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On its second album Ancient Rites embraced a wider palette sonically. Whereas “The Diabolic Serenades” was a somewhat corny tribute to all of bands that influenced them, this record finally sees them unlocking their real potential. Boosted by an earthy and crunchy production “Blasfemia Eternal” sees the band progressing in leaps and bounds. The debut of Gunther Theys’ now patented vocal style and additional instrumentation make the record surprisingly atmospheric. Especially compared to the emergent Norsecore subbranch of Scandinavian black metal that was winning in popularity at the time. Drawing inspiration from a variety of metal genres “Blasfemia Eternal” is the last truly extreme Ancient Rites record, as after this they would embark into more melodic and epic power metal territory with the two subsequent albums that followed.

ancient-rites“Blasfemia Eternal” is very much a darker death metal album, and thus closer related to Marduk’s “Dark Endless” and Death’s “Leprosy” than to the expected icons Hellhammer, Venom and Bathory. In terms of construction it follows the template of “Leprosy” while the choice of riffs and chord progressions, albeit more angular and mechanical, recall Sepultura’s “Beneath the Remains”. As far as expressiveness and dynamic scope is concerned it is similar to Dead Head’s 1993 album “Dream Deceiver”. Instead of copying what the Scandinavian forebears of the genre were doing at the time Ancient Rites draws from an earlier period of underground metal, especially in terms of riffing and solos. In that sense Ancient Rites is closer related to early forms of death -, and thrash metal than the obvious inspirations of the then-nascent black metal scene in Scandinavia. The album is black metal in spirit, vocal stylings and subject matter – but from a pure musical perspective “Blasfemia Eternal” refuses to follow the standards of the time.

Where “The Diabolic Serenades” relied heavily on its corny, and supposedly shocking Satanic subject matter the historical lyrics come more to the fore on this album, although each of the tracks seems to approach heresy and blasphemy from a different angle. Be they Biblical (‘Garden Of Delights (EVA)’), folkoristic (‘Quest For Blood (Le Vampire’), historical (‘(Het Verdronken Land van) Saeftinghe’) or in a more condemning fashion (‘Blood Of Christ (Muhammed Wept)’, ‘Epebos Aionia’ and ‘Fallen Angel’). Of these cuts ‘(Het Verdronken Land van) Saeftinghe’ is the definite highlight as it was the most ambitious and epic song Ancient Rites had penned at the time. From a lyrical point of view ‘Garden Of Delights (EVA)’ is interesting on multiple levels. The most obvious being its direct Biblical inspiration from the Garden Of Eden parable, but a more careful observation reveals also as an damning indictment of religious oppression of female sexuality, and the submission of the fairer sex. The lyrics appear written from the viewpoint of the oppressor making them all the more powerful in delivery. ‘Fallen Angel’, the short outro, is notable because it introduced a more atmospheric side the band had not explored on earlier releases. Both were a sign of things to come, it seems.

While the majority of the tracks feature light washes of atmospheric keyboards ‘(Het Verdronken Land van) Saeftinge’ has additional studio flute by Ellen van Wauwe which greatly adds to its individual character. Theys’ increased range as a vocalist is key in selling the record as his emotive whisphers, rasps and grunts greatly complement the interesting subject matter, as do the usage of different languages such as Dutch, French, German, Italian and Portugese. Next to light keyboard enhancements the record starts off with a short acoustic guitar intro, and the atmospheric album closer ‘Fallen Angel’. The latter is a vastly reworked interpretation of the song of the same name from the band’s 1990 “Dark Ritual” demo tape. It is the first of two instances wherein Ancient Rites would re-use this track to thematically tie its albums together. They also are signposts of where the band was headed with its two subsequent releases. This is the last truly crude sounding Ancient Rites effort in both songcraft and production as the band would opt for a more melodic direction and glossy digital production afterwards.

As with the previous record the sessions were cut at Studio 20 in Tienen, Belgium with Louis Jans producing. Much like the early records of Mayhem and Marduk the production is solid in the death metal camp. The studio filter in the vocal production was abandoned, and They’s wider array of vocal cadences are able to reflect the emotions and nuances of the well-written, but still confrontational lyrics. The throbbing bass guitar can be heard in the mix, and while its tone is concrete it never really pops out at the listener. This is detrimental to the overall bass-heaviness of the record, it would have benefitted from a meatier, fuller bass guitar tone such as, for example, can be heard on “Erase” by Gorefest, or any of the early Bolt Thrower records. The production is very much percussion-oriented with the drums being front and center in the mix, sometimes to the point of drowning out the bass guitar. The increased levels of clarity, texture and depth allows for more space for the vocals. While cold and mechanical in parts it is the last instance where Ancient Rites had an analogue and warm sounding production.

Tying this and the subsequent album together thematically - next to the earlier mentioned ‘Fallen Angel’ track and its significance - is the usage of paintings by Belgian artist Jean-Léon Huens. Here one of his works is featured on the last page of the booklet, while the next album would use one of his canvasses for cover artwork. “Blasfemia Eternal” is also an album of lasts. It was the last album to be recorded at Studio 20, Tienen with Louis Jans, and the last to have contributions from guitarist Bart Vandereycken (who was responsible for all music together with drummer Walter van Cortenberg). Much like Dissection, Ancient Rites opted for a natural look without any corpse paint to differentiate themselves from the rapidly booming black metal scene. Next to liner notes about the meanings of each song, the booklet features promo shots of the band both with and without corpse paint.  “Blasfemia Eternal” is the end of the first era of Ancient Rites, a band which never truly got the opportunities it deserved.

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As one of the earliest black metal bands in Belgium (forming in 1988) Ancient Rites is also the most interesting of the country. In constant evolution the band has shed members and sounds over the years to arrive a concoction of popular styles without abandoning artistic integrity or musical merit. “The Diabolic Serenades” is the first and most crude sounding of all Ancient Rites releases, yet already its keen sense of melody, epic solos and traditional metal foundation are accounted for.  Of all releases this one has the most death -, and thrash metal influences. The only things working against it are the unflattering drum production and studio processed vocals of bassist Gunther Theys.

sig54At this juncture the band was a power trio, consisting of vocalist, lyricist and bass guitarist Gunther Theys, lead guitarist Bart Vandereycken and drummer Walter van Cortenberg. The album bears a striking resemblance to the Mystifier album “Wicca” which was released two years before, in 1992.  Both albums aim for a for the same writing style and atmosphere, although Ancient Rites is more death metal oriented in its writing, and far more percussive in terms of drumming. That both instruments feature as prominently as they do should come as no surprise, as all the music was composed by Bart Vandereycken and Walter van Cortenberg. The songwriting is sometimes hampered by the presence of only one guitar, but Vandereycken more often than not finds clever ways around these limitations. The bass guitar, in usage more than tone, isn’t as interesting as it could be, mostly due it merely doubling the guitar riffs. What the band lacks in subtlety and finesse it makes up in sheer variation and diversity in how it goes about accomplishing its songwriting objective. “The Diabolic Serenades” has a lineage in ancient thrash – and death metal rather than the formative black metal acts.

Although steeped in anti-religious and Satanic imagery, a great deal of the lyrics already deal with historical subject matter, including French nobleman Gilles de Rais (‘Morbid Glory (Gilles de Rais 1404-1440)’), the Roman Empire (‘Crucifiction Justified (Roman Supremacy)’, Assyria (‘Assyrian Empire’) and local Belgian folklore and history (‘Obscurity Reigns (Fields Of Flanders)’ and ‘Land of Frost & Despair’). The remainder of the songs deal with the archetypical Satanic philosophy, such as ‘Satanic Rejoice’, ‘Death Messiah’, ‘Longing For the Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Ritual Slayings (Goat Worship Pure)’ and ‘Evil Prevails’. Over the course of its next albums Ancient Rites would gradually tone down its Satanic rhetoric in favor of exploring European antiquity, history and folklore. For the most part “The Diabolic Serenades” is the culmination of the band’s demo stage, and one of two records in terms of its central songwriting axis. That Ancient Rites doesn’t conform to any philosophy, but its own is made abundantly clear by the fact that the band adamantly refuses to wear corpse paint in its promotional material, and to adopt unpronounceable stage names. Both these practices were standard for then-emergent black metal genre, and remain a staple of it to this day. The band’s integrity and honesty at the expense of artistic – and commercial success is its greatest strenght.

Ancient-Rites---split-ep-1992One of the biggest strenghts of “The Diabolic Serenades” is the contrast between its mechanical brutality and atmospheric interludes. ‘Infant Sacrifices to Baalberith’, ‘Longing For the Ancient Kingdom’ and ‘Last Rites/Echoes Of Melancholy’ stand in stark contrast to the batterings of ‘Crucifixion Justified (Roman Supremacy)’, ‘Land Of Frost & Despair’, ‘Ritual Slayings (Goat Worship Pure)’ and ‘Evil Prevails’. In fact ‘Longing For the Ancient Kingdom’, a re-recorded cut of the band’s 1992 “Evil Prevails” EP, is the earliest instance of the band exploring its atmospheric side within its rather crude death/black metal framework. This track forms the architectural basis for the band’s later atmospheric and epic metal template that would be cultivated in earnest from the second, and third album onward. Being the earliest Ancient Rites release it captures the band at its most primal and ferocious. Bart Vandereycken is a commendable guitarist, and while his angular riffs aren’t always the most imaginative the fiery leads/solos is what he excels at. The drumming by Walter van Cortenberg mostly seems to be built around thrash beats, and somewhat early American sounding fills. The demonic vocals by Gunther Theys, as goofy as they sound due to the studio processing, fit the album’s haunting atmosphere. A hissing vocal style, such as heard on the “Resurrection” EP (which was released the same year as this album) by American death metal combo Sadistic Intent would have fitted the album better in retrospect. The current vocals work for what they intend to convey, their sheer otherworldiness works in its favor.

The production is a both a blessing and a curse. Once again the band convened at Studio 20 in Tienen, Belgium with long-time producer/engineer Louis Jans behind the console. The guitar tone is crunchy and thick, while the bass rumbles healthily in the background. The drums sound digital, and kind of plastic. The whole kit oozes an electronic vibe that never really improves. While the snares and toms sound digital, the kickdrums sound truly massive giving the record, along with the prominent bass guitar, its thundering bass-heaviness and weight. It is unclear whether an electronic drum kit was used during these sessons, or that it was merely due to production choices on the band’s end. Similarly a studio filter, or processor, was used on the grunts and rasps of bass guitarist Gunther Theys, which push them squarely into death metal territory. Even though it adds to the overall macabre effect, it takes some time getting used to – especially in hindsight since Theys would opt for a more natural and emotive vocal style past this debut record. Many of the qualms would be rectified on the successor to this album, while the sterile, digital drum tones would prove a continuing ailment for this band that even a move towards a high-budget, professional studio environment couldn’t cure.

“The Diabolic Serenades” had the unfortunate distinction of being released through the doomed Afterdark Records, which declared bankruptcy shortly after the album’s release. This led to Ancient Rites embarking on a European tour in support of the album, without any product to push. The album is an ideal fusion of various streams of underground metal styles. The visuals might not be the most striking but they fit with the rather crude and primitive take on the genres the band mix on its debut. From this point onward the band would expand its musical, vocal and lyrical palette. “The Diabolic Serenades” is the culmination of Ancient Rites’ demo phase, and the only album of its kind in the band’s early canon. Much of what would make Ancient Rites the interesting musical outfit that they are is found here in its most embryonal form. This album lays down the groundwork for the much better material they would produce in the following years. In hindsight it looks corny compared and contrasted with the material the band would release in subsequent  years, but the conviction and spirit present they weren’t able to capture or recreate on later, arguably better, albums.