Cold riffs and metallic glory: Sacramentum and Kvist

Time for another look at some mid-90s treasures from our friends in the north. Swedish metal, much like the country itself, is frankly just a more class act than the UK. We have our moments, but the sheer volume of quality releases to rain down out of Scandinavia over the years is a force to be reckoned with. At times it seems to come to them almost effortlessly.

Think of the very best that Swedish metal has to offer: ‘Blood, Fire, Death’, ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’, Storm of Lights Bane’, ‘Beyond Sanctorum’ all come to mind; to name but a few. A formidable selection of albums, with equally formidable (if sometimes incomprehensible) titles. But Sacramentum’s ‘Far Away From the Sun’ (1996) is not usually featured near the top of these lists. Which is a real shame. Because it’s just a fucking swell album.

After the very promising debut EP ‘Finis Malorum’ (1994) which exhibited an impressive understanding of Bach counterpoint translated into melodic blackened death metal, ‘Far Away From the Sun’ was dismissed by many as a poor man’s Dissection. Nothing, I repeat nothing, could be further from the truth. What we have here is a sophisticated demonstration of metal as a neoclassical art-form that is simply lightyears ahead of its peers. I have never known black metal to be quite so fluid as this. The music is composed of layered tremolo strummed riffs that collide and dance on top of one another, with transitions and development of key and tempo that make sense both within and between tracks.

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Drums keep a relatively low profile, aided by a somewhat weak snare sound. But then reverb is introduced where it counts, on the tom rolls. They weave seamlessly beneath the riffs to add speed and dynamism in places, drama and tension in others. Although they are tight and fairly busy most of time, their secondary role of knitting the drama of the music together, of granting it context, is perfectly performed. Vocals are distant yet powerful. They are a mid-ranged rasp with enough clarity to make certain lyrics audible, and are unsurprisingly covered in reverb.

But the guitars are the stars of the show. The riffs blast past with such intensity and clarity it is sometimes hard to get over not just how good they are, but how perfectly they are constructed together to form a cohesive whole. Sure there are plenty of lead passages and even some solos, but the real beauty in this music is the complexity of its architecture. The understanding of how different chord sequences flow together, how their context within the wider composition can alter its impact, utilising each riff for maximum effect. It is both a musical and mathematical marvel. And – I cannot state this enough – it is just in a completely different league to their countrymen.

For all my praise of ‘Far Away From the Sun’ there are plenty of other hidden gems in a similar vein for those willing to look. Kvist’s sole LP ‘For Kunsten Maa vi Evig Vike’ (1996) is one such release. Kvist, I’m told, means ‘twig’ in Norwegian. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what this says about the gravitas of the Norwegian language compared to English.

Although this proved to be their only LP, it is a much loved one nevertheless, and with good reason. This definitely sits on the black metal side of the border, and despite being relatively lo-fi and…shall we say grim, it offers a similar lively energy that many in the Swedish school were distinguished for. Tritones are offset by atonal punk riffs and a heavy dose of layered keyboards to beef up the somewhat weak guitar tone. Drums are enthusiastic but somewhat shaky in places given the rhythmic diversity this music pretends to. Vocals are run-of-the-mill black metal growling, devoid of reverb which is to be honest a refreshing nod to authenticity.

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This music has no end of intriguing riffs, granting the listener little time to become accustomed to one before moving on to another. In terms of the all-important atmosphere, I would say this album offers us a glimpse into the Satyricon that could have been following ‘Dark Medieval Times’. It is a more developed, cohesive iteration of the style of this rhythmically diverse yet atmospheric take on black metal, with many novel ideas packed within. Where this album falls down somewhat is that weak guitar tone. No problem for many stripes of black metal for sure, but in the contrast between the epic and the evil (chortle), a meatier, more overbearing sound is required for full impact.

This determinant however is a small one. What the album lacks in the area of aesthetic choices, it more than makes up for in riffcraft, and knowing when to use keyboards to layer up the sound, and when to cut them back so as not to become tiresome. In many ways this is an impressive marriage of punk and metal philosophies. With the more epic black/death metal riffs soaring above the scene, and raw, primal black metal riffs of the 1980s complementing them rather than contrasting them. Yet another mid-90s treasure well worth a spin.

Sacramentum’s ‘Finis Malorum’ and ‘Far Away From the Sun’ are paragons of a style well-trodden. That border between melodic death metal and epic black metal, where musicianship and rich compositions are praised as much as aesthetics, this was well trodden territory by 1996. But in my view never as well trodden as Sacramentum, before or since. Unfortunately their subsequent releases, although solid, never quite reached for the sublime heights of FAFTS. So get it in your face and turn off your mind to this sonic triumph. Kvist is also pretty good as well by the way, but clearly not my pick of the week.

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