Sunday, October 13, 2013

Atrocity's Blut (1994)

Atrocity could be described as a band who started off quite strong as a part of the 'first wave' of German death metal, producing two well-liked and solid records before seemingly falling off the deep end into one of the most overt 90s identity crises I've encountered. Specifically their 1994-1996 period it seemed like the band had absolutely no fucking idea what direction they would stick with. Blut is an amalgamation of miserable groove/death metal and Goth metal bits, Calling the Rain dabbles in folk/doom metal with ethereal female vocals, Willenskraft shows an unwillingness to step entirely away from their death metal roots, and Die Liebe (possibly the best of the lot) has them teaming up with the legendary industrial duo Das Ich to create something with both the industrial and Goth components. All of this was of course the setup for their Werk 80 album of popular cover tunes, which was one of their more successful discs, and then they'd actually go on to become a rather coherent Gothic/symphonic metal act with pretty high production standards, but the mid 90s was mired in utter turmoil by their two worst effort. Blut is, unfortunately, one of them...

It's rather a pity, too. My first exposure to the group was a mint cassette copy of Hallucinations I picked up in 1990, the days when I would literally purchase every recording I found with a death metal logo, in any store. It was solid stuff, nothing exceptional like what the Florida/Sweden scenes had produced, but another of those formative harbingers of the notion that the genre had gone viral worldwide, and that it wouldn't be long afore that world caught up. As such, Todessehnsucht did not disappoint: mildly less brutal and vital, but compensating with catchier songwriting. Naturally, I held some excitement out for the follow-up, Blut, since Atrocity really hadn't had their breakthrough yet and from external appearances it looked as if it might be some theatrical concept record about vampires. The logo superimposed over the curtain on the cover even appears to be the same one used on the movie posters for the '92 Dracula film adaptation starring Keanu Reeves, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. Turns out, that same movie did in fact inspire the theme here. Seemed like a good fit to me, even if it was still a pretty fresh flick...a European death metal band cutting its teeth on Bram Stoker's horror...that works, right? Oh no, my friends. Very, very wrong, for Blut is a prime example of poor decision making in the decade that threatened to destroy it all: the 90s.

The shock I felt at this is comparable to that towards another German death metal band, Morgoth, on their later offering Feel Sorry for the Fanatic, where they mutated into a more melodic industrial rock band. I mean, apart from a few of Alexander ('How did he get this awesome name?') Krull's barks and grunts, and a few of the death metal breaks littered through the 15 songs and 64 minutes, this bears almost no resemblance towards the group's earlier albums. Instead, it's a scatterbrained transformation into a mixture of 'woe is me' Gothic metal tropes and bouncy, annoying groove metal riffing which lost its way from aping Prong into a catacomb of tremendously dumb, uninspired riffs and vocals that stand out far too far and sound immensely goofy over the tinge of the rhythm guitar tone. What's more, Blut is front-loaded with some of its shittiest tunes...if you dig deeply enough, you'll find there is actually some passable material in the track list, which foreshadows their direction at the turn of the century and beyond, but in getter there it stumbles over some truly terrible songwriting which remains the nadir of their career (alongside Calling the Rain...let me not forget my venom for that one). And while lyrically this album seems well attuned to its subject matter, of eternal life, horrible appetites, insatiable lusts and being forsaken by the divine, left to walk to the earth as a beast, the musical riffs and structures are generally too obtrusive to allow for full immersion.

Imagine you and I are sitting at our local theater, soles stuck in last week's derelict popcorn butter, hearts full of anticipation for this new blockbuster starring one of our favorite actors (an actor's actor!) as the big heel, and the opening act is this shitty, bouncing chug rhythm that sounds like a castaway from Prong's Cleansing. That describes "Trial", a crappy groove/thrash dud that has no fucking business here or anywhere. While I might forgive just the one, then the record lurches into "Miss Direct", a strange BDSM number driven by farting, dorky bass lines and clinical nu-thrash rhythms drowned in some of Krull's worst vocals ever. What the fuck is this? It's hard to hone in on any potential fetish-erection when your song sounds like a bunch of clowns visiting the Red Light district and honking hooker-boobs like they were toy horns. To top that off, they transition back into ANOTHER pseudo-Prong/Pantera groove metal tune ("In My Veins"), and like the opener, pretty much the only saving grace are the methodical lead sequences which hearken back to their older style. We're now about 12 minutes into Blut and there's no relief in sight from the horrors; Atrocity finally living up to their name, but not in the manner they likely intended. It's honestly one of the most pathetic 1-2-3 combos I've heard on a neo-death metal record outside of Massacre's abysmal Promise.

But then, like a breeze of air freshener greeting you in amidst the stench of a nightclub restroom, "B.L.U.T" itself arrives, a mesh of glittery progressive metal melodies and synthesized Gothic choirs, quality arch-like bass lines and Krull's clean baritone vocals interspersed with the angrier grunts that resemble Christofer Johnsson on Therion's superb Lepaca Kliffoth. It's not exactly magic, and I still the tinny crunch of the rhythm guitar here as much as the prior tracks, but such a dramatic improvement in terms of interest-level. It gets stranger, as Blut seems to wobble back and forth between a myriad of ideas, several traipsing back into Todessehnsucht territory and failing, others like the folk/ballad "Calling the Rain" (oh yes, it appeared first) implementing clean guitars with tinny effects, and Krull's sister Yasmin making her appearance with some pretty standard Euro-ethereal vox not unlike a less jubilant Liv Kristine (of Norway's Theater of Tragedy), who ironically would end up marrying Alexander. There's a song in German ("Leichenfeier") centered around some plodding riffs that sounds like a doom metal Lacrimosa variant. The strange Prong-ish tunes continue ("Moon-Struck", "Goddess in Black"), there are several instrumental interludes like the acoustics of "Soul Embrace", but there never seems to be any real sense of coherence to the material, except that so much of it is weak. Blut is not a confusing album, but a 'confused' one, and it speaks volumes that the best song on it is a 90 second bass and guitar instrumental which captures the atmosphere of a moonlit light better than anything else here.

At best, the Goth elements here served as precursors to records where they delved far more consistently into that style, like Gemini and Atlantis or the more recent symphonic/Gothic/death metal hybrid Okkult which is actually one of their best. Stylistic disparity isn't Blut's only crippler, because I found the production of the guitars here to be just too clean, tinny and robbed of any real meat or power. Again, I draw a comparison to Prong, particularly Cleansing, though that album had richer rhythm guitar riffs, superior songwriting over all, and of course was handled by Terry Date who has a decent track record. The drum mix here is also pretty bland, the bass lines rarely interesting, and while I do enjoy Krull's more melodic rantings thanks to the edge and gravitas his death metal origins give them, he's simply too loud on a good portion of the album. The lyrics, while not perfect, seem to do a decent job of getting into the mindsets of vampires or other characters with a lot of Anne Rice's eloquence. The reader can feel these are Romantic, tragic tellings, now if only the music could have more successfully met that benchmark, then Blut could have been well ahead of its time, at least in the Gothic metal field. But the ball was dropped, no, shattered on the cracked, ivy-wrung pavement, and nothing here holds up to any scrutiny. Weak guitar tone, uninspired riffs (even the few delves back into death metal feel pitifully non-evil), and at times sheepishly silly vocals that were unlikely to get Krull laid at the same clubs Peter Steele was attending.

I don't fault Blut because it was an experiment. It's not that Atrocity was 'ashamed' of its death metal roots, and decided not to pursue that genre directly through the remainder of the 90s (listen to Willenskraft or some of the tunes off later albums), but they obviously felt a cloying impetus to branch out into new territory, and not to restrict themselves. It worked out for them eventually, because they dove straight into that emergent European goth metal scene to some accolades...who exploring that stuff at the time didn't stumble across one of the Germans' covers of obvious, dramatic 80s pop songs? Inevitably, I feel like Atrocity did turn themselves into a respectable band once more, and even in these fragile times, they had some success (Die Liebe and Willenskraft are both worth hearing, if not exceptional). That said, Blut remains as a giant warning sign: covered pits ahead, do not tread these paths, do not travel these roads, and if you ignore this advice, bring a grappling hook. I've never lied about my feelings on albums before, and I'm not about to start: this is pretty god-damned bad. Listen to them! The children of the night. What sweet music they don't make.

Verdict: Epic Fail [2/10] (damned and addicted to survive)

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