I find black metal deeply polarizing. While helplessly captivated by the cold, desolate aura of much of the genre’s higher quality output, I also find myself mind-numbingly frustrated when magnificent records are in my view ruined by intentionally dreadful production, sounding as though they were recorded not in a studio but rather in a metal bin at the bottom of a distant lake (Transilvanian Hunger anyone?). Founded in Bergen in the early nineties by frontman Aphazel, the aptly-named Ancient have been diligently plying their trade for almost a quarter of a century now, establishing a back catalogue of uncharacteristically lush-sounding black metal and recruiting a small but loyal following along the way. The band’s most recent offering Back to the Land of the Dead constitutes their seventh full-length studio album and their first new material in over 12 years, so the pressure is on for Ancient to satisfy their eagerly expectant fanbase. The question is: have they delivered?
Not entirely. Stylistically Back to the Land of the Dead is a continuation of Ancient’s established formula, which falls somewhere in the middle of an Immortal/Bathory/Khold venn diagram. Emphasis is placed on a more considered and melodic approach to black metal than is common, managing to avoid descending into the kind of tiresome shriek-fest that epitomizes the genre’s default setting. Although admirable, for this strategy to work requires a solid sense of compositional flair, and this is ultimately Ancient’s downfall. Despite the evident proficiency of individual band members as instrumentalists, the standard of songwriting is patchy at best. While punctuated with a selection of genuinely enjoyable tracks, Back to the Land of the Dead also showcases some absolute clunkers that should have been canned long before the recording studio time was booked. This leaves us with a record of near maddening inconsistency, drunkenly lapsing between the inspired and the tedious, and rendering a significant portion of the album’s 70-minute runtime more of an endurance test than a pleasure.
Curiously, the weighting of Back to the Land of the Dead is also noticeably unbalanced, with the strongest material found almost exclusively on the first half of the album, thereby painting a distorted picture of what is set to follow, building the listener’s hopes up before dropping them on their face at around the 35-minute mark. It’s not that the second half is truly terrible – goodness knows worse has been peddled as music – but it’s just not particularly interesting. The effect this has however is that when the 70 minutes are up, one’s overriding memory of the record will always be the slightly naff second half as opposed to the more formidable first, and this hardly entices the listener to dive back in for round two.
Production-wise is where Ancient excel and Back to the Land of the Dead is no exception. All of the instruments have a rounded, organic feel, there’s a satisfying crunch to the guitar tone and the pleasing absence of any of the tinny, stripped back kvlt bollockry alluded to earlier results in a record that sounds genuinely lovely. Highlights include opener “Land of the Dead,” “The Empyrean Sword” and the stomping “Occlude the Gates,” and while all of the instrumental performances are impressive, a salient nod must be accorded to journeyman drummer Nicholas Barker for his work behind the kit. Having collaborated with numerous notable acts over the course of his career, including the likes of Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth and Brujeria, Barker puts in a cracking performance, marching even the weaker tracks forward with just the right measure of embellishment and flair, so as to complement his bandmates’ performances without overshadowing them. Barker is a consummate professional and a veteran of the circuit, and his work on Back to the Land of the Dead showcases his skills to a tee.
Make no mistake about it, this is a deeply frustrating album. If the quality of the entire record were up to the standard of the first half then, while it would by no means constitute a future classic, I could heartily recommend it nonetheless. As it is however, it’s simply a bit hit and miss. Existing fans of Ancient will probably lap it up, and there is genuinely plenty to enjoy, but its inconsistency is its undoing, ending with a whimper rather than a roar.