Satyricon is an album that desperately wants to show its true nature, but remains shackled to the past.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Satyricon’s leader and chief songwriter Satyr, aided and abetted by drummer Frost, has always tried to keep his band as an evolving entity. Satyr’s artistic choices have come at a cost, however, as Satyricon have divided opinions since the beginning of the new millennium with the release of the industrialized black metal of 1999’s Rebel Extravaganza. The Thorns-inspired follow up to the now classic Nemesis Divina left the second wave of black metal behind and Satyricon went on to create a (sort of) trilogy of albums which took black metal back to its rock ‘n’ roll roots; spanning 2002’s Volcano, 2006’s Now, Diabolical and 2008’s The Age of Nero.
From Volcano to ...Nero, the tangled structures and copious tempo changes were phased out – much to the added chagrin of fans of the band’s first three albums – and in came the stomp of AC/DC dragged down a highway to hell by the blasphemous hooks of Venom and early-Bathory. But while Now, Diabolical was like a brick to the face in terms of its refusal to vary from monochromatic, mid-paced tempos and brute force musicianship, by the time The Age of Nero came around this formula had started to sound drained of its vitality and it felt as if Satyr and Frost had trapped themselves stylistically. Both musicians must have been conscious of this too, as Satyricon’s new, self-titled full-length is the first album to be released by the band in five years – a lifetime when you consider the prolificacy at which the band released its albums previously. Time was indeed needed to re-evaluate Satyricon and what move to make next, and the result of this extended break is an album that puts into effect a noticeable shift in sound that, while not as striking as the leap between Nemesis Divina and Rebel Extravaganza, does arch a few eyebrows.
When an established band announces that its new album will be eponymously titled, it is usually a fraught attempt by an ailing band to slap former fans around their lugholes to start paying attention again, or it reflects a “this is who we really are” statement of intent, which ultimately turns out to be a farce. Interestingly, Satyricon’s self-titled album doesn’t feel like either of those scenarios. This isn’t your typical brash and confrontational Satyricon album, and the über-confident persona that Satyr used to love to shove down our throats through his music (and interviews) is markedly absent. Introspective and as twee as a black metal album could possibly sound without becoming explicitly folk, there is an earthly gloom ensconcing this album. One of the major reasons for this atmosphere, outside of the songwriting itself, is the band’s decision to go with analog recording. And while analog does give Satyricon the individuality the band so consciously desired for this release, the choice isn’t entirely successful across the album as a whole.
Analogue recordings bring to mind the musty noise of progressive rock and the experimentalism of the musicians of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Transfer this to a modern metal band whose fortress is defended with the weaponry of harsh vocals and combative blastbeats, and the reserved temperament of analogue cushions the impact and bestiality of Frost’s double-kick patterns, thus eliminating its power. This is glaring during the tracks off Satyricon that revert to The Age of Nero school of song-writing, such as “Our World, It Rumbles Tonight” and Celtic Frost-isms of “Walker Upon the Wind”. The tightly wound syncopations of “Our World, It Rumbles Tonight” sound dulled around the edges and “Walker Upon the Wind”, which is as aggressive as this album gets, is muted, and consequentially Satyricon’s usual bite is missing a few incisors. “Nocturnal Flare” fares better, and even though the mid-paced march we’ve come to know as a Satyricon trait lacks the militaristic fire needed, the vocal hooks and the almost Horseback-esque guitar-work are a seductive amalgam.
It is during the more reserved songs that the production really accentuates the melancholy and hypnotic pull of this album. Following the yawn-inducing instrumental opener “Voice of Shadows”, “Tro og Kraft” is a haunting example of Satyricon’s reinvention, and it is one of the songs that best suit the organic sonic tapestry. Rasped in his mother tongue, Satyr’s coarse vocals compliment the doleful mood set by the simple music, and the textured use of minimalism and space contrasts nicely with the Burzumic riffs. Additionally, “The Infinity of Time and Space”, for all its seemingly unrelated sections, is also quite engrossing, and the industrious pump of an organ during “Natt” is a welcome feature which could have been explored further.
At the pith of Satyricon, however, is a collection of experimental rock songs which have been masked by the tenets of black metal. The band’s new will peers out during the catchy, punk-up “Nekrohaven” and “Ageless Northern Spirit” and is naked and exposed during the album’s midpoint curveball, “Phoenix”; a song sung exclusively by Norwegian artist Sivert Hoyem, the former frontman of Norse rock band Madrugada. “Phoenix” sum ups exactly what Satyr wanted to do with this entire album but was too afraid to chance at the risk of alienating his band’s fanbase. In fact, the odd decision to include unnecessary double-kick rhythms during the verses highlights this caution. Yet as far as contemporary hard rock goes, “Phoenix” is as good as you are likely to hear this side of Baroness, and when Hoyem takes the lead during the song’s propulsive chorus it becomes clear that “Phoenix” is the purest and best song on this album.
Eager to shed skin and break free from black metal’s chokehold yet scared to fully embrace the void, Satyricon is a cautious album with an experimental edge. The majority of riffs share similar phrasing throughout and the band’s overall use of restraint may be misinterpreted as boredom, as one man’s minimalism is another man’s tedium. It will no doubt become a divisive release in the grand scheme of Satyricon’s discography and metal in 2013, but all art should split opinion, and if Satyr and Frost take what they have begun here and boldly embrace what currently makes them passionate about music, we could have something really special on our hands. For now, Satyricon is an album that desperately wants to show its true nature, but remains shackled to the past.