I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice the steep incline in quality between the 1993 EP Ancestor to the Darkly Sky and the following First Spell. The band themselves chose this title because they likely wanted the audience to remember this as their true initiation, and rightly so. Not only is the production vastly improved over the prior releases, but the songwriting here is subtly imaginative, and better structured all around. They're still moving at a rather sluggish gait throughout the five tracks of this, but there's much more happening and the integration of the symphonic keyboards is far superior, even if they, and the vocals are at times a bit loud, drowning some of the guitars.
First Spell is a bit warmer and more glorious sounding than other Norwegian black metal releases of its er like De Mysteriis dom Sathanas or Pure Holocaust, and this is due largely to the majestic note progressions of the guitars. Acoustic guitars and ringing organs are threaded throughout "The Shivering Voice of the Ghost", but despite the creepy 'haunted house' keys after 2:00 in the bridge, or the pitch-shifted gutturals near the close, Gehenna falls short of being anything near a menace. The same could be said for the festive, subtle and mildly slower "Unearthly Loose Palace", which is unfortunately not an ode to an extraterrestrial brothel, but is a damn absorbing song which I'd number my favorite on the disc. "Angelwings and Ravenclaws" is also re-recorded here with far more polish than its prior incarnation, and I love the stringy, ringing keys dowsed over the first 35 seconds, and in fact all of the simple orchestral elements, though they do admittedly trample the guitars into a support role (it's okay, they weren't doing much anyway).
Another tight track is the closer, "Morning Star", cantering along at a slightly more pressing pace with nice glazes of guitar melody ranged against the synth orchestra. I loved the brooding tones of the intro, over which Dolgar starts garbling gravel, and the rather 'dobby horse' black metal vibe of the writing, a descriptor I might also apply to "Unearthly Loose Palace". Aside from the volumes, which seem mildly skewed towards the key melodies and vocals, the production here is pro enough for its age, with solid Dirge Rep drumming and fuzzy rhythm guitars. First Spell is perhaps not the best output for Gehenna overall, but I feel like this would secure them a spot on that second tier roster of Norwegian bands who managed some success through the osmosis of novelty in the mid-90s. First Spell is slow and beautiful, traits that are not always appreciated by a chunk of the black metal fanbase, but it's an authentic and enduring, proper introduction to a band about to embark on their most important journeys.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (soon I shall walk with earthly feet)