Thursday, August 4, 2011
Review: Dissection - Storm of the Light's Bane
When I first got this album, I didn't pay it nearly enough attention. I think this was due to my background in hardcore punk, a subculture burdened with a lot of musical prejudices and inhibitions. With its polished production and flamboyant fretwork, Storm... struck me as something I couldn't quite take seriously. It didn't fit my notion of what truly grim, aggressive music should sound like. I was also a bit disappointed with the riffing. True to punk form, I virtually ignored the leads in favor of the rhythm parts, which I thought should be the "meat" of any heavy music. Many of these struck me as too standard. The most obvious example of this is the cliche thrash riff that begins "Night's Blood." Perhaps it poisoned my reception of the rest of the album? Over the last couple years Dissection grew on me, but I continued to compare them unfavorably with their fellow-travelers in the Swedish scene (see my True Black Metal, Part 2 post). Now I have seen the light, er, darkness.
Over the last couple weeks, I have played this album over and over and over again. I felt so stupid for neglecting it. In fact, I think Storm... has become one of my "go-to" black metal albums, on par with Gorgoroth's Under The Sign of Hell. I couldn't decide on a favorite song...each time I listened, I would hear new depth and power in every track. One day I'd go back and listen again to my old standard "Soulreaper," the next I'd be drooling over "Unhallowed" or "Retribution." What was I hearing, that I wasn't when I first listened ?
First, Dissection is grim as fuck and aggressive as all hell. Jon Nodtveidt's flair for melody only adds to the absolutely ripping feel of the music. And the fancy production doesn't detract from it. In fact, it's an essential part of the package. Every note is placed so carefully that the music would lose something if it wasn't as clear as a glacial lake. And, uh, the vocals dude. The vocals. There is nothing remotely accessible about this album, because Jon is standing athwart the gates and snarling like a three-headed hound.
Second, Dissection are brilliant riffwriters. The thing is, the rhythm parts aren't the center of the music, and attempting to treat them as such (as I did) will only make you miss the point. At its heart, Storm of the Light's Bane is about harmonized lead melodies, from the repetitive keening of "Where Dead Angels Lie" to the ecstatic frenzy of the chorus in "Soulreaper." As far as rhythm riffs go, Jon does indeed use a lot of standard patterns, but he gives us new versions of these riffs that are full of personality. They're also usually better than the originals. And you can't talk about Dissection's songwriting without talking about their gift for arrangement. In an album this riffy, it's a wonder the songs don't fall apart. Instead, each passage flows into the next one with the inexorability of fate. Through this deft sequencing Dissection multiply their riffpower and build grand narratives. Everything is going somewhere, and it's always exciting to hear what comes next.
Third, Dissection is easily confused with pretentious bands because they have a common ambition. The difference is that Dissection actually pull it off. They're not pretending to be shredmasters with the souls of Romantic composers, that's what they actually are. For Metallica, those florid lead embellishments and quasi-medieval acoustic interludes were moments of unintentional comic relief in the midst of bloated pop-thrash songs. For Dissection, they're part and parcel of a fully realized vision. Sure, Dissection write polished and sophisticated music. Sure, they completely disregard punk (read: modernist) hangups about "good taste." It doesn't make the music any less worth taking seriously.
Re-listening to Dissection reminded me that every album is a singular phenomenon, and you can never go into a listening experience simply hoping for the music to conform to your ideas of what it should be. Great music always confounds expectations and complicates assumptions. When I heard this for the first time, I was so wrapped up in my (newly formed) ideas about what black metal should be that I forgot to hear Dissection telling me what it is.