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If one was to look at the blueprints for the Norsecore style, three records come to mind instantly. Marduk’s “Heaven Shall Burn…”, Immortal’s “Battles In the North” and Dark Funeral’s “The Secrets Of the Black Arts”. All three laid down the tropes and conventions and are historically important for this reason. While the Marduk and Dark Funeral albums are largely similar in construction and architecture, the Immortal record deviates from the form in terms of music and lyrical subjects. At the same time “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” is interesting because it is the only record of its kind in the now extensive Dark Funeral catalogue. Let’s find out why that is.

Written almost entirely by former Necrophobic co-founder/guitarist David Parland, and recorded (after an aborted session at Unisound with Dan Swano) at Abyss Studios by then up-and-coming producer Peter Tägtgren (Hypocrisy), this is at its heart a much faster, leaner and overall meaner Necrophobic record. A record like this readily proves black metal’s lineage to the earlier death metal format. Squint your eyes and tilt your head a bit, and you’ll hear that these riffs are just slightly differently arranged Necrophobic, or death metal riffs rather, written and performed to inflict maximum damage. These riffs slice and cut through flesh, the drums hammer away in reckless abandon and the trachea rendering shrieks make people and small animals flee in fear. Other than that, the obvious influences of Bathory, Celtic Frost, Possessed and early Slayer are very hard not to miss, both conceptually as musically.

Much of what would later become this band’s calling card (and the genre as a whole, really) are the piercing, tormented shrieks and rasps, the razorsharp slashing riffing and eerie melodies, plus the seemingly constant blasting drums which batter the listener into submission through repetition. The lyrics talk about the usual assorted subjects of evil, Satan, Lucifer and related imagery. They are far more vivid and imaginative than they would be on later albums. This is the template, in concept and architecture, from which later albums would be built. The biggest difference is that those albums are not nearly as effective, haunting and malevolent sounding as this often-neglected debut. On the whole the album relies much on its novelty factor, and the shock value of the extremity presented. When being truthful, the album kind of drags towards the end because all these tracks sound incredibly similar, and the overall lack of dynamic range doesn’t help matters either. “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” is a good, even a great, album but it isn’t one that inspires a lot of replayability. Only the title track and the two EP tracks is what make this record as strong as it is, and they deviate from the formula.

At the center of the coven is guitarist/main composer David Parland (Blackmoon), along with second guitarist Mikael Svanberg (Ahriman). He would become the de facto leader and the spokesperson of Dark Funeral after this album’s completion. On vocals we have Paul Mäkitalo (Themgoroth) who provides bass guitar along the way, and laying down the drums for this debut is Peter Eklund (Equimanthorn). Parland, Mäkitalo and Eklund would all depart at various times and for various reasons after this album’s completion making this the only album of the original line-up. This is also why this album sounds markedly different from future output, and while superficial similarities are abound Svanberg’s writing is a hollow shell and a pale imitation of what Parland wrote for this outing. It’s the only record to feature a cover painting by Kristian Wåhlin (Necrolord) and the last English titled release outside of the preceding self-titled EP, the “Teach the Children To Worship Satan” EP from 2001 and the band disowned bootleg “Under Wings Of Hell” from 2002. As you’ll note the preceding EP and this debut have vastly different artwork in comparison to the works to come. The artwork by Kristian Wåhlin is something you’d usually associate with Swedish death metal, melodic or otherwise. The logo is also slightly different from future albums. This is due to copyrights held by ousted co-founder David Parland. David Parland, after all, was Dark Funeral.

The band’s modus operandi was fairly unique at the time, as both they and fellow Swedes Marduk were cultivating this blast-oriented branch of black metal. Dark Funeral’s approach is straightforward and uncomplicated, relying on a continual flow of blastbeats and unrelenting waves of flesh tearing tremolo riffing, all delivered in blistering speeds. Outside of a few scant melodies there’s little what sets these songs apart, and only the two older songs and Von cover track sound actually different from the freshly written material present here. Dark Funeral is an entirely different beast than Necrophobic. Although both share a similar melodic slant, and a heritage of earlier thrash metal in its foundation and overall architecture – Dark Funeral is ultimately the more over-the-top and extreme of the two units. At a blistering pace the band cut through 9 original tracks and a Von cover. Outside of the compact intro there’s no respite to be found, nor a breather. Of the 9 nine originals two tracks (‘My Dark Desires’ and ‘Shadows Over Transylvania’) are re-recordings from the earlier self-titled EP.

In all “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” is interesting in the ways that it differs from the Svanberg-led albums to come. As far as 90s black metal goes this is one of the more engrossing examples of the minimalist, barbaric side of the spectrum. This album would inspire legions of imitators and copycats for decades to come. With the more atmospheric Norwegian releases, and the cult-ish Hellenic albums released around this time, Dark Funeral was at the forefront of this extreme new metal style. One can only imagine what this band would have sounded like had Parland remained with them.

Immortal’s entry into the then-emerging world of black metal was as typical as many of their fellow bands. Coming from a death metal background with Old Funeral (in which both members spent time), and before that Amputation – it was at the behest of Oystein Aarseth from Mayhem that these men changed alliance to the new, and more extreme sounding black metal style. The band is centered around the duo of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Olve Eikemo (Abbath) and lead guitarist Harald Nævdal (Demonaz). Steeped in death metal influence this little heard, or often neglected debut “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” is a curious little anomaly in the band’s first era. Immortal, who would make a name for itself with the two records following this one, plays much slower and is more atmospherically inclined at this point. The tradition of using a stylized band photo as cover artwork is started at this juncture, and this would merely be a steppingstone for the next two much more violent and purely black metal records.

With the opening cut (after enduring a fairly pointless and entirely forgettable intro, aptly called ‘Intro’) ‘The Call Of the Wintermoon’ Immortal lays its card on the table. One thing that is instantly notable is that this sounds a lot like shortlived Norwegian death metal outfit Old Funeral. There are differences, most clearly in the vocal department, as Abbath here delivers his most devilishly shrieking performance. Compared to later Immortal recordings the tempo is fairly low and somewhat meandering. Outside of the blast section in the opening this track sounds a whole lot like standard European death metal with minimalist, colder, sharper riffing and croaking frog vocals, the prominent bass guitar riffs of vocalist Abbath only serve to consolidate this observation.

This is the only album to feature drummer Gerhard Herfindal (Armagedda) and it is notable for not fully realizing the band’s winter and ice concept with which they would become identified just a few years later. Together with the intro, there’s also sparse usage of the acoustic guitar in ‘A Perfect Vision Of the Rising Northland’. In terms of riff construction the band draws heavily from Swiss genre-fusionists Celtic Frost, Bathory and Mayhem’s earlier death/thrash hybrid as it was heard on the “Deathcrush” EP. Along with Herfindal’s decidedly more death metal drumming, and the lower overall tempo in that area make “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” the most debated album in the band’s extensive catalogue. Immortal had not yet decided what exactly it wanted to be.

There are three strong tracks after the intro, and the album peters out a bit in the middle with ‘Cold Winds Of Funeral Dust’ and ‘Blacker than Darkness’. Both songs not only sound incredibly similar, but both fail to offer up a significant payoff. Thankfully the epic ‘A Perfect Vision Of the Rising Northland’ makes up for the relative inertia of the preceding two tracks. The track is introduced with a frail acoustic guitar bit, and includes some spoken word parts, which greatly add to the atmosphere of Northern darkness and desolation. Overall “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” is a serviceable early black metal record that gets by on the graces of its novelty factor. The band’s transformation from death – to black metal band was mostly complete, but traces of the earlier style obviously remain audible in key departments and overall architecture.

Only with the next album would Immortal fully transition into the style that would make them famous the world over. Immortal also was one of the earlier Norse black metal bands to self-produce relatively primitive but good looking music videos, and for this record they shot a somewhat comical promotional video for the track ‘The Call Of the Wintermoon’, which sees the band cavorting in a forest in tophats and capes. The band would continue this practice for the next album with a live performance video, before going a more stylish and professional route with its third and ultimate offering.

As Immortal was in its early stages here it is not surprising to notice that a lot of the tracks are long and don’t really go anywhere. This defect would be rectified in future albums as the band cut their songs down to more standard length, and distributed its ideas more evenly across the album in question. Most tracks go anywhere from 4 minutes to 6 minutes, with the lone exception of ‘A Perfect Vision Of the Rising Northland’ clocking in at a mammoth 9 minutes – and ‘Cold Winds Of Funeral Dust’ not even reaching the 4 minute mark. The band’s concept of winter, evil and ice was still forming at this point, and would not come to full fruition until the follow-up to this record, the uniformly savage “Pure Holocaust”. The fantastic Blashyrkh concept would only fully arrive with the band’s third album, the crude sounding “Battles In the North”.