I loved Bathory growing up. I mean, I REALLY loved me some Bathory! That crazy Quorthon and his one man band really tore it up while basically giving birth to the black, folk and viking metal genres all by his lonesome. However, A.B. (After Bathory), many one man bands rose up in the frozen, gloomy black metal basements of the world, some good, many not. Therefore, when I heard that long running Norwegian black metal act Limbonic Art was now essentially reduced to a one man project for co-founder Daemon, I was more than slightly uneasy about the release of this, their seventh album, Phantasmagoria. Further enhancing my unease was the advance word that the album would again feature a drum machine (a long running negative for this band). With unease and hesitation upon all our minds (or at least mine), here we go.
Limbonic Art was always a pretty raw black metal band with very clear classic/symphonic elements, but they never strayed anywhere near the level of Dimmu Borgir or other overly symphonic, polished acts. Additionally, Limbonic Art was always exceptionally proficient at creating a real atmosphere of evil and ugliness on past albums, which is so crucial to the entire black metal experience. Happily, these elements have managed to survive on Phantasmagoria, to one degree or another, despite the shift to one man DIY.
What becomes pretty obvious on Phantasmagoria is that the new Limbonic Art sound is way more stripped down and simpler than in the past. There are still symphonic elements, but to a lesser extent than ever before. This album is a more primal version of their sound and it works very well on most of the tracks.
Things, however, get off to a pretty rough start with the opening title track. It opens with hyper-speed, ugly black blasting, but gets badly undercut by an enormously ill-conceived and fruity keyboard flourish with matching vocals that sound like they belongs on Broadway in Mama Mia. Although the song changes gears and morphs into a creepy, atmospheric plodder, that damn flourish just ruins this song and I couldn’t take it seriously. Mercifully, things get back on track thereafter and “Curse of the Necromancer,” “Crypt of Bereavement” and “Dark Winds” are all stellar examples of bleak, raw evilness, and some of the better black metal I have heard in some time (“Dark Winds” standing out for its slow and evil vibe).
The production here is pitch perfect for black metal histrionics, with an under-produced raw sound that isn’t so murky and crappy that the music is lost in a frosty haze. Likewise, the album artwork is very cool and well suited to the mood of the music. In fact, it may be one of my favorites in a while.
Now, for the downsides. One is the drum machine. I’m very down on the programmed drum machine thing. It feels cold and emotionless and not in the cool, frowning, black metal way either. While the drum sound here is slightly less robotic than on some albums, I still wish they had a real drummer. Secondly, the best material is all jammed into the first half of the album, with the second half being nowhere near as impressive. That isn’t to say that Phantasmagoria is only half good, just that one half is noticeably superior to the other. Lastly, that goddamn flourish in the title track!! ( Sorry, it bothered me that much.)
Overall, this is a pretty respectable return for Limbonic Art and most of my fears about the quality were unfounded. If you like your black metal raw, but still containing melody, you will probably appreciate this. I’ll always prefer their first few albums, but I think Phantasmagoria will live in my iPod and get some respectable playtime as well (except that opening track).