Samael: Reign of Light

[29 March 2005]

By Adrien Begrand

PopMatters Contributing Editor

As strong as the European heavy metal scene has always been, Switzerland isn’t exactly a country that stands out as being one of the foremost producers of upper-tier contemporary metal bands. Compared to the surplus of talent in the sparsely populated northern country of Finland, commonly known Swiss bands are few and far between. Perhaps it has to do with the country’s stable, politically neutral history, which after centuries of peace, as one Harry Lime put it, yielded only the cuckoo clock. Although the über-cheesy Krokus will forever remain the one blight on Switzerland’s otherwise small, yet impressive metal resume, when a Swiss band does manage to capture the attention of the worldwide metal audience, chances are they’re awfully damn good. The cerebral ‘90s thrash metal outfit Coroner is a band known by many, but more specifically, there are three Swiss bands whose impact on the genre continues to this day: Hellhammer, who later became Celtic Frost, was the most groundbreaking European underground band in the mid-‘80s, a massive influence on the burgeoning thrash and black metal sounds, and during the ‘90s metal auteurs Samael helped shape today’s sound.

Combining a strong, ornate metal influence with the jarring industrial sounds of Skinny Puppy and Ministry, laced with dashes of ambient keyboards, Samael’s impact on metal during the 1990s was big, setting the template for symphonic black metal stalwarts Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth, as well as the harsher industrial metal of Rammstein. By taking the proto-black metal of the infamous ‘90s act Entombed, and cleaning it up with crystalline production, tight riffs, and thundering, almost robotic midtempo beats, the quartet stripped away the dense layers, helping to take the genre into new territory, and two resulting albums, 1994’s much-loved Ceremony of Opposites and 1996’s Passage, rank as some of the best European metal from that decade.

Nearly six long years after 1999’s Eternal, Samael have made their long-overdue return, and although they’re not as cutting-edge as they were a decade ago, to their credit, they keep taking their sound forward, and their new album Reign of Light packs a mighty punch. Fans who wish they’d return to a more organic metal sound will be disappointed, because the industrial influence has been turned up considerably, as the songs all slog away at the same tempo, rarely wavering from a steady, monolithic stomp, as the guitars churn out simple riffs, and vocalist Vorph growls away with Teutonic-sounding menace. If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like the aforementioned Rammstein, you’re correct, something undoubtedly helped by the fact that the album was mixed by Rammstein member Stephen Glaumann, but thankfully, for the most part, Samael leave their own distinctive mark, adding Middle Eastern musical flourishes to the compositions, as well as sitar and tabla.

Although he sings in a heavily-accented growl that makes Celtic Frost mastermind Tom G. Warrior sound legible, Vorph does possess a strong talent for lyrics, as he brings a refreshing change to the usual nihilism and satanic gimmickry that characterizes most black metal, as songs like “Reign of Light” and “As the Sun” are shockingly positive. “On Earth” is a perceptive meditation on today’s wired world, while on the fiery opener “Moongate”, he borders on new age, musing, “How many nights will we go together questioning eternity about us, about our wonders?”

The star of this album, though, is keyboardist/percussionist/programmer Xy, who keeps the proceedings from becoming monotonous. He provides electronic flourishes to each track, as well as refreshing doses of atmospheric accents throughout the record, best exemplified by “Inch’Allah”, “Reign of Light”, the majestic “Oriental Dawn”, and the eerily gorgeous “Heliopolis”. Everything comes together most perfectly on the single “Telepath”, as Xy adds a strong techno element to the simple metal exercise, his ominous tones dominating the mix, providing a perfect backdrop for Vorph’s vocals, which shine during the surprisingly catchy chorus.

Reign of Light hits a bit of a pothole on “High Above”, which will likely be too close to Rammstein than many would want Samael to be, but overall, the band continues to head in their own, distinctive direction. In fact, as the album closes with “Telepathic”, a stirring electronic remix of “Telepath”, it hints at yet another creative direction the band could head in. Metal is always better when a band like this is around to consistently befuddle fans, and hopefully, it won’t take another six years for their next album to come out. The longer Samael keeps going, the more they do their small country proud.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/samael-reign/