An unfortunate side-effect of not being omniscient is that I have not listened to the back catalogues of every band that I receive promos for. Sometimes this results in a large amount of unnecessary griping from fanboys on forums, and sometimes this means that I’m taken completely by surprise by an album that might not be as good as a band’s earlier work, but as it’s the first thing I’ve heard I can laud it as an amazing album. Of course, this leaves a listener in an odd place, as one has nothing to compare the music with or a style-reference. I feel like I’m wandering in pretty blind with the band Dark Fortress who has a new album called Ylem on the way (or out, depending on when you’re reading this), as the band has been around in the German scene since 1994, that’s 16 years of releases that I’ve never heard.
At first I was unimpressed. Dark Fortress, at first blush, just sounded like another black metal band to me. Blasting, coupled with atmospheric keyboards and trem-picked guitars and the girl from The Exorcist on vocals. You know the sound as well as I do, I’m sure: it’s a sound that was amazingly novel when I first listened to Emperor, Borknagar and Arcturus back in my chrysalis-stage but that has been getting more and more stale as the years move on. The similarity to Emperor and earlier Dimmu Borgir isn’t lost on the listener, really. The style is straight forward.
Fortunately one doesn’t write reviews after the first listen. The more I have listened to this record the more impressed I am with the depth and the originality that is exhibited within a genre that is actually quite banal in its old age. While the band hasn’t taken to the minimalistic 14-minutes-of-boring approach that so many modern black metal bands have taken, they’ve continued with the older style and they’ve improved on it by making sure that while their songs are heavy and interesting they still have good hooks. Sure, most black metal guys wouldn’t think of them as hooks, but that’s what they are. They have subtle groove, subtle melodies and a lot of texture that is perfectly mixed to not be so obvious or straightforward.
I was especially impressed by the uncommon approach to black metal drums, that is, the half-time blast drummer Seraph uses over slower parts. It adds an oddly progressive feel to a sound that is becoming anything but progressive. The guitar work, as well, is understated and melodic while still maintaining the extremity that one would expect from black metal. But mainly, Dark Fortress understands that dynamics make interesting music and that breakneck speed and extremity all the time raise the bar, but don’t necessarily increase the extremity of the final product. Instead, they have a lot of old school groove and simplistic rock style riffs that older fans sometimes miss from modern black metal.
While there is a lot of interesting stuff going on the record, it still feels a bit stale here and there. That’s not to say that there aren’t highlights: “As the World Keels Over,” offers excellent melodic material oddly reminiscent of Dark Tranquillity, mixed with off-time blast. “Evenfall” is a compelling doomy track which is offset a couple tracks later by the black metal theme “Satan Bled”, a song that is probably killer live. These strong songs are offset by the record dragging on, however. The band probably could’ve cut 3 tracks off and produced a perfectly timed album that didn’t overstay its welcome. Instead, the album clocks in at 70 minutes.
Ylem is an interesting, sinisterly dark record, and it’s worth giving a shot as a fan of black metal. I don’t hear a lot of black metal that really sells itself these days, and on a dry run Dark Fortress has made a pretty good sales pitch for themselves. To be sure I’d go back and check out their discography, but this record is probably as good as any to check out. What the band is doing is no longer cutting edge extremity, but I guess neither is black metal.