Yer Metal Is Olde: Nifelheim – Servants of Darkness

There’s something immensely satisfying about listening to musicians who are utterly devoted to their craft. In the realm of blackened thrash, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who fits that description more than Nifelheim’s founding members, Swedish twins Erik “Tyrant” and Per “Hellbutcher” Gustavsson. These are the guys who apparently kicked out their first guitarist for being “wimpy” enough to have a girlfriend, the guys who once claimed that Venom is the most recent band they actually like, the guys whose Iron Maiden obsession is the stuff of legend.1 This intense devotion seems to have manifested itself in a highly abrasive attitude, with the group’s Bandcamp bio consisting of a mere six words: “FUCK OFF! Merchandise? visit our gigs!”

Unsurprisingly, this same intensity carries over into their music. When Tyrant and Hellbutcher formed Nifelheim in 1990, their stated goal was to “play the most brutal and uncompromising music we could think of.” They certainly seemed to achieve that with their 1995 self-titled debut and its follow-up, 1998’s Devil’s Force. But it was their third album, 2000’s Servants of Darkness, where their potential was fully realized. It’s here that the band would temper their rabid energy with musical maturity, when the band would cement their legacy and truly come into their own.

At first listen, Servants is not a memorable album. The riffs are frantic and sometimes borderline atonal, as if written by someone who had nothing more than a used Stratocaster, a mountain of cocaine, and an unhealthy obsession with early Bathory.2 By the same token, it’s almost hard to believe that drummer Martin Axenrot was later picked up by Opeth, because on here he eschews virtually all subtlety and groove in favor of battering blast beats and violent lurches.3 Even when the tempos slow down, as with the pounding verses of “War of Doom (Armageddon)” or the staccato chorus of “Infernal Desolation,” the rhythms still seem to be more concerned with slicing your head off than making you bang it.

And yet, as one listens more, it becomes apparent just how many terrific ideas there are. The main riff of opener “Evil Blasphemies,” for instance, is perhaps the most iconic the group have ever written, to the point where it’s impossible for me to even think about the song without that riff playing in my head. Soon one realizes that nearly every one of these nine tracks has its own standout idea, from the flaying intervals of “Black Evil” to the speed metal galloping of the title track to the subtle melody at the heart of “Bestial Avenger,” which sounds at once eerie and strangely catchy. It doesn’t hurt that the tracks are perfectly sequenced, with slower or more melodic ideas emerging at precisely the right moments to complement what came before. Where at first there was only chaos, soon you start making sense of it all, and it’s at that point you realize it: from front to back, this album fucking rocks.

And yet I haven’t even touched on what really makes Servants work: the performances. Hellbutcher’s vocals are possibly the most unhinged in the genre, with a harsh and scathing rasp that leaves no doubt how deeply his satanic convictions run. His leads are equally scalding, juggling a handful of blistering melodic phrases that perfectly fit the direct material. I already talked about how pummeling Axenrot’s drumming is, but I never mentioned how tight it is, nor did I mention how Tyrant’s bass playing or the rhythm guitars of “Demon” feel like they could induce whiplash. It doesn’t hurt that the production is terrific, with a raw yet clear sound and a fierce guitar tone that I just can’t get enough of.

There’s an addictive and vicious fury here that only comes from bands who believe in what they’re doing to the very core. Servants is not a particularly influential album, nor is Nifelheim a particularly influential band.4 Yet there’s a reason why, even though the group haven’t released a full-length since 2007’s Envoy of Lucifer,5 excitement for them remains at fever pitch.6 Nifelheim play music that feels like a violent expulsion straight from their black hearts, music that had to be made because it could no longer be contained within. While some may think that Tyrant and Hellbutcher’s devotion is over-the-top, there’s no denying it results in incredible music, and there’s no better evidence of this than 2000’s Servants of Darkness—an album that, for many who’ve experienced it, sits alongside Aura Noir’s Black Thrash Attack and Destroyer 666’s Cold Steel… For An Iron Age as one of the greatest fusions of black and thrash metal the world has ever seen.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. Said obsession was documented in a 1998 Swedish television documentary, earning the two the nickname “Bröderna Hårdrock” (“Hard Rock Brothers”). Hellbutcher has separately claimed that he owns around 1,500 Iron Maiden albums and over 1,000 t-shirts, in addition to having seen them live 140 times.
  2. Along with Tormentor’s Anno Domini.
  3. Though he’s no longer in Nifelheim, Axenrot is Bloodbath’s current drummer, so perhaps that lets him get his fix of extreme metal drumming that modern Opeth doesn’t provide.
  4. Other than Slutvomit and to a lesser extent Mordant, there are few modern bands that sound very much like Nifelheim, even if they’re quite well known in the blackened thrash subgenre.
  5. Though, according to their Facebook, they have been working on a new album over the past year.
  6. For evidence of this, just consider their high spot on the roster of Maryland Deathfest XVIII (which was sadly rescheduled to next summer). Likewise, their recent EP The Burning Warpath to Hell apparently sold out of its first vinyl pressing in a matter of hours.
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