Old school death metal holds few surprises. Much like Nightwishcore or stoner metal, its sound is so well established that any deviations from the tried and true standard swiftly take it out of the OSDM sphere into modern death, melodic death, or other variations on the theme. If you want to retain that old school buzzsaw to the cranium feel, yet add a different element, you need something that supports the dirty, grimy nastiness with something of a similar murk. Hailing from Estonia,1 Swarn try to adhere to this requirement by mixing a little crust into their OSDM sound. Is it enough to make Black Flame Order stand out from the pack?
If you’re gonna cross over OSDM without losing what makes it OSDM, crust is clearly a solid choice, as Swarn aptly demonstrate over the course of the short album. The blunt riffing and gnarly guitar sound have remained fully intact, as have the raw gurgles of the vocals. The drums are where the crust influence is most immediately recognizable, trading in straightforward blasting for the familiar double strike gallops of D-beat. It makes for a more dynamic foundation than the usual relentless yet monotone assault of the skins (or as one of my friends calls it, yakketakketak drumming). Adding further variation are some black metal inspired tremolo leads, mostly employed on the mid-paced tracks where the D-beat drumming is either absent or less effective. Swarn know exactly how to most effectively blend their influences to avoid being straight copycats of a well-established scene.
And largely, this approach works well for the band. The songs adhere to simple structures and half of them don’t even cross the three-minute mark. It makes for quick, tasty snacks that avoid outstaying their welcome. The growls are rancid and quite effective, and there’s a cool surprise in a dose of regal Shagrath-like semi-cleans on closer “Enlightenment From the Dark.” Black Flame Order even contains some variations in tempo, as “The Otherness” plays with an ominous tremolo that leans more towards blackened death-doom than anything resembling punk hysteria. Aside from such variations, the ten songs do suffer a little from sounding much like one another, but with such concise writing, it doesn’t become much of an issue.
Yet Black Flame Order does not inspire me, and it’s initially hard to pinpoint why. The production choices are certainly not out of the ordinary for OSDM. The guitars are thick and grimy, like propelling an alligator through a swamp with a chainsaw, and they largely push the bass out of the mix. The drums are a little more forward here than usual, possibly to stress that D-beat, but thankfully not annoyingly so, and the mastering has not reduced them to cardboard. However, the de-emphasization of the riffs creates a bit of a void in the hook department. Most of the riffs are fairly cut and dry as well, with few inspired licks to turn your head. It’s a demonstration of how much the basic tenet of riff quality influences the enjoyment of the overall product. With that single element the least noteworthy on the album, it decreases its enjoyability from a confident “fuck yeah” to a more ambivalent “it’s alright, I guess.”
There is a lot to love on Black Flame Order for old school death enthusiasts. Burly growls, dynamic drumming, concise writing and ragged guitars all contribute to an album that’s familiar yet tasty in its execution. As a picky consumer of death metal in general, my final score may be harsher than it really deserves. But the hooks are the one thing holding me back on a committed love for Swarn’s new offering. That conclusion should be a message of hope, however. Estonia is not exactly known for its killer metal output (despite Eastern Europe at large being a hotbed for death and black metal), but focusing their further evolution in this one area, Swarn may yet prove to be able to put the tiny country on the metal map.