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“Tides Of Malediction”, the debut from UK romantic dark metal band Swords Of Dis, conclusively proves the strengths of angelic female vocals within a metal context. Traditional in genre and composition but technical in delivery the album manages to combine two unlikely subgenres in a cohesive whole. One part Death, one part early My Dying Bride, but with soaring vocals not unlike early Theatre Of Tragedy “Tides Of Malediction” is a record that knows where it comes from, and isn’t afraid to glance a look into the future. Frontwoman Alice Collins is the best thing to come from England since Hungarian transplant Julie Kiss from technical metal act To-Mera a couple of year prior.

1276696_198258767023360_1105174164_oThe band takes its name from the city that encompasses the sixth through ninth circles of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. In fact Alighieri’s tome seems to have left a considerable impression on both members, as artwork, lyrics and music work in unison to complement the overall theme. The introspective and downtrodden lyrics about love, longing and hurt are written far better than most. The literary references seem to end there, and the entire album exudes a sense of sophistication, reservation and intelligence that is absent in most contemporary metal releases. Its complete lack of pretentiousness is disarming, especially considering that virtually every metal band is looking for a hook, or gimmick to pass itself off as novel, or noteworthy. This isn’t the case with Swords Of Dis, who are able to sell their product on its musical merits alone.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jATLEAw1-8

Swords Of Dis is a young duo from industrial hub and one-time death metal capital Birmingham, England that has taken a tried-and-true formula into an exciting new direction. The band takes cues from technical metal as well as death/doom, but avoids the usual stylistic trapping of both genres effortlessly and elegantly. The record’s strength lies in its emotional resonance rather than its heaviness. Swords Of Dis, on this recording, consists of vocalist/lyricist Alice Collins and multi-instrumentalist Richard Corvinus. “Tides Of Malediction” is the duo’s first recording venture that was independently released and promoted through its own label Insidious Voices. There’s a distinct non-metal aura that looms over “Tides Of Malediction”, most of which comes from Collins’ vocals. The album would have worked wonderfully as a singer-songwriter record, or a neo-folk venture – and most of the actual metal elements are secondary to Collins’ vocal presence.  She certainly has the potential to venture out as a solo artist under her own name with the guidance and experience of the Insidious Voices collective.

1277803_198258827023354_241325536_o“Tides Of Malediction” operates at a slightly higher than usual tempo for doom standards, and the percussion is often quite busy as well. While Alice Collins rightly is the center of attention on this record, her soaring vocals never stray into the realms of the absurd. The whole record is characterized by a sense of reservation, something that is often lost on most female-fronted bands within this particular branch of metal. That reservation is what makes Swords Of Dis so much more remarkable than its more marketable peers. Everything is here for a reason, and nothing is set up without climax or payoff. A complete lack of pretentiousness from all involved makes “Tides Of Malediction” appealing on the merits of its considerable emotional honesty alone. The juxtaposition of female-fronted romantic doom metal against a backdrop of technical death metal reminiscent of “Symbolic” era Death is a breath of fresh air. The fact that the whole is produced like a breezy singer-songwriter record makes it so much stronger. All preconceived notions about how both genres should sound become obsolete as “Tides Of Malediction” stridently defies conventions and tropes at virtually every turn.

There has long been an inclination in the British death/doom metal scene to go for an overall more romantic direction. The most famous example of this is probably My Dying Bride’s 1995-1996’s duo of “The Angel and the Dark River” and the fairly upbeat sounding “Like Gods Of the Sun”. Much like those famous records before them the duo play an atmospheric, darkly romantic dark/doom metal variant with truly mesmerizing female vocals. What Swords Of Dis play is hardly innovative, but the way they go about it is better than the great majority of their peers. They also do far more with less. Besides a few atmospheric enhancements everything is done through the usage of solemn melodies, percussion and Collins’ emotive and heartfelt vocals. Unlike a lot of their contemporaries the band doesn’t feel the need to make Collins the center of attention, nor the heart of its promotion campaign – instead they let the product speak for itself.  Collins’ versatility as a singer is further cemented by her appearance on recordings from Insidious Voices label mates and fellow doom metallers Aeurtum, most recently on that band’s second album “The Depths Of Which These Roots Do Bind”. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Collins eventually branch out into more serene and tranquil genres.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-QqEMtDRf8

The biggest forte of Swords Of Dis, and this debut is in the ways that it breaks with tradition and expectation. The handdrawn cover artwork by Ann-Marie Trahearn is hardly typical metal, and could have appeared on any folk, or singer-songwriter album. Likewise is the production courtesy of Loud Noises Production Recording and producer/engineer Owen Davies incredibly breezy, and light sounding. The closest comparison possibly being a merger between the organic crunch of My Dying Bride’s “The Angel and the Dark River” and Death’s seminal “Symbolic” album. In the same vein is the combination of technical metal with traditional doom a combination not heard often, and seldomly does a band such a convincing job of it on its maiden venture. Collins is a wonder to hear, and it makes a person wonder what she could be capable of without the imposing restrictions of the underground metal genre. She would truly shine within the context of a neo-folk unit, acoustic pop or even as a solo singer-songwriter. The times that a new metal band debuts as impressively as Swords Of Dis do here are far and few. “Tides Of Malediction” is a solemn reminder that one shouldn’t look to the established brands for quality material, but that true talent is there where you would least expect it. If this any indication for the future, the duo’s potential as musicians and songwriters is in full bloom, and their defining record is but a few years away.

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It is often forgotten in the mainstream metal consciousness that Marduk, arguably one of the hardest working entities in the industry, was once one of the many darker sounding death metal upstarts hailing from the ever-fertile soils of Sweden. The band at this time consisted of founder/lead guitarist Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson, vocalist Andreas Axelsson, bass guitarist Richard Kalm, second guitarist Magnus ‘Devo’ Andersson and drummer Joakim Göthberg. “Dark Endless” was the first of three efforts to be recorded at Hellspawn Studio (a later incarnation of Gorysound Studio before it changed its name to the popularly known Unisound Studio) with prolific producer Dan Swäno.

As many of the second wave bands the transformation Marduk went through from a particularly barbaric death metal band into a full-blown black metal one was a gradual process. Over the course of its first three records the band experimented with tempos and moods. It wouldn’t be until its fourth record that the band truly cemented its newfound high-speed black metal sound. On its first album “Dark Endless” Marduk was an atypical death metal band, conforming to neither the Stockholm, Sundsvall or Gothenburg conventions of the genre. Like notable American institutions Autopsy and Deceased, Marduk’s drummer also doubled as vocalist. While lyrically clearly following the nascent black metal philosophy, musically this is still death metal – even though it hardly sounds like anything around at the time. That is what makes it so strong.

mardukOn its debut Marduk consisted of lead guitarist Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson, Andreas Axelsson on vocals, bass guitarist Richard Kalm, second guitarist Magnus ‘Devo’ Andersson, and drummer Joakim Göthberg. Like many of its No Fashion Records label mates Marduk played a darker, more evil sounding death metal variant, not unlike a hybrid of the styles similar to Dark Funeral, Decameron and Unanimated. No Fashion Records itself was a subsidiary of death metal label imprint House Of Kicks Records. Much like the Black Mark Productions label imprint, whose most famous export was proto-black metal project Bathory, No Fashion Records helped introduce a number of important institutions to the global metal scene. Most prominently among these the burdgeoning force Marduk, and the stylistically similar Dark Funeral. Next to the heavily Iron Maiden indebted Dissection the label launched doom metal combo Katatonia, and melodic death metal band Lord Belial. Both Marduk and Dark Funeral would eventually acrimoniously split from the label, and battle it in court over publishing – and copyrights from their respective releases on the imprint.

Like so many death metal records of the time “Dark Endless” is introduced by a rather forgettable one minute-long intro called ‘The Eye Of Funeral’. The first real track ‘Still Fucking Dead (Here’s No Peace)’ sounds like a better developed take on “Deathcrush” era Mayhem, and the lyrics include references to legendary proto-metallers Hellhammer in particular. That there was an ideological affiliation with Norwegian band Mayhem is further cemented by the fact that Marduk uses various working titles of that band’s early songs as songtitles on this album (and its successor) as a sort of tribute. That the band draws from a variety of influences should come as no surprise. ‘The Sun Turns Black As Night’ and ‘Within the Abyss’, for example, sound like vintage Obituary or Autopsy in its unearthly ghoulishness and gloomy dirge tempo. The latter even has a brief bass guitar break. ‘The Funeral Seemed To Be Endless’ sounds like an early Death, or Malevolent Creation track with concentrated blast sections and unsettling tortured vocals.

‘Departure From the Mortals’ and ‘The Black…’ lay the groundwork for Marduk’s patented high-speed black metal sound that they would cultivate and perfect over the next two records following this debut. The latter song does have some of that crunchy riffing which bands like Unleashed and Necrophobic built their entire careers around. Then there’s the dirgey closing track that sounds entirely different than everything that came before. ‘Holy Inquisition’ sounds like “The Dance Of December Souls” Katatonia with its morose arrangement of power chords, sorrowful melodies and doom metal-like trudge. The variety of influences can probably be rationalized by the fact that most of these songs were written a few years prior to their recording. What does stand out is the surprisingly diverse and variated guitar work despite there being only one brief lead/solo section towards the tall end of ‘Holy Inquisition’ – and nowhere else. It’s mind boggling to imagine that Marduk would rely on one type riff for future albums, as here Håkansson references various American - and European sources for riff construction.

What sets the first era of Marduk (all records up to and including “Opus Nocturne”) is the light usage of keyboards and organs, something which the band would categorically refuse to use for atmospheric purposes from “Heaven Shall Burn…” onward. It is rather telling that Marduk, who had no problem using keyboards and organs in the past, suddenly dismissed the usage of atmospheric enhancements in 1996 once the symfo black metal branch seemed to win in overall popularity. The vocals are also far more diverse and emotive using shrieks, whispers, grunts and spoken word through out various parts of the album. The agonized, piercing vocals are reminiscent of At the Gates’ “Gardens Of Grief” demo/EP. Marduk was actually a quaint little death metal band that even this early was poised to make a mark. Even though it is only heard in bits and flashes here in terms of songwriting the band’s trademark intensity is already accounted for. As one of the No Fashion Records alumni they too sounded far more misanthropic and sadistic in comparison to the average Gothenburg or Stockholm death metal combo.

The album has a history of re-releases since the original No Fashion Records print. It was first re-issued by American label imprint Necropolis Records, later (in 2004) it was re-issued once more (without the band’s approval) by Black Lodge Records as a digipak. Eventually, the band re-issued an expanded version through its own label imprint Blooddawn Productions, in cooperation with its then-contractor Regain Records in 2006. This band-approved print expanded on the original by adding the forementioned intro ‘The Eye Of Funeral’ and five rehearsal tracks of the era – this version is the subject of our review. It was re-issued one more time on Century Media Records in 2012 in the same version as the expanded Blooddawn Productions that was released six years prior.

“Dark Endless” was recorded at Hellspawn Studio with producer Dan Swäno in a mere four days. As a result there’s a certain spontaneity and urgency that the band would never be able to recapture. The record is blessed with a thick early 90s death metal production that has a prominent place for the booming bass guitar. The album is adorned by spectacular artwork by Daniel Vala (a member of pioneering Swedish death/black metal outfit Obscurity), and it is the sort of vista that Marduk would never be able to recreate in its extensive discography. While Marduk was certainly a lot more barbaric than its contemporaries its sound at this point was a mere imitation of established American – and European bands. “Dark Endless” is solid in its own right, but its holds little significance outside of its historical importance in the band’s canon. At this juncture there were far better albums to be heard, be they “Shadows In the Deep”, “Like An Ever Flowing Stream” or “The Red In the Sky Is Ours”.  That doesn’t take away from the sheer power of “Dark Endless” - it just serves to remind that Marduk wasn’t always the force of nature it is known as today. They had to start somewhere, and in truth what they did here was far more interesting than the sound they would become known for.