His eyes are deep black pools, but upon pulling back I spy a familiar countenance. “Holy shit, Mysticism Black!” I exclaim. “How you been, dude? Haven’t seen you in forever!” Well, maybe not forever. About ten years ago I ordered a copy of Ceremonial Castings‘ Salem 16921 on CD and received a free copy of Black‘s 2006 debut The Dark Erudition along with it. The inclusion wasn’t surprising considering Black is essentially the solo project of “OldNick,” who was Castings‘ keyboardist up until their dissolution in 2014. Erudition was a bit different than the theatrical symphonic black metal of Castings and sounded more like raw black metal with occasional symphonic flourishes. Thirteen years later, “OldNick” has recruited former Ceremonial Castings drummer “Blood Hammer” for sophomore album Return of the Bestial Flame. But does Flame reignite the passion of yesteryear or merely linger like an awkward conversation with an old acquaintance you ran into at the grocery store?
One thing that’s immediately apparent is that Flame is both better produced and more layered than the debut. The sound is cleaner and the keyboards are both more prominent and used more frequently, bringing Black much closer to Castings‘ sound. The riffing is also more diverse and occasionally pretty spectacular. No song showcases this better than first proper track “Return of the Bestial Flame.” Beginning with potent ascending tremolos, the song soon slows into a monumental progression before hitting an ambient interlude and then riding out its second half with an absolutely glorious melodic riff. The keyboards twinkle through it all before crystallizing into a salient melody for a final march to the finish, over which OldNick screams “The return of the bestial flame!” in a scathing rasp. It’s a terrific 14 minutes that’s sure to earn the attention of any Emperor fans in the audience.
Whenever I hear a new album, especially one that begins so strongly, I always hold out hope I’ve got the next 4.5/5.0 on my hands. But things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and often the signs were there from the start. Despite how great it is, the melodic riff of “Flame” is repeated far too much and the issue of repetition only becomes more debilitating as the album progresses. “The Blade Unsheathed” offers some interesting variety with its weird trip-hop opening, but its twangy Oriental melody quickly goes from cool to tiring when it utterly dominates the second half of the song’s 11-minute runtime. Closer “Glory Beyond Life (Power Beyond Death)” supplants black metal altogether and is essentially a 9-minute outro of rich keyboards and whooshing ambiance that sounds like the second-to-last level of your favorite mid-2000s RPG. It’s a decent ending but also quite repetitive, as the rhythm is unwavering and the primary vocals are OldNick simply croaking out the track title ad nauseam.
Other songs face different issues. “The Black Never Dies” is the least melodic of the bunch and smothers the listener with heavy, suffocating riffs that are far less interesting than the other songs. Likewise, the twinkling keyboards sometimes feel at odds with the guitars and repetition again becomes an issue in the second half. “My Lord” is a re-recording from the debut and while it’s a decent little cut, it’s much less melodic and interesting than the other songs here. Fortunately, none of these songs are outright bad and the “fantasy realm” atmosphere that OldNick conjures with his melodies and keyboards is pretty intriguing. Despite the compression, the production manages to effectively convey all elements and never feels exhausting.
Return of the Bestial Flame is a frustrating album with some good ideas and a lot of potential. It’s got plenty of diversity, a rich atmosphere, and flows well from front to back. Yet it’s also highly uneven and mired in repetition. With tighter songwriting and more quality riffs, Mysticism Black could have given us something truly amazing. As it is, this is like finding your high school valedictorian working the night shift at your local Burger King. You know the potential is there for something much greater, and yet things just didn’t quite work out. The album isn’t bad and I’d still encourage curious symphonic black metal fans to give it a listen. Unfortunately, its flaws hinder my enjoyment far too much to warrant a stronger recommendation.