I’d like to take a moment to discuss production as a stylistic choice in black metal. No, this isn’t a Metal-Fi article, but it’s relevant to the review, I promise you. You see, when black metal, as we now know it, got its start with the second wave in the 90s, one of the prevailing characteristics was the crappy low fidelity production. This was an offspring of the classic punk attitude, spitting in the face of what was considered good-by societal law. The price and availability of decent recording equipment also played its part in creating the thin, distorted and treble-laden sound, but black metal bands liked the raw and distanced aesthetic, arguing in favor of its evil characteristics. Varg of Burzum actually stabbed his equipment (among other things) to get the kind of sound he wanted.
Fast forward 20 years. Decent production is relatively cheap and easy to come by, and black metal has grown up. Listening to Enslaved, Deathspell Omega, or Immortal now makes it obvious that an evil tone and master is something you can achieve without sacrificing sound quality. A dynamic production suited for black metal can actually increase and enhance the inherent unease of the genre. Yet, there are still persevering atavists like Uburen, whose primary goal seems to be emulating the aural mutilation of Norway ca 1993. Fra Doden sounds like an ancient industrial vacuum cleaner is misbehaving and grandpa is trying to rhythmically hammer it into obedience. At least grandpa has a decent snarl.
Even disregarding the production aesthetic, which has all the relevance of a joke about Jay Leno’s chin, there is not much to love about Fra Doden Fodes Liv. The modus operandi here: either finding one marginally interesting riff and beating you over the head with it until you’re fed up (“Red Dawn” and “I Hail”) or finding none at all (“Som Var,” “Martyrens Kammer,” and “Nokken”). The rest of the running time is filled up with blastbeats of varying speed and intensity, but without enough contrasting dynamics this tactic suffers diminishing returns quickly. If it weren’t for the hysterical snarls, which are rather effective, it would even come across as toothless, as most of the tracks never carry enough power to succeed on raw aggression alone. Only closer “Our Land on Fire” works up the steam to triumph on those grounds. It ties for best track with “Red Dawn,” which has a good Viking riff as the main attraction.
And this is where we come back around to the topic at hand because it is my sincere belief that a good production, with both body and venom, would have made a lot of difference here. The thin sound and overbearing distortion transform the blastbeats into static from a broken TV, while it could have been a spiked sledgehammer to the face. The increased detail would have gone a long way to decrease, if not erase, the monotony that pervades the album. It would never have been a masterpiece, there’s not enough memorable material for that. But turning the detached blasts into precision bombardments means it could be enjoyable, a quality it now sorely lacks.
Still, the philosophy behind doing this in 2016 eludes me. A decent production is attainable even for unsigned bands and many classic black metal bands have demonstrated the merits of a tailored sound. The sole remaining reason is spitting in the face of society, but that line of reasoning is 20 years out of date. At this point, it’s not even aping the bands you love; it’s aping their descendants. Multiple layers of copycatting seem to me the very antithesis of what black metal is about. I trust the kvlt, the grim and the frostbitten will eat this up regardless and I will be decried as the mainstream reviewer who just doesn’t get it, man. And maybe they’re right. After all, I was a toddler during the second wave and have no nostalgia for it. But whether I listen to the album on its terms or my own, I come to the same conclusion: Fra Doden is not worth the time or money.