Monday, June 2, 2014

Samael - Worship Him (1991)

Worship Him is aesthetically the full-length expansion to the style of the Medieval Prophecy EP, but the intervening years had been put to good use in prepping that and newer material for a higher production value that would, in my estimation, render it far more effective and resonant. We're still hearing what ranks among the crudest of Samael's content, but it's refined to the point that it doesn't sound like a suffocated soundboard demo from a rather mediocre rehearsal room session. This is also the most distinctly 'black metal' of their records, obvious with the daemonic cover art and occult/horror lyrical content, but I should qualify that a little further, for these Swiss did not exactly walk the same left hand path as so many of their European counterparts...

Whereas might find, in the evolution of Greek black metal, a huge influence of melodic heavy metal riffs on the older recordings of Rotting Christ, meshed in with the darker lyrical themes and harsh vocals, so too do they appear here, only they feel more strictly chord-based, like the dirtier early 80s stuff by Manowar, Witchfinder General or other legends who weren't always known for having the best of production. Burly, driving chord progressions that teeter on the predictable, but where these guys deviate is in their huge Hellhammer influence. We might argue that if anyone had a right to ape Tom G. Warrior's seminal extremity, it was his own countrymen, though by this time Darkthrone had already been shifting in this direction. That said, where Fenriz and N. Culto took those primal grooves, distorted and froze them beneath a winter moon, Vorphalack plays a lot more cleanly, with some fairly obvious riff choices even for their day (even for the late 80s). So, to an extent, I have to say I always found the guitars on this record to be among the least compelling of Samael's career, but Worship Him compensates with its slight sense of novelty...for 1991, this was pretty fucking fresh and diabolic sounding even if you couldn't get past the 50/50 hit/miss ratio of the guitars.

But definitely some heavy metal here, some of that Hellhammer/Celtic Frost primordial doom and drudge-thrash with some occasional forays into a mid-to-fast pace more reflective of what most other trailblazing black metal acts were producing (i.e. "The Black Face"). The drums were rarely 'extreme', more of a steady barrage of simple beats or double-kick batteries that supported the obsidian bluntness of the chords, with a handful of warlike cadences that I found eerily reminiscent of material from Bathory's classics Under the Sign of the Black Mark and Blood Fire Death (like those breaks in "Knowledge of the Iron Kingdom" which remind me of the title track to the latter). Masmiseîm's bass lines here are largely unimpressive, following along dully to the rhythm guitar cards with an occasional, but at least the tone helps to fatten up the slower, doomed riffing sequences. The rhythm guitar tone is not too saturated, almost at times like early Candlemass with a little more flange or reverb, some snail paced chugging, but despite the baseness of the composition they still manage to sound quite evil more often than not, because it just has no sense of foundation of melody, warmth or friendliness anywhere. Just a steady, damned march into the abyssal pits...the most peppy this gets is the vile thrashiness of a tune like "Morbid Metal".

Vorphalack really ties this all together with his snarl, and the guy has always surprised me, because in reality he has one of the least pronounced, occasionally garbled sounding harsh vocals in all that old wave of black metal. He doesn't have a ton of sustain to his rasp, nor is he the most wretched or sinister, but there's this sort of messy, 'no-fucks-given' inflection in his reverbed barks which almost makes Samael feel like some sort of snotty, highbrow black metal ritual, and I do not at all mean that as anything other than a compliment. The album speaks to me as if it's 'better than me' without the band ever even giving a fuck or trying too hard, especially as half the lyrics are depressingly simple (like the title track itself with its repetitious lines of "He is.../he is..."). Not sure if that will make much sense to anyone, but it ultimately contributes a charming, sadistic personality to what is often a fairly barebones and commonplace set of riffs exploring the more layman hybridization of black and doom, a natural extension of Hellhammer's morbidity after Celtic Frost had already more or less folded post glam-phase.

Now, this wasn't my first Samael full-length, instead one step in reverse, and it did take me some time to develop any appreciation, because in the early 90s I was still so heavily focused on the brilliance and intricacy of well-written thrash, death and power metal riffing that a lot of these slower, atmospheric-dependent records were not showpieces in my personal wheelhouse. Amazingly, this one seems to only grow more effective with age, not that it's amongst my favorite or even my half dozen favorites in this band's canon, but there's just something supremely pure and puerile about it that I can still lose myself in after so many years. The weird little touches like the ambient interlude "Last Benediction" or the pure doom instrumental "Rite of Cthulhu" only add to the gloomy, black magic aesthetic pulsing through the songwriting of the longer metal tracks. In the end, this is just one of those flawed, beloved black & white cult classics of its style...not nearly the masterpiece some stingy genre purists would paint, but an unassailable transition between the 'first wave' of European black metal (which wasn't really black metal as we know it) and the acts that would evolve that diversified darkness into its own established medium.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (he is the hangman's rope)

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