Monday, February 1, 2010

BROMANTIC INTERLUDE #2: Helm Schools Us On Greek Metal

For the second installment of the IC 'Bromantic Interludes' custom-music-mix series, I requested the services of longtime Illogical Bro and talented illustrator Helm (right - check out his awesome comic-art blog Asides-Bsides here). Along with being a frequent commentator here at IC, Helm also designed our logo and is an all-around rad duder. But here's the thing: Helm is a guy who, like Patrick Swayze's character in the film Roadhouse, doesn't play by the rules. When I asked him if he'd like to post a homemade music compilation here on IC, he said "no", but also that he WOULD like to post something very near and dear to his heart: Another compilation (put together by a friend of his) focusing on a shitload of bands from Helm's home country of Greece.

Helm's write-up is lengthy to say the least, but understandably so considering his affection for (and personal connection to) the subject matter at hand. I urge you all to stick with it all the way to the end, as it is not only a dissection of all the bands and songs in question but an actual study in Greek Metal Anthropology, Sociology, and even a bit of conspiracy theory and Lovecraftean horror as well.
That being said, prepare to be utterly and completely educated on all things concerning Greek metal in the 90's.


Shelby has been kind to let me write a little piece on the Greek underground doom/death/(but mostly) black metal scene circa 1990-2000 for the Contraption. So, here, start with downloading and listening to both parts:

Side A
Side B

The playlists were compiled by a friend of mine nicknamed Wom, as a result of a series of conversations about 'the old days'. He has an extensive collection (and recollection) of the period whereas I'm a few years younger. I was exposed to the second part of the decade's music very intimately and I've drawn some conjectural conclusions about the whole thing on the strengths of this compilation which I'm going to share with you all below. Not all the material is kick-ass music, some of it actually is pretty grating, but Wom in his wisdom has included it for a simple reason: the complete picture (and you should listen to the whole thing in one sitting a couple of times, don't be a pussy) of the Greek black/ death/doom underground at the time is captured intimately. If all you've ever heard from the Greeks is a bit of Rotting Christ or Necromantia but you'd like to know more, read on!

Fiendish Nymph
The Drowning of Syring (1998)

If you can't understand any of the lyrics it's because they're in Greek. A lot of Greek listeners would scoff at this, actually. Other countries have their share of bands performing in their mother tongue and most of the time they're all the more awesome for it (Master's Hammer, Negură Bunget or Burzum are relevant acts that come to mind) but if a Greek band attempts it there's usually much derision by listeners. My theory involves the Greek Manowar-inspired metal band Exoristoi which had its heart in the right place when they sang in Greek but they didn't do a very good job of it so it set a bad precedent for Greek epic metal cheese. The Manowar lyrical imagery of leather jockstraps and swords just doesn't literally translate very well to Greek. So, my theory is, that happened, listeners laughed at them and the rest of the scene learned a lesson to not try again. Writing in Greek also is hard because it exposes very easily both lack of inspiration and attempts at mimicry. It's my feeling that a lot of Greek metal bands are just going through the motions when they write their English lyrics and the listeners (who have a high chance of not understanding English very well to begin with since metal is so international) don't pay any attention. Notwithstanding, a few bands like the above Fiendish Nymph or Kawir employ Greek lyrics (sometimes ancient Greek too). More about Kawir later but there's an interesting parallel to Fiendish Nymph here: both bands have connections or shared members with mirror outfits named Κάβειρος (Greek for Kawir) and Δαιμόνια Νύμφη (guess) which attempt to perform ancient Greek styled music with various degrees of success.

When I first heard the playlist I didn't like this piece very much but it has grown on me. The Burzum influence is very clear but still the piece is quite varied in tempos and moods and there's a few directly heavy metal riffs (which we'll see are the defining characteristic of Greek black metal later) to spice it up. Note that when it slows down and the female operatic vocals come in, it doesn't really sound anything like black metal anymore, much more like the 'atmospheric metal' that was around during the first half of the 90's, right? More on that later.

Chained and Desperate
Centaurs Dance (1996)

Chained and Desperate went on to do much more accomplished music but here various characteristics of the Greek black metal scene are captured so it's worth to listen to a few times. Note the first drum machine of the lot, it won't be the last. Also note what sounds like a Metal Zone Boss pedal in what is either a line-in connection or a tiny trebly amp, completely dry in the mix. Another usual encounter with Greek metal of the time. One of the defining characteristics of that decade's worth of Greek metal (and it's worth stressing that it was the pretty much the first decade of Greek metal, we were not fast to catch up) is how fake the recordings sound. Also on the compositional front, note the absurdly extended middle break that sounds like the intro to a Sodom riff that never really materializes. Then it's followed by a beautiful Varathron-like segue for a few seconds and then off to the blastbeat races!

The mix-and-match feel of black metal of the time is explained by that the bands writing it worshiped twenty years' worth of Heavy Metal all at once, and were very pumped to finally be able to make their own contributions to the gods. They loved Venom and Mercyful Fate and Sodom equally and they weren't yet jaded enough to have picked a 5-year period of metal to adore & emulate and piss on all the rest as most Grandpa Metalhead elitists do today. This is the lovable thing about that period of Greek underground metal, the naivety and exuberance of teenagers that finally get to make METAL when it's not yet exactly clear what metal would become. This is why you should listen to this whole playlist a few times and read on because if you try to approach the material here like with the expectations of a 'modern metal' listener, you'll be disappointed or left confused.

Blasphemy of the Secret (1993)

A lot of people credit Greece for having its own particular black metal sound (more on that a bit later) but another aspect of that time's efforts is usually neglected and probably for a good reason. Remember when the romanticist doom/death thing happened in the United Kingdom with Paradise Lost and shortly after, My Dying Bride and Anathema? Journalists abroad had difficulties with classifying their material as something marketable and they eventually settled on the unfortunate 'gothic metal'. In Greece (and a few other European countries I believe) the journalistic term that caught on was 'atmospheric metal', which persists even today and has a much different connotation to 'gothic metal' for most of the metalheads that grew up on 90's offerings. Well, Greece had an equally large 'atmospheric metal' scene as it did a black metal scene at one time. Largely this could be explained with the monetary success of the likes of Paradise Lost or even Tiamat and the desire of the Greek bands to get contracts and tour (the Holy Grail of Greek acts during that formative period) but also a genuine affection for this misunderstood type of metal shined through often. Also, don't let anyone tell you otherwise: this shit is much easier to play than either death metal or black metal because it's so slow. Most of these bands were either teenagers at the time and trust me, Greeks didn't have the Swedish mentality when it came to learning instruments.

You'll note that Disharmony here add a warmer melodic tone to a usually austere genre, this is basically the same as what the Greek black metal bands are credited with doing for the colder black metal sound. The reason is pretty simple: it's an Iron Maiden (and other traditional metal) influence. Whereas the more scene savvy Norwegians after 1995 they wouldn't be caught dead admitting they listen to Saxon, the Greeks were pretty oblivious (at that time) of how that would be considered a faux pas by hipsters and mixed everything with everything.

Domestication of Wilderness (1992)

Ah, Nightfall. A band of much infamy but I'll avoid the gossip. If the reader has a passing interest in Greek metal, it's very probable they'll have heard (of) Nightfall. They were one of the first bands to get a contract ('Parade Into Centuries' was the first release of French label Holy, I believe) and to put out internationally distributed records, so they're considered scene heroes by some.

It is a distinctively Greek mentality that at the same time they're often ridiculed, sometimes by the same people that give them credit for their ambition. The trajectory of a band like Nightfall often calls for it. Before Nightfall there was Epidemic (a hilarious bundle of jokes there too but that's a different matter altogether) that played thrash. Here on their first steps as Nightfall you can see them mimicking early My Dying Bride successfully (keep in mind that Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium hadn't come out for too long then) which was pretty impressive. At the same time you can hear that the vocals are very obviously pitch-shifted an octave down. The singer couldn't growl low enough so they thought, technology!! What's perhaps funny also is how fast Nightfall jumped on the black metal bandwagon half-way. Their next couple of records have some drum machine blastbeats and casio orchestra hits just in time for when that scene was booming but they also retain their Paradise Lost affliction. Also funny is how they disguised the drum machine as a real person in the liner notes, which believe it or not, they'll not be the last in this playlist to do. A degree of shadiness, of misdirection and outright lies in the Greek metal scene at the time can be attributed most of all to shame; The desire to mask the lack of means or talent so as to get the Contract and to do a Tour. Nightfall paved the way with this mentality, but that doesn't detract with how Domestication of Wilderness is an amazing piece of atmospheric metal and probably their most convincing offering, inept drumming and octaved vocals notwithstanding.

Born to Suffer (1993)

More atmospheric metal! The name means 'the cutting of veins' and here you can see another Greek trait: the Greek-sounding metal names. It sounds impressive for foreigners (or alternatively it sounds like it belongs to a Carcass-clone) but a bit silly to Greeks for whom all the fancy medical jargon that metal bands like is clearly derived from every-day words they use.

These cats later changed their name to 'On Thorns I Lay' and did more atmospheric metal with an increasing tendency towards the former qualifier. Another Greek scene artifact is that for their first record as On Thorns I Lay they were very young and Magus Vampyr Daoloth of Necromantia helped with recording and guidance. You'll note Magus doing this very very often for many Greek bands of that decade.

Fulfill Lust (1999)

Here's an interesting juxtaposition with Phlebotomy above. This record is seven years later perhaps a few too late, given the demise of 'atmospheric metal' as a viable genre shortly before this, but it's on the same blueprint just much more accomplished. The drums are real (although heavily treated with triggers or overdubs) achieving that uncanny feat of real drums sounding like a drum machine. Also another point is the layered vocals. The singer couldn't or wouldn't sing the lines in a single take so they're distributed on different channels by stanza, a strangely recurrent feature on Greek recordings. Let technology help! Also note the Iron Maiden riffs here and there.

Early Dawn Enraged (1993)

Man, I really love this song. This is the altera pars to the atmospheric metal of Vanity or On Thorns I Lay above. Those of you more familiar with the Greek underground might notice that Horrified here sound like Septic Flesh of the same period. Though they didn't share members there were close affiliations between the two groups. The more death metal type of composition here allows for some pretty interesting melodic and harmonic ideas to be expressed. Back in 1993 this must have sounded completely sci-fi. The jump from the rudimentary metal of other Greek bands is startling. Also the record doesn't sound half-bad (although it suffers from Unreal Drums which again are credited to a real person who may, or may have not performed some of them). Horrified never reached this level of mastery again which is not only curiously suspect but also a defining characteristic of Greek metal. Lack of continuity and staying power can be attributed to how a lot of these bands finally got the Contract (perhaps not the Tour so often) and then, aspiration spent, inspiration waned. A lot of them also tried to 'step it up' even further and streamline their sound to get more fans, with disastrous results, like Horrified here.

As an aside, their singer, 'Gore' here was also an influence on Greek nerds at the time for being a writer in the PC magazine 'User' (a hilarious name that would never fly in a natively-English speaking country). Along with the reviews and articles of another writer 'Shadowcaster' a lot of us teenager recluses were introduced to not only excellent PC games but also some Heavy Metal bands and role playing games. A trifecta!

Macabre Omen
The Waltz of the Nereids, of the Dryads, of the Nymphs (1997)

While the more death or atmospheric oriented Greek bands were struggling to get overground with their efforts, the local black metal scene was taking a book (or a few chapters, as it were) from the Norwegians and putting out bedroom-recordings of obscure and often visionary autism for much further into the decade than you'd expect.

Macabre Omen are a tough sell during this time mainly because of how bad the recording quality is. I listened to some of this stuff back in 1998 or so and at the time coming from a Noise Records speed and power metal angle I couldn't make heads nor tails of what was attempted. Now older and wiser, I can appreciate the buried beauty here.

As far as Greek metal traits go, check out the ancient Greece theme, the double-layered technology!! vocals, the Iron Maiden riffs, the Metal Zone line-in guitar sound, the Unreal Drums (seriously, can you make out if there's a human being under all of that or not?), it's the whole package. I especially adore the Awesome Riff that he threw in there that he can't really cleanly play but said fuck it let's try.

Macabre Omen (for he's a single dude) went on to do some amazing black metal, a lot of it much more convincing sounding than this, but I'll always have a soft spot for his early overambitious efforts, which is why I'm writing this piece to begin with.

Jackal's Truth
The Quest for Ultimate Knowledge (1998)

Alright, this is Norwayesque, but very good for it. First of all, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, their singer can not only scream with the best of them but it also sounds very psychologically charged, convincing. It is double-tracked of course (hey, come on, this is still Greece, even worse, Thessaly!) but I have to say I've always been impressed with his delivery. There are Iron Maidenisms in the guitars if you pay attention but Jackal's Truth's (man, awkward) success is in that the whole thing sounds cohesive and for once, not fake. The drumming is real and frenetic, the female vocals are accomplished and carry interesting lines that intertwine with guitars and violin (atmospheric metal influence). Everything here works. The other song on the demo is equally amazing, worth tracking down. The tragedy with Jackal's Truth is that they never got the Contract, their Tour, the Future. Given how much better they are than most of their contemporaries at what they're doing, one would hope someone would snatch them up, but sadly it didn't happen. Perhaps they broke up due to mandatory military service decimating their ranks, perhaps they grew frustrated with trying to promote the band from Larissa, who knows. Shame.

Blood Covered
Dawn of the Fire Age (1993)

Here's an oddity. An enduring favorite of both Wom and I, Blood Covered not only sound like they know what they're doing but also what they're doing isn't really similar to anything else around at the time. Keep in mind this is 1993, what else was so raging but complex, occulted but not convoluted? Alright so yes this is basically thrash metal but there's also keyboards, strange disassembled riffs and an purveying epic feeling. Truly one of I kind, I say!

Sadly the band didn't carry this style of metal to any conclusion and then opted for a softer sound in their debut, 'Wrong Direction' which came out 13 years after the band's inception.

The amazing musicianship in this track can be traced to the progressive metal band Guardian Angel, another of my favorites but outside of the scope of this piece. Extreme metal bands getting help by progressive metal chops will be another recurring theme in Greek metal during this period...

Death Courier
The Hunter of the Dark (1990)

Death Courier were one of the first, if not the first Greek death-thrash band that not only seemed to have their shit together, but also had a distinct atmosphere to their music. A lot of fans had high hopes for them but sadly they only did their debut, but it's very good, get it!

They were a power-trio and it shows, the riffs are focused, they don't mess about, the drumming is in the pocket, the solos otherworldly. I love the H.P.Lovecraft influenced lyrics too. Keep in mind, this is 1990, how many other metal bands were doing that then? Mekong Delta and...? There weren't many bands of that vintage from Greece doing quality stuff altogether which is why they're fondly remembered.

Sadistic Noise
Gore, Pleasure of Pain (1990)

This is extremely raging thrash/grindcore from 1990, it reminds me of similar offerings by Rotting Christ from the same period, only Sadistic Noise knew how to handle their instruments. This more grinding type of death-thrash didn't have a lot of performers in Greece during the early 90's but remarkably a lot of the bands that grew into different styles later on originally played similarly to this. If anything this shows how punk and extreme metal had interesting common gene pools at this early point in Greek metal, though many would be loathe to admit such a thing today.

Elysian Fields
Elysian Fields (1995)

Hello Metal Zone! Oh hi, drum machine. Do I hear double-tracked vocals? Elysian sacraments? This must be Greek metal! Well, to Elysian Fields are actually pretty damn awesome even this early in their career. The material is very composed, the concept and aesthetic complete, they would go on to improve on the implementation of these characteristics in their first couple of records but the meanings will not change. A definite mid-point between Greek black metal and Greek atmospheric metal, there's My Dying Bride riffs here, choppy semi-deathrash and a lot of straight-up black metal savagery. Also a peculiar usage of keyboards as not only backing pads but as a lead instrument belies their building fascination with orchestration that would almost take over on their more recent recordings. Some pretty awesome rhythm guitar playing throughout too. Don't try to listen to this on headphones though, the guitar sound will drown out everything else and also hurt your brain. This sounds like everything is set on ten on the Metal Zone.

Septic Flesh
Return to Carthage (1994)

Take a moment and go back to listen to the Horrified track and then come back to this. Could almost be the same band, huh?

Septic Flesh are a huge chapter in Greek metal. To keep it short, their trajectory shows a fascination with fashionable metal. They start out as death metal, they go increasingly atmospheric as they go, then suddenly fall in love with Marilyn Manson for a record, break up and then return with more Paradise-Lostesque metal + absurd Nile-type eastern sounding superfast death metal with Dimmu Borgir keyboards. If there's an extreme metal bandwagon, Septic Flesh are the ticket-master.

Still, there's amazing compositional talent in the band, and when they bothered with aesthetically charged music the result was spellbinding. A very Greek love and loathing impression is often encountered with Septic Flesh, much like with Rotting Christ, exactly because they started out so strong and then seemed to sell out so much, it's almost as if the band themselves didn't know how good they were at their best and could only think of how to get more popular.

The popular Greek pastime of misdirection continues here also with the drum machine credited as one 'Kostas'.

Where is the Heaven (1993)

This is an oddity that Wom dug up, very Paradise Lost influenced atmospheric metal by a band that did just this one record. It's a pretty cool track, good production too for 1993! The vocals have strength, the line 'WHERE IS THE HEAVEN' is both hilarious as Greek-English and awesome as something for a death metal singer to shout.

It's interesting how together this sounds, how the musicians not so much have chops but sound as if they have rehearsed this extensively to get it so tight. It's odd that they never went on to do anything else. Given how this sort of metal was on the ups in 1993, I'd expect them to have caught on like Nightfall did, they certainly could outplay them! Perhaps it was their own lack of ambition, or perhaps just mandatory military service happened.

Under the Spell of the Dragon (1994)

Listen to that Casio brass section! The major melody! Under! The Spell! Of the Dragoooon! This is Greek black metal!

Yeah, blatant drum-machine, Iron Maiden themes, Magus Wampyr Daolothesque one-finger synth pads, completely fake (or I should say, plastic) sounding result, but the song is awesome!

This is the effect that so many Greek metal bands tried to be rid of during the latter part of the decade. To not sound plastic anymore, to sound 'professional', to get their record mixed in Sweden and sound nondescript in a lineup of 'modern metal' bands. A lot of them eventually achieved it, but will they be remembered for records that melt into a lineup or will they be remembered for the Plastique Grandeour of their past? Listen to that synth Timpani, listen to the gated digital reverb!

What I'm getting at is that the recording process being represented in the end result is a boon for music that is built on honesty, like Heavy Metal. If you spent your youth recording in a bedroom with a drum machine, you should proudly carry that with you for whatever else you make in a 'proper studio'. Agatus actually cannot be faulted in this respect, their more recent record isn't really far off from 'Dawn of Martyrdom', but as a general note it's worth observing how much other Greek metal bands tried to obfuscate their initial inherent amateurism and naivety with fancy productions and photoshop. It seems as if they're ashamed of their past and that's really odd and troubling considering how potent some of the past's offerings were.

2000 Years of Lies (1996)

Yeah, Christ-hate! Contrary to Norwegian black metal (from where crucially Deviser take their cue) most of Greek black metal was more into fantasies of 'occult studies' than they were into raping the bastard Nazarene. This can be explained in that whereas Christian zealots can be met the world around and are all equally annoying, the Greek Orthodox church really mostly stays out the business of most Greeks. The continuation from ancient Greek culture to Christian appropriation has been troubling of course, but due to our Byzantine period the forced moral shift from the old faith to Christ had been far back enough in history that most Greeks can't really say their ancient Greek aspect is at odds with the Orthodox teachings anymore and therefore they aren't that oppressed by the church. Well... I was bullied at school for not being a Christian but is that a good enough reason to start a satanic black metal band? So even a band like Rotting Christ effectively chose the name because it's shocking, not because they hate their Christian grandmother or anything. The lyrics to initial Rotting Christ records were total Lovecraftian occult fantasies too. There is a healthy distaste for religious dogma and group-thinking in that scene like in any other of course but that's a larger Heavy Metal characteristic.

Deviser on the other hand are late to the game and they've studied their Norwegian heroes as much as they've studied Venom (actually a very remarkable quote by Deviser on the subject of their black metal was "we play black metal, like Venom!" when this sounds nothing like Venom, because it shows how much trad metal and the newer black metal were considered one and the same for Greek metal originators) so some Christ-hating is mandatory. Keep this in mind if you ever check out newer Greek black metal bands and you see them being all Christian blasphemy, it's an inherited trait in Greece, not originally there in what is characterized as the Greek black metal sound. I guess it's the path of least resistance when you have a black metal clone band. Not to say this Deviser song isn't awesome, I especially enjoy the church organ harmonies and a couple of the riffs are pretty cool. Shame this band went downhill fast.

The Hall of Death (1993)

This is my second favorite thing in this, really. What's going on in here is remarkable. The guitarist of Greek confused progressive/doom/hard rock band, Sorrowful Winds, is here recruited to create occult Greek black metal of the Varathron type. Check out the clean tones, the inventive riffs, the smart drum machine programming, the excellent keyboards, listen to how together it all sounds. Also, the bassist of Guardian Angel had something to do with this.

It's remarkable also how once the Sorrowful Winds guy was out of the band, everything else Vorphalack ever did was mediocre to awful. A truly Greek metal trait, the 'two good songs in a demo and the rest sucks' effect! Wandering musicians trying to hit it big doing this or that, leaving artifacts of strange times behind for us to try to associate. Man, listen to that solo. What black metal band in 1993 was doing anything like this? This sounds more like Fates Warning than Darkthrone.

Legion of Doom
Hymn to the Fiendish Veleth (1995)

Legion of Doom are noteworthy for two reasons: one is that they were one of the first very openly neo-nazi black metal bands, with ties to like-minded Greek organizations and so on. I don't find this offensive or threatening because I do not go to Heavy Metal for ideological answers but I remember it making a stir at the time. The second noteworthy characteristic of Legion of Doom is how Norwegian they sound. I'd say that the initial wave of Greek black metal, as spearheaded by Varathron, Rotting Christ and Necromantia didn't really sound much like their Norwegian counterparts. This is often attributed to some 'Mediterranean effect' (which is funny because the mental image is of swarthy fishermen making black metal by the sea in their spare time) but in all truthfulness, it was just the above-mentioned naivety on genre boundaries. Iron Maiden and Kreator together. Legion of Doom aren't into either, or if they are I can't detect it at all in this song. I'm not too into Norway-clones so really I can't seem much of the beauty in this, but others might feel otherwise.

Eymenides (1994)

This is in the same Norwegian vein. Kawir often are credited as an influential Greek black metal type band and it's true they've got tracks that are less blastbeat-and-tremolo-riffs-forever than this, that could perhaps belong to something put out by Necromantia. My impression of their music is that they wanted to play Norse-type black metal and were sometimes slipping up and doing a few Greek things here and there by mistake. They do have a very nice cover, though. I'm not really very much into Kawir so I can't tell you how well they treat their ancient Greek subject matter or anything though my initial suspicion is that they're not only neo-nazi-esque but that they also justify their Ancient Greece infatuation with how they think the Greeks came from Alpha Centauri in their magic aether spaceships. That type of historical self-delusion is very common in racist subcultures and has ties to a lot of subjects explored in Illogical Contraption like Hollow Earth theory, Vryl power and Hitler being alive and scheming with a race of atomic dinosaur men on how to take over the Earth.

I just can't listen to them a lot because all the riffs are so obvious. Compare this to the Vorphalack song above to see the range of what is often lumped under a generic 'Mediterranean black metal' tag. Listen to the Burzum-clone screams at the end, too! The fisherman must have been caught on one of his own hooks.

Naer Mataron
Iketis (2000)

This troika of Norway-clones that Wom put here is pretty tortuous for me, but I guess for good reason. Naer Mataron here capture the Norse type of black metal assuredly. The aesthetics and subject matter is Greek, but the type of metal here surely is not. This isn't because Naer Mataron are ignorant of Greek metal at all, I'm sure they've got mint original vinyls of Death Courier and Crush and they love that stuff, this is a conscious choice to move towards what is the contemporary black metal sound, as decided by the 'winner' of that popularity contest during the 90's. I can't fault them for doing a good job of it of course, I just personally can't find the beauty in the repetitive tremolo lines and blastbeats. It all just seems so similar to me, even after repeated listens. Again, not sure on their politics but they seem similar to Kawir above, perhaps sans the we-came-from-outer-space delusion. Lack of spacemen doesn't make much difference when it comes down to racial bigotry though.

Order of the Ebon Hand
Awakening (1997)

Now this is more like it! Uniquely major melodies along with what sound like synth cymbal chimes, Heavy Metal riffs mixed with black metal savagery, hints of the old 'plastic' feeling mixed with more convincing musicianship. Greek-accent spoken word parts! Order of the Ebon Hand were actually one of the more accomplished acts in the strictly black metal side of the Greek metal spectrum. Everything seems composed and tight in this song and the effect is uncharacteristically (for black metal) bright, even hopeful. That's what you get when you live in a sunny country and/or are a swarthy fisherman! This goes back to what I was saying about honesty with your background when you're making music, what's the use of grim and frostbitten black metal when you go to Santorini for vacations in the summer?

Storming your Soul (2000)

Speaking of grim and frostbitten clones, here's some Immortal worship by Twilight (not the other Twilight, we have a Greek one!). This is so 'Battles in the North' I don't know what to say, down to the constant cymbal accents. What's important about this is to see how, circa 2000, Greek black metal has become indistinguishable not just from Norwegian black metal, but from 'professionally made' metal in general. This is in the pocket performance-wise, compositionally complex and was nothing to be jealous of of something made in Norway. And there is the downfall of Greek metal: from the middle of the 90's and onwards, this obsession with not sounding amateurish and 'catching up' with modern metal became prevalent. And now they have achieved this goal, and they sound like everyone else. To be fair for Twilight though, they have this very atypical moaned reverberated voice versus screamy witch vocal, going for them. I can't really fault such a band for this effort, it's very solid. That's just all it is, though.

In the Name of Nergal (1993)

This is really odd, though. What's with that guitar sound? Is it a bass guitar ran through some digital distortion? The drumming is the usual machine and the vocals are nondescript, but this certainly has some odd atmosphere about it. The recurring riffs are really strange also, it's as if the dude that wrote them ignored the harmonic concepts of the riffs that inspired him and instead focused on the percussive forms, leaving the tone changes as some vestigial remain. Truly this sounds to me as if even the guitars are additional drums instead of concerned with melody. It also seems to go on forever although it's just 4 minutes.

Rotting Christ
The Forest of N'Gai (1991)

IA! This isn't the Rotting Christ you're familiar with, is it? This is the occult death/semi-thrash metal which, believe it or not, is the second musical incarnation of Rotting Christ. They started out as a sloppy punkish grindcore outfit (when they were very young) and morphed into this occult brew (when they were slightly less young). We shall glorify Azazoth and Mega Tsathoggua, together! Man, if anything this formative offering of Greek black metal focuses on exactly the defining characteristic of the old form: the almost automatic composition, the brilliantly autistic segues from material to material, the Magus Wampyr Daoloth one-finger keyboards, the Iron Maiden and Kreator are all the same to me approach to riff-writing, all clouded in a shroud of mystery. The less mysterious this sort of music got later on, the worse it became, even if it sounded more 'professional'. I can not fault Rotting Christ for not noticing what a good thing they had going when they were 18 or whatever because besides to being good, it was also awkward as fuck. It takes a lot of balls to say 'I play my metal wrong and that's how I like it', especially for a culturally backwards country like Greece in the 90's (not that today it's much better, it's just slightly different in effect) which idolized the accomplished types of 80's metal as the end goal of any musician. Get a Contract, go on Tour. Well, on Triarchy of the Lost Lovers, you can go tour. On Passage to Arcturo, you cannot. What Burzum hit on very early with their 'fuck them all' attitude and individuality as in how a band could record and promote their material as an outsider, the Greeks never managed. Rotting Christ might regard these past glories as a stepping stone to their success whereas a lot of fans regard them as the pinnacle of their achievements as an artistic entity.

Sleeping Under Tartarus (1992)

Now see, Zemial like Bathory a lot. There's ties to Agatus, with whom they're the most similar musically but also to almost all of the old Greek black metal bands. Zemial I think are very aware that what they're doing is very Greek sounding but I couldn't tell you for sure how they feel about it. I like their material a lot and Sleeping Under Tartarus is a highlight of their early stuff. The blastbeat riff towards the end of the song is so simple but somehow it gets me. The biggest impression I get from Zemial is how monophonic they are. I hear a guitar part and a drum part and that's it, it suits their line-up of two brothers as well.

Darkest Dreams (1995)

Zephyrous are one of my favorite Greek black metal bands because they're extremely odd but yet when you get close to the music the whole thing seems to make an internal sort of sense. There's an ambition that can be spotted even here in their earliest steps. The largely major-key melodies and the vomitous singing were the enduring characteristics, later to be embellished with plethora of keyboards and adventurous stylistic explorations. Great cover for the demo! I also enjoy how the drum machine staple is utilized effectively due to the more complicated sequencing. If this sounds remotely interesting to you, you should track down the EP they put out after it named 'A Caress of War and Wisdom'.

The Tressrising of Nyartlathothep (1991)

This is the quintessential Greek metal song for me, it defined a whole approach to occult metal that few effectively pursued after them. The lyrics are a delightful mixture of H.P.L visions with Greek-English syntax and vocabulary, the music is an amazing mixture of thrash-derived technique applied to quintessentially Heavy Metal and often doom material. The cavernous vocals, the amazing solos, the structure of the song is a small dérive into lands unknown. Truly spellbinding, almost 20 years later.

Varathron have put out a pretty amazing record this year, but before that they struggled with line-up changes and further style shifts. After the amazing couple of offerings (demos and first album) they increasingly became more and more like a generic Norwegian clone, but they've recently rebounded in the more occult and mystical Heavy Metal direction that many fell in love with them for. However it's clear that they're an old band with young musicians now, whereas back then, they were a young band with even younger musicians, and how fresh and vital they sounded for it. I dare anyone to find anything lacking in this song, it is truly the pinnacle of ambitions reached for a tiny scene in a backwards country in 1991.

Lord of the Abyss (1992)

Two bass guitars and one-finger keyboards! Magus Vamypr Daoloth's personal band is often revered for their influence and ambition. Usually aligned with the above-mentioned Varathron and early Rotting Christ. The primary importance of Daoloth's worth however for me is not Necromantia in themselves, it is in how he touched on various other Greek metal bands either as a member or as an adviser (producer is a difficult term to use in the context of Greece in the early 90's) or as a record label head of Black Lotus. The Lovecraftean themes of many Greek bands are attributed to some of his influence, the drum machine and other plastique traits of many are definitely the result of his Storm Studios crib, infamous for how some great Greek metal records have been recorded there, yet without a drum room (hence the drum machine, see?). Also in the completely Greek idiom, he is often mocked for the exact same reasons.

I wouldn't say Necromantia have been the pinnacle of consistency in their career, but they certainly have done better than most other Greek black metal bands, and with a self-assured respect for their past. Not really much more to say on this because Necromantia are very well known, if you're reading this you probably own 'Scarlet Evil Witching Black' anyway.

In The Weep of the Ocean (1997)

It's an integral part of explaining the Greek black metal scene of 1990-2000 to include one of the many keyboard-only intros or outros so here's Lloth (later became Astarte) with their ocean tears. Astarte were also a Magus Wampyr Daoloth-touched project, most remembered for being an all-female black metal band at one point. They later became much more 'professional' but in my opinion to their detriment, which I guess is the overarching theme of this whole compilation!


Aesop said...

Awesome, thanks. To me Kawir sound like an updated take on the classic Greek bands, but obviously my ears aren't as trained as Mr. Helm's in such matters of Hellenic darkness. Thanks, Helm, for this great piece, and thanks Shelby for hosting it.

Helm said...

Depends on which era of the classic Greek bands really. Kawir *do* sound like Varathron, just not the early Varathron or to say it in a different way both Kawir and late Varathron sound like Norwegian bands which is the problem.

Shelby Cobras said...

All credit goes to Helm on this one, dude.
Great tunes and epic imagery. I was especially stoked on the prospect of swarthy black metal fisherman and reptoid Hitler influencing the minds and songwriting of impressionable Greek metal youth.
2 questions for Helm: Are you responsible for the cover art? Also, what dies the cover say? My Greek is a little rusty.

PS Aesop: You're on my list to do one of these things eventually, too.

Shelby Cobras said...

dies = does

Helm said...

Yes I am responsible for the cover art.

On the top it says GREEK BLACK METAL, in greeklish.

The off-panel voice says "Pano, come eat your yogurt!" and Panos replies "not now mom, we're doing the photo shoot!"

And below it reads "A Blaze in the Pagrati Sky". Pagrati being in downtown Athens, I guess a similar thing is the name of the old blog "A Blaze in the New Jersey Sky", just emphasizing the absurdity of it all.

I am not making fun with the cover in a mean-spirited way, it's funny because it's true is all. I have taken part to similar photo shoots in the forest with fake guns pointed at stray dogs and whatnot. Tender memories.

Helm said...

Oh and it's hard to make out, but that bullet belt is made out of AA batteries. It all photocopies the same in stark black and white anyway. True story.

Shelby Cobras said...

Haha, that's hilarious, especially the bit about the yogurt. No surprises about the double A batteries, Max Cavalera talks about doing the same thing in the early days of Sepultura on that Global Metal doc...

atanamar said...

Shit, this is awesome. Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Love to filosophize on that topic: the cultural differences in black metal - norwegian/french/greek/polish...

danraskin said...

helm -

excellent write up, i'm very excited to give this a listen.

your write-up on Legion of Doom reminds me of something I've been rather curious about, and I'm wondering if you can shed some light.
For the past year or so, I've been reading news from Greece concerning all sorts of student/anarchist/anti-fascist conflicts. In the English-speaking, anarchist oriented news that I read, much has been made of a burgeoning fascist/anti-immigration wing in Greek politics, many organizations having ties to influential politicians and police departments, etc.
I'm wondering if and how these apparent political divides are reflected in the music scene. Clearly have been bands such as Legion of Doom that affiliate themselves with right wing political organizations, and no doubt there are legions of anarchist crust bands championing the students...
is this still (or has it ever been) a meaningful divide in the greek music scene? are well known metal outfits like Dead Congregation completely unassociated with politics? is there any punk/metal unity? Am I completely off the mark here? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

PS, I thoroughly dig your blog a-sides b-sides. it's lovely.

Helm said...

danraslin (Dan Raslin?), thank you for the kind words.

There are certainly enduring ties between the Greek neo-nazi organizations and the government. They're certainly the favorite sons of the police. They're a tool of the 'para-state' (I'm not sure how well this translates, something like "The abberant state" or "The other state") a shadow government that uses illegal ends to carry out the means of the legit government, I'm pretty sure this is a common enough concept.

They are used to weaken reactionary (or sometimes not) political left-wing movements through diffusional straight-ahead street conflict during riots, often with the help and protection of the police. Sometimes there's acts of provocation staged by them and then left on the doorstep of the left-winged parties. Pitting the comfortable middle-class worker against the more extreme left-wing aspects is the main focus of these provocations.

The neo-nazis themselves are only a symptom of a larger disease, sadly a lot of the more trigger-happy left-winged elements that enjoy the violence and conflict as much as the skinheads do tend to focus on 'how to destroy the neo-nazis' instead of focusing on how to subvert the power structures that lend credibility and support to them. Again I am sure this is a very common thing in any country with social unrest.

There has been a discrete rise of nationalist sentiment in Greece in the last ten years, with all the cultural paraphernalia such a rise usually brings, like a lot of sub-literature about Ancient Greeks Being The Most Awesome (and/or coming from Alpha Centauri) and of course there is a reflection of all of this in Heavy Metal, itself given to extreme notions and some times ideologies. I would not say however that this rise adds up to very much in purely political pressure, but on communicational terms they have a lot of influence because they are very loud.

Greece is usually ten years too late when it comes to borrowing cultural movements from abroad, so we are now seeing the rise of 'hatecore' (or NS black metal or whatever) with organizations that try to use this sort of music as propaganda. It's almost like the Greeks saw American History X and thought 'man, a subculture based around hate music seems cool, let's do it!'. Legion of Doom were distinctive in that they were *very early*, even in international terms.

I can tell you that there's certainly a way to get a whole bunch of people to listen and promote your band for free if you are loudly NS, and that's the secret behind all NS scenes around the world really.

There are crusty anarchist bands that champion the opposite politics, yes.

As to a divide in a music scene, keep in mind that I personally do not belong to any scene so I can't really answer. What I can tell you is that by-and-large, Heavy Metal is the domain of extremists (or sometimes extremists-only-in-talk-not-action) in Greece, so there's a very strong racist/bigoted aspect to it, and some volatile neo-Marxist aspect to it, both of which I generally find unfortunate because HM doesn't lend itself well to ideology (as it is an exploration of the inside, not the outside world) so I find all of these social games and diversions from what HM is trying to do to a listener.

Dead Congregation are not visibly and loudly part of any fascist or leftist movement, I do not know their personal politics and the little I've talked with Anastasis he seemed like a very driven man as far as death metal goes, but I do not know anything about his positions on immigration or Greek ancestry. If such things as not listening to music by bigots matter to you you're probably safe with Dead Congregation. But they do seem to hate Christianity, or is that a benign hatred that we're all used to now because we've listened to HM for so long?

meatstupid said...

helm -

Excellent insights! It's good to hear such a perspective on Greek social politics--most of my info has come either from independent news sources interested in demonizing the police state/fascist elements and championing student/anarchist actions as some kind of peoples uprising without any kind nuanced analysis as to how these social elements actually function, or from mainstream coverage which tends to denigrate any kind of heated social conflict as evidence of incivility.

As for heavy metal, interesting thoughts about Greece's cultural landscape in a global context. The prevalence of extremist content in metal is, of course, unsurprising. I assumed that the fellows Dead Congregation lay their souls down before the deities of death metal rather than their ancestors, and was more wondering if their dedication to the genre was cause enough for people to associate them with some kind of NS ideals.

I suppose my main line of inquiry regarding the music scene is whether if the metal scene's predilection for bigoted/nationalist extremes has an influence on these political elements. In my experience in the United States, hardcore/crust scenes tends to siphon people towards left wing political action more frequently than skinhead/BM does for right wing politics. Although both extremes are generally politically marginalized,yada yada... wondering if this was similar/reversed in Greece. Your response definitely shed some light on the subject.

Although I find myself far to the left of the political spectrum, I'm not looking avoid any bands based on their ideology (currently listening to Arghoslent...)

Thanks again for enlightening an ignorant American! Looking forward to hearing this mix you posted, if only i can get this thing to download...

Helm said...

As far as I can peer into a mind of a bigot I don't think NS music *makes* for neo-nazis. I think that neo-nazis seek out and find music that suits their predisposition. Perhaps on a formative level an extreme person looking for a way to brand themselves as extreme might be indoctrinated via NS music into some organization, but I think those people would end up violent social elements either way, it doesn't say much to me if they're going to be cracking heads for Marx or for Reptoid Hitler.

Art seems a reflection of past and future, it doesn't lead a society through change because largely society isn't aware of its avant-garde art anyway.

That is to say, I'm pretty sure that the heads of nazi organizations in Greece do not listen or perhaps aren't even aware of the specifics when it comes to NS black metal.

I hope *some* of the mirror links to the compo work for you.

Thank you for the interesting dialogue.

Grk! said...

An extremely enlightening post. I've been enjoying some of the featured band for a while & am keen to hear the rest. Cheers!

WOM said...

Aesop your blog is GREAT.

Helm's artwork and write up is very much to my liking!

I didnt knew that he had such plans when he asked me for a collection though :-)

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