We, as humans, tend to gravitate towards comfort. More often than not, we settle into a nice daily routine, indulge in the same foods, listen to the same bands over and over again, etc. Sure, we can sometimes venture out of our comfortable norms and find some new, exciting things to fawn over, but we have our own little bubbles and dang-nammit, we ain’t leavin’ them! One of those things that has grown comfortable as of late is the variety (or lack thereof) of black metal as a whole. Finnish sometimes-full-band, sometimes-one-man-project Baptism returns after a four-year absence with their fifth album, V: The Devil’s Fire. Where does mainman Lord S. and gang fall on the meter of familiarity?
If you go by second track “Satananda,” things do, indeed, sound promising. After an impressive drum roll by LRH (what the fuck is with black metal musicians and stage names consisting of initials lately?!), we have icy-cold tremolo riffs by Lord S., TG (really?), and SG.7 (REALLY?!), rasping by Lord S., and some deep clean singing performed by Mynni Luukkainen (Horna) to add the necessary hooks needed to keep one’s attention intact. While not entirely original, “Satananda” is performed with enough conviction to keep me pressing on to the remainder of The Devil’s Fire, navigating through the icy plains in hopes that more Finnish evil will catch my ear and win my frost-bitten heart over.
Follow-up track and album highlight “The Sacrament of Blood and Ash” features an amazing clean vocal passage by Mikko Kotamäki (Swallow the Sun), giving the song a blackened Dark Tranquillity vibe. Closer “Buried With Him” brings in eerie keyboards, a slower atmospheric mid-section, and some cavernous growls by Antti Boman (Demilich), adding an incredible doom/death dirge reminiscent of Vainaja. But here’s the problem. Notice how the three best tracks on the album feature guest vocalists? That’s not a coincidence, because with the exception of the vocal performances on those three tracks, The Devil’s Fire is paint-by-numbers black metal. Which is all fine and dandy if that’s your frowning bread and blasphemously frozen butter, but it makes the album feel much longer than its 45-minute runtime, as there’s little variance in the album’s writing besides an ill-sounding lead near the end of “Abyss”, or LRH’s phenomenal blasts and fills (practically every track on here).
The production also does the band no favors whatsoever, being devoid of dynamics and breathing space. Syphon’s (finally, a full stage name!) bass is barely heard but never felt, the guitars feel squashed, and LRH’s maniacal performance is rendered lifeless due to his drums sounding a bit like wet cardboard. But the biggest crime committed by The Devil’s Fire is just how comfortable and familiar it all sounds. Black metal, by its very nature, is rebellious, a spit in the face against convention, and this album feels so safe and docile. With the exception of the guest vocalists and LRH destroying his drumset, I came away from The Devil’s Fire feeling like I’ve heard it all before on my initial listen, and that feeling got worse with each subsequent play-through.
And that’s frustrating as all hell, when you think about it. Baptism has the chops necessary to really floor us, but instead The Devil’s Fire feels like a retread of the genre’s more maniacal heyday. There are things in life that bring me comfort, and black metal shouldn’t ever make me feel comfortable. The Devil’s Fire is just too damn comfortable and familiar to leave a lasting impact.