Black metal has always had a peculiar relationship with the more traditional forms of the genre, especially as the second wave got underway around Europe. Oftentimes, the narrative of the genre was dictated by the extracurricular activities of the bands in question, which is understandable, if not ultimately unfortunate from a musical standpoint. Above everything else, second wave Scandinavian black metal was the most radical iteration of the genre in form while also being the most traditionalist in spirit. It focused on radical tonality – the savage, see-sawing tension between conventional and chromatic forms of melody within the riffs; the emphasis on linking melody together by stringing riffs along in a “storytelling” fashion, untethered by conventional verse/chorus structure (that old “narrative song structure” chestnut) ; that the best works of the genre were born less from plans and schemes, and more from raw intuition & urges, with a sort of focus that entirely eschewed normality. This is all a bit reductive, admittedly, and making a summation of the entire second wave isn’t the purpose of this review. I’m just saying that there’s more of a link between this stuff and older forms of metal, even if sometimes it is in a way that’s more abstracted than others.
In others, it appears in ways that are more overt and obvious. And with that, we now look to today’s subject matter: Dissection’s The Somberlain, the album that, for good and ill, helped define and dictate the course a huge swath of the genre would undertake after it. You’re probably asking yourself why we’re doing this album instead of its successor, the more acclaimed successor in Storm of the Light’s Bane. The reasons aren’t particularly special; I simply find this album a more compulsively re-listenable, more interesting record compositionally, for reasons I’ll be delving into more as this is going on.
Dissection is a peculiar band, in the sense that they originally began as a swedeath band – a trad inflected one, but their earliest demos reflected a songwriting model more in line with Stockholm death than what they transitioned into very quickly. Their style is a juxtaposition of several different lineages of metal – traditional heavy metal, DM, even a little thrash, and of course, black metal tying everything together – that makes this such a fundamentally interesting album. It threatens to unfold into a total fuckin’ mess a lot of the time; it is the band’s sense of arrangement & structure that ultimately binds these disparate strains of the genre together into a great, more focused whole. I harp on this point a lot, but it isn’t an unstructured mess, where the band just slops riffs together and calls it a day; instead, it suggests that Dissection were the heirs to several different strains of the genre, and their ability to reconcile them together into songs with a clear goal is an incredibly rare skill, one that is very easy to take for granted at the end of the day.
Take the album’s opener, “Black Horizons”, as an example – it’s a fairly long song at a little over 8 minutes long; there’s an awful lot of riffs throughout its run time, governed by a largely tradition verse/chorus structure. Dissection’s brilliance is that it never becomes blandly rote or blockish in arrangement; the band surge through their ideas with ferocious enthusiasm from the moment its blazing opening of blasting and straining consonant tremolo riffage lashes out of the speakers. The band barrel through the song with equal parts raw intuition tempered by discipline; the latter never fails to underline the epic, vast scope the song undertakes, especially with a chorus that takes on element so natural that you’d almost mistake it for folk’s simplicity.
There’s a clear line from the intro to the rest of the song that never feels overly labored or predictable. And then it crashes into a bridge that’s one of the single best moments of the genre, a bridge that fully reveals that, if you hadn’t figured it out: Dissection were a heavy band in the physical sense, these riffs taking on absolutely vicious, bludgeoning quality that’s thrashy without being super obvious about it. Nodtveidt’s solo floats above the bedrock of churning riffage, like a demented, saturnine version of the lead phrase that defined Angel Witch’s legendary s/t song (for real, compare the two). And its eventual build up – an acoustic break that absolutely surges into another cutting riff and a falsetto shriek, courtesy of producer Dan Swano, is one of the most startling moments of the record, and another reminder of the band’s traditional bonafides before it and another passage built back into the final verse, its underpinning riff and surging drum beat ever more insistent. It’s an absolute masterpiece of a song, the kind of which you could listen to 10 times in a row and always get lost in.
This sort of compositional brilliance is what defines The Somberlain in a nutshell: it’s a record absolutely packed with brilliant and a ferocious zeal, but these are ultimately tied together by equal parts flair and taste. Lesser bands would take the Maiden influence and use in the tackiest, most saccharine manner possible just to hammer home the idea that they’re melodic/consonant. (see: Dark Tranquility, In Flames etc) For Dissection, it’s simple a natural part of their compositional vision, without ever once coming across as a forced put-on. The title track is another example – that opening harmony is overflowingly melodic, almost threatening to become saccharine – and yet it really doesn’t cross the line, by dint of the way the band handles it. It’s essentially a Maiden-esque harmony that replaces the heroic tenor with an elegiac quality that defines and dominates the track; it helps that it sets the mood and then rapidly cedes ground to the riff that follows, cutting tremolo riffage straining above its thrash beat. The band’s sense of scope and again, flair for the dramatic works because these songs constantly have a sense of momentum – they’re always going somewhere interesting, and the way the band puts these riffs and harmonies together is constantly interesting and evocative. Even despite the relative length of the songs, it’s always exciting to listen to where the band’s taking these songs. Whether it’s the mournful elegance of the aforementioned title track or the vast grandeur of “A Land Forlorn” (equal parts sweeping & humbling), Dissection’s best songs are epic in scope and actual form, without needing to beat you over the head with the obvious signifiers that, yes, indeed, these songs are supposed to be that. They do not need to preen and boast about it; they simple have that quality.
It is certainly a true point that 3 of the first four tracks here are the best songs on the album, certainly, but to write off the rest of The Somberlain is a bit misguided, I feel. It is particularly instructive to note that a lot of the songs on this part of the album see the band ably blend the swedeath elements of some of their demo work, with their trad roots and the way that, again, the black metal ties everything together. A decent number of the riffs on this album have the chromatic, thrashy violence of Swedeath, tempered by the band’s consonant melody & black metal aesthetic. A song like “Shadows Over a Lost Kingdom” or even the bridge of “Heaven’s Damnation” have riffs that, frankly, wouldn’t be unquestionable out of place on a Dismember album, especially the former. It is a sly sort of influence, because the band didn’t downtune by this point and it’s all tied together in a “black metal manner”. But it’s there, and even more readily identifiable when one is able to separate the music from the aesthetic. Albums like this one are actually very instructive in letting you do so, as long as you’re willing to empathize with what the band is articulating, and so it allows to recognize the internal variety of an album, even if it doesn’t seem as such at first glance.
Digression aside, I don’t think there’s really a weak spot on this album, for the most part. The majority of this album is brilliantly urgent in all the right places, and strikingly reflective at others when the band needs to be – the aforementioned “Heaven’s Damnation” blitzes forth with total urgency; not quite blasting but it almost feels faster by dint of the way the guitars strain against the thrash beats, before settling into a trudging bridge that’s more reflective. “Frozen” lives up to its name, a thorny opening harmony that never settles into something quite comfortable before the riff and slanted, side-ways thrashing that underpins the first verse – almost Morbid Angel-ish, albeit in a way that’s not as rhythmically twisted up as that legendary band – before branching into more mid-paced passage and juxtaposing between the two for a bit. Meanwhile, “Mistress of the Bleeding Sorrow” is perhaps the unsung one here – a grimy mournful song that floats out like a bad mood, its opening harmony giving way to surging riffage and thrashing before swaying into another trudging passage.
There’s a sense of pure gloom that underpins the riffs during the chorus that borders hard on doom, for a brief time, underling the sense of sorrow that defines it. Among other things, it can’t really be said that it has two of the coolest solos on the album – Nodtveidt, as young as he was when he recorded the album, already had a fully realized style & approach to lead guitar; a sort of purely elegant sense of melody & care in note choice that underlines and enhances the mood of a song, instead of pointlessly detracting from it via wanky, spasmodic gestures. The way the final solo melts into the final run of the chorus that concludes the song is one of the finest things in its genre. And as for the classical guitar interludes – I actually don’t mind them at all, personally. Some would see them as filler, which is certainly a fair remark to make. I am generally more charitable towards them, however; I tend to find that they work both as brief, discrete little breathers between songs, and their sheer sense of elegance underlines the album’s fundamental sense of – for lack of a better way of putting it, musicality, that made it pretty different from a lot of other black metal around its era. To put it like this: they’d be wildly inappropriate for a Darkthrone, or even a Dawn record, but in the context of this record, they work extremely well.
And for all of that, the band, despite the overwhelming sense of consonant melody that dominates and drives the album, there’s a gracefulness about the way the band composes their songs that’s belied by the exuberant, spirited power that the band evokes, through both writing and performance. It’s juuuust wild enough to avoid the pitfalls that this style of black metal usually suffers from, and even with the shared Iron Maiden influence, it thankfully has little else in common with what Gothenburg melodeath turned into from 1995-on. The first two Dissection albums are brilliant, certainly – but in comparison, this album’s influences are a little more subtly integrated into the writing, and it doesn’t suffer from the occasionally sing-song-y cadences that unfortunately detract from a couple of tracks on that record. (again, though, I do really like Storm, but there’s times where it’s a little too mannered for its own good, despite the obvious songwriting talent at hand for most of that album) They’re both excellent records, but in summation, if you must pick one, go with this record. Even today, despite having known it for most of my years as a metalhead, there’s an enduring brilliance about The Somberlain that endures the test of time. Absolutely brilliant.
Favorite Track: “Black Horizons”
Album rating: 96/100