90’s in the Greek scene, Medieval Demon remain the most true to the early Rotting Christ / Varathron sound, carrying the marriage of Master’s Hammer and Mystifier into the the present with a commitment to the sound that put their homeland on the black metal map.

ESSENTIAL:
Medieval Necromancy (2018)

As mentioned earlier with Kawir, many of the Greek bands matured into their sound. Even with the gaps in their release catalog, the same could be same for Medieval Demon. Medieval Necromancy is their finest work to date, carrying the Greek blend of Bathory, Master’s Hammer, and Mystifier into the modern age. The almost tribal, thundering echos of the drums blanketed in warm, grainy, swampy guitar simply bleeds Hellenic blood. The tension of the blast beat sections gives way to explosive syncopated riffing under foreboding choirs and the lurking air of synths filling the gaps like a chilling fog. The trademark pinch harmonics and de-tuned drums are all over the place, hitting accents and sweet spots with uncanny precision and driving home that grandiosity in darkness that made the early Greek scene so unique in the first place.

Medieval Necromancy by MEDIEVAL DEMON

 

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Demonolatria (1998)

Medieval Demon lapped the blood of the early Greek scene from as far back as 1994, releasing three demos and a split before finally releasing their debut album, Demonolatria, in 1998. At this point, many of the powerhouse Greek acts were evolving into their own paths, but Medieval Demon held true to the early days. While Medieval Necromancy is a bit more balanced, if anything, leaning more towards the Master’s Hammer approach, Demonalatria hits the primeval occult feel of Mystifier a bit more heavy. It’s a touch sloppier, a bit undercooked in the production department, and a hair more on the regressive side considering its 1998 release date, but it’s no less solid a release in the Greek black metal catalog. It kept the fires of Thy Mighty Contract and His Majesty At The Swamp alive in a time when the original architects of the scene were already past the point of shifting away from their earlier styles.

Much like Medieval Demon, Macabre Omen were kicking around as early as 1994, but only releasing a handful of demos and splits in the time between their formation and their debut, The Ancient Returns, in 2005. While band mastermind Alexandros relocated to London, England early on, the Hellenic sound shines through so brightly with Macabre Omen that any focus on the black metal scene in the Mediterranean would be remiss by excluding them. Not only have they stayed true to the style of their homeland, but their most recent work, 2015’s Gods Of War – At War set a new bar for the already strong Greek scene.

ESSENTIAL:
Gods Of War – At War (2015)

Macabre Omen apparently work on a ten-year cycle, from demos to debut, debut to sophomore album, it’s apparent Alexandros likes to take his time crafting his works, and every wait is absolutely worth it. Gods Of War – At War encompasses every fantastic element of Hellenic black metal: the might and power of Rotting Christ, the eventual acceptance of second-wave theory to black metal like Varathron, the folky/pagan approach of Kawir. It’s all there and wrapped up neatly while still retaining a unique identity amongst its contemporaries. Gods Of War feels like a fresher, more modern take on Greek black metal, informed by over 30 years of stylistic evolution in the genre worldwide. Utilizing the strength of Mediterranean-based scales, even the tremolo bits between the huge syncopated heavy metal riffs contain the power to summon legions of heroes. And while it certainly doesn’t take sole inspiration from Bathory’s HammerheartGods Of War – At War is Greece’s spiritual cousin to Sweden’s epic pagan masterpiece. The patriarchal themes (Alexandros lost his own father while in the midst of writing the album) reverberate as strongly as “Father To Son,” and imbue the record with an extremely personal vibe, theatrically amplified to a grander stage in the ways of the classical Greek tragedies themselves. The scope, as well, mirrors that of Hammerheart: larger than life and drenched in levels of reverb usually reserved solely for the halls of Mount Olympus.

Gods Of War – At War by Macabre Omen

 

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The Ancient Returns (2005)

While Gods Of War – At War may stand as Macabre Omen’s magnum opus, at least to this point, their initial full-length offering is worth more than just a cursory note. While most Greek black metal bands tend to ignore the Burzum approach almost entirely, The Ancient Returns seems to embrace it at times, particularly on “The Sound Of North vs. South,” which collides the more contemporary Greek style with the old school Norwegian tack, lifting the melody almost entirely wholesale from “Dunkelheit” from Burzum’s Filosofem. Plenty of the epic Hellenic elements that would take center stage on Gods Of War – At War still play a major role, but the impact isn’t quite as direct as its successor. Still, the album is a credit to its homeland as well as a sign of the greatness to come in the years following.

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Given Macabre Omen’s current patterns in regards to album releases, hopefully we’ll get something new by 2025. In the meantime, you can catch Alexandros in his other projects, such as Necromaniac, Razor Of Occam, and The One, or guesting on albums from the likes of Kawir, Grave Miasma, Lychgate, and Lucifer’s Child.

Under The Sign Of The Black Mark is my favorite black metal album of all time, and no scene explores the vast potential and possibilities wrapped up in that brief 36 minutes of time like the Greeks. So often, credit is given to Scandinavian countries for their rich and expansive black metal scenes, yet an entirely separate initial approach and eventual evolution was birthed in the Mediterranean. It’s a rich scene, and this primer barely even touches the surface of the 30years of darkness spawned from Greece. I tried to keep a focus here on the bands that shaped the Greek sound — there are plenty of bands that hybridize with other scenes or play in different styles entirely, or released a handful of demos and never bubbled above the surface. There’s so much to explore. And so I leave you with this charge: While the amount of music released these days may seem overwhelming, don’t forget to dig up those long lost gems, those albums or demos or splits that never got their due. Metal is a genre that overflows with potential, and only so many can share the glory at once; the past is always alive and ready to be rediscovered. If you only focus on the latest releases, you’ll never fully understand what an expansive world it really is, vibrant and alive with a rich living history that is waiting to be experienced through the wonders of recording.

Posted by Ryan Tysinger

I listen to music, then I write about it. On Twitter @d00mfr0gg (Outro: The Winds Of Mayhem)

  1. Not probably posted by chance at the day of our Independence! Cheers Ryan for covering this underated scene… back in the days, despite the lack of money, marketing and terrible sounding recordings they made it possible to stand out and craft a unique scene. had the luck to live it from almost the beginning and be part of it at some time! Would be worth saying that the quality input today is not decreased – just to mention aenaon and hail spirit noir with their unique style (Who havent got the attention of the masses like spectral lore)! Keep up the good work guys been following you almost 12-13 years now!

    Reply

    1. It most certainly wasn’t a coincidence! Going back into the earlier days of black metal, low budgets and terrible recordings are to be expected, but compared to some other scenes at the time, Greece did a pretty damn good job in that department! Can’t agree more with you that the quality has increased over time – each band may have found their own direction but they still retain that early Hellenic sound at the core. Such a rich and diverse scene, and so much I didn’t cover here. Plenty of bands lost to time [like the REAL Twilight ;)] or bands that came along later (Empire of the Moon, for example) or bands that don’t quite fit into the classic Greek style (Akantha or Nocternity, for example) or bands I didn’t cover simply because it was long enough of a read as is! I’d say a Part 2 or 3 may be in order further down the line…

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  2. I don’t have an in-depth or well-informed comment to leave, Ryan. I just wanted to say thanks for writing this piece. My knowledge of Hellenic black metal is… well, fairly lean… which makes this feature a perfect primer to dive into. Great writing and great recommendations thus far. Cheers, brother.

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Craig! Thought you might at least have some insight on the earliest days of the scene since it’s so rooted in crust! I don’t know much about it but I know Greece continues to have a pretty rich scene in that area. Hope you’re enjoying some of these albums

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  3. I’ll admit, outside of Rotting Christ I’ve known very little about this scene and really enjoyed the insight here.

    I always wondered what else was out there to fill the gap you mentioned from Bathory – Mayhem.

    With all the time in the world right now, I’ll be doing a deep dive into these discographies.

    Cheers and stay safe!

    Reply

    1. That gap you mention is one of my favorite eras of black metal – it wasn’t defined as a genre and resulted in some of the most bizarre attempts to sound more evil than anything else. Hoping to get something together in the future to explore that era.

      Thank you for your kind words, and hope you’re enjoying the dive and finding some things you enjoy!

      Reply

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