Blut Aus Nord seem to be one of the very few bands on the extreme end of metal that can take their artistic license in almost any direction they wish to twist it and still enthrall me. I have come to rely upon their collective output, even the debatable, divisive works like mORT and Odinist, as a true escape from the sodden mist of predictable mediocrity that so saturates this art form as it reaches its qualitative and quantitative apex, and then explodes into the void of inevitable exodus. For these Frenchmen, you can know only to expect that each full-bodied interpretation of their darker halves will shift away from the prior axis, yet never completely abandon it along the overall career path.
What Once Was...Liber I is a niche release at present, the first through Debemur Morti, issued as a 12" Gatefold vinyl. I can certainly see where the classiness of this format collides with the nostalgic record collector of taste, but I do feel as if this sells the work short, so I hope to see its CD format available for the majority of listeners who may have to settle for a digital version in the interim. Content-wise, it's a single lengthy track divided into two sides, facing the tall task of engrossing the listener and not letting go. To this extent, it truly exceeds, because it's one of the most purely 'riff-heavy' works I've ever heard from Blut Aus Nord. There is little continuity with the last full-length, the excellent Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue with the Stars. Instead, the tones of this album are gritty, with processed black/doom guitar riffs operating at varied speeds through a bleak, oppressive architecture, drums crashing almost needlessly in the backdrop.
Yes, the density here is delivered almost exclusively through the ominous guitars and strangled rasp of Vindsval, as diabolic as he's been in years. The band's sense of ambiance has been retained, but here it haunts the margin of the guitar reverb more so than some scintillating panoramic mural in the background. The level of aggression here is far more of The Mystical Beast of Rebellion or The Work Which Transforms God than Memoria Vetusta in either of its incarnations. I'm not entirely convinced that this work could not have been structured into a number of smaller sequences, since there are some stretches of riffs which would make excellent tunes of their own accord, like the crashing percussion that introduces the latter half of the track, like a To Mega Therion swallowing on downers and absinthe while some unfortunate beast is choked to provide poetry; or the speed that later ensues with a terminal, blood-addled grace.
The band have stated that this will be the first in a new line of recordings, hopefully to run concurrent with the more thoughtful, atmospheric works tinged by melody like the last album. While it doesn't offer the duality of, say, Neurosis/Tribes of Neurot, it's an excellent thematic drift from which we can all benefit, provided the content remains at this level of solid riffing and utter, compelling darkness. One of the most hallowed, fascinating forces in French metal music has found yet another dimension in which to inject their harrowing humours, and it's time we once again roll up our sleeves to take the medicine.
Verdict: Win [8.75/10]