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The fourth album for Belgian black metal horde Enthroned is one marked by internal instability, and external problems that keep it from reaching its intended goal. Beset by problems from every side “Armoured Bestial Hell” is what should have been a glorious continuation of the band’s generic but efficient sound, but only partly succeeds due to a number of critical errors on part of the band, and their label Blackend Records. These setbacks make “Armoured Bestial Hell” only a fraction of what it should have been, and appears to be a black page in the history of the band. They would rebound from this setback far more hungry and more focused than ever. Our current subject is anything but focused. The record is a string of bad decisions magnified by a shoddy production and interpersonal problems that results in the most amateur drum job by what was, on all accounts, a decent second-tier band with an image and audience deserving better.

“Armoured Bestial Hell” is the recording debut for new guitarist Olivier Lomer (Nerath Daemon) who replaced long-serving axe man Dimitri Gillard (Nebiros). It is the last album for drummer Fabrice Depireux (Namroth Blackthorn), whose sloppy and outright terrible playing and conflicts with core duo Franck Lorent (vocals, bass guitar) and Régis Lant (guitars) would eventually result in his firing.  It is then not surprising that this album was a hack job on part of both the band, and their label. Additionally there’s around 12 minutes of padding through instrumental tracks. These only serve to mask the fact that everybody was giving minimal effort. Where the previous album was a blistering exercise in speed and overall extremity, this fourth album is more deliberately paced, almost groovy exercise that, in the absence of strong material, falls back on the band’s death – and thrash metal past to salvage what remains of a promising concept.

lord sabathanOne of the things that instantly stand out about this album, and not in a good way, is how amateurish and ugly the overall presentation is. Where the band’s previous outing had all fronts covered in terms of cover artwork, typesetting, photography and overall design. This new album is several steps back on all fronts. The photography is grainy and of low quality. Enthroned uses their usual font, but this hampered by the horrible contrast when combined with the, admittedly glorious, cover artwork they are imposed over. The typesetting would have benefitted from a darkened version of the background. That way the white lettering stands out more, and is generally easier to read. The pictures of each member appear to be taken by fans, and not a professional photographer. To add insult to injury, the band (or their label) couldn’t even be bothered enough to take a good-looking band picture for the booklet, or general promotional purposes. If this band was important to Blackend (which I doubt), then why sabotage them at every possible step? Even if the label didn’t care for anything other than the bottom line and the profit, would it have hurt to have a higher standard for its own product? No, exactly. This was released in 2001, independent bands were releasing better looking and better sounding promos/demos by now. There is simply no excuse!

After the pointless ‘Humanicide 666’ intro the record starts off with ‘Wrapped In Fire’, a song about throwing an infant into a furnace, that not only contains hilariously awful and generally incoherent lyrics, but also a chorus that is nothing else, but “burn, baby, burn!”. Even if it was a re-working of a song appearing on the band’s 2000 promo (where it was called simply ‘Burn!’) doesn’t excuse such laziness on the lyrical front. Other than that it would be hard to believe that the men in Enthroned were closeted The Trampps fanatics, these lyrics add zero to the black metal pantheon in terms of subjects. Granted, this band was never known for its good lyrics, and is ridiculed for it a good deal of the time – but even taking all that into account, the lyrics are piss poor… even for the lowly standards of Enthroned. Spelling and grammatical errors are still abound, and continue to litter this band’s latest album, in what now can be rightly called a long-standing and sad tradition. ‘Enslavement Revealed’ is the first good song outside of ‘Wrapped In Fire’, but it is nothing more than a thinly veiled thrash metal song written from a black metal perspective.  ‘Spells From the Underworld’ opens on a doomy note, but is among the very few worthy tracks on this otherwise underachieving record.

The drumming is sloppy as mentioned earlier, and the songs are mere shadows of what was on display on the preceding better album. There are even long stretches in songs where there’s no snare activity at all, just listen to ‘Wrapped In Fire’. There’s a thrash structure that dominates the playing – this is in many ways a return to the old drumming style last heard on the band’s debut “Prophecies Of Pagan Fire”. The pace is notably lower, and while the band still plays hellishly fast these songs appear to be underwritten and not nearly as dynamic and creative as on their previous releases. The bass solo towards the concluding part of ‘The Face Of Death’ was interesting but ultimately underused. The narrative opening to ‘When Hell Freezes Over’ is very atmospheric and not something the band had done before to that extent. Then there’s the fact that the album ends in the kind of stunt that only Morbid Angel would dare pull on their fanbase. After two instrumental closers (‘Premature Satanicremation’, ‘Terminate Annihilation’) to an already shoddy album Enthroned has the gall to include an uncredited outro which runs over four minutes in length. Not only does this artificial padding add absolutely nothing of value to the record, the record itself isn’t the band’s finest hour. Why was this allowed to happen? Didn’t anybody have any standards?

“Armoured Bestial Hell” is the second part of Enthroned’s post-apocalypse trilogy of records, of which “The Apocalypse Manifesto” was the first chapter. This second album deals with the apparent “apocalyptic revelations” after the events of “The Manifesto”. The album details what happens after the religious flock have been exterminated and consumed by the hellish fire of the Apocalypse. A recurring theme is that of the thinning of their own herd, by killing all betrayers within the ranks. Other than that these lyrics still deal with the typical subjects of perversion, violence, mutilation, Satan (in a literal sense) and the band’s allegiance to occult subjects inter-related to all of these things. Why the band even bothered with tying these records together is something we’ll never know. That doesn’t change the fact that the links are superficial at best and tangential at worst. I love concept albums, but at least raise an effort to tie these things together.

After recording two albums in their native Belgium and the previous one at the prestigious Abyss Studio in Sweden, the band (or its label, who knows?) opted to record at Real Sound Studio in Gelsenkirchen, Germany with producer duo Oliver Grosse-Pawig and Regan Keirns. Grosse-Pawig’s has numerous production credits to his name, but those of note seem to be Sodom’s 1994 album “Get What You Deserve”, which wasn’t their high mark and Sinister’s universally lauded third record “Hate”. To date this is the only production credit for Keirns, which isn’t surprising. The drum sound is awful with overpowering kickdrums, while the snares and toms sound almost like a glorified demo recording. The guitars fare little better with a sound similar to the one last heard on “Prophecies Of Pagan Fire”. Lorent’s vocals are comical as ever, and they sit higher in the mix than ever before. This isn’t strange in itself, but for a guitar – and drum-oriented genre as black metal, it is a rather puzzling production choice. Another thing is that the vocals tend to sound rushed more than anything, and half-hearted at that. What does return is Lorent’s prominent popping and plucking bass guitar that was suspiciously absent on the otherwise smoothly produced “The Apocalypse Manifesto”. The shredding leads/solos remain, but they are mostly muffled underneath the guitars, and why they feature not more prominently when they appear is a question for the ages. It probably also explains why Enthroned worked only once with this producer and studio – the whole is botched in the most spectacular way possible. Not since Suffocation’s “Breeding the Spawn” has a band been this crippled by an incompetent production job.

Overall is “Armoured Bestial Hell” the kind of album you wish upon no band. Next to being the most amateurish in design and presentation, this album is also cursed by the most unflattering of productions. Not only was Enthroned having problems within its own ranks, but they also appeared to be on terms of war with their contractor, Blackend Records. In their swansong for the label, Enthroned do not only sell short themselves, but also their loyal audience who stood by them in the many years prior. Many songs feel unfinished and underdeveloped, the performances of all involved are tolerable, but nobody is adhering to previous standards. The cover artwork by Jamie “Rok” Robley (Sadistik Exekution) can do little to redeem this inconsequential and ultimately pointless exercise in banality. As the second part of a three-album concept this one is underwhelming, rehashed and painfully mediocre. Coming from a band whose entire existence can be defined as generic and second-tier when feeling charitable makes it even more damning. Yet this album released, and it is here. There’s no way back now.

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“The Apocalypse Manifesto”, the third Enthroned album and their one but last for British label imprint Blackend Records, who were more famous for their compilations than for the artists they contracted. It is the long anticipated recording where the band finally comes into its own, and at long last mastered the Northern sound they had been hinting at for the past two albums and that little stopgap EP. The line-up from “Towards the Skullthrone Of Satan” returns, along with new drummer Fabrice Depireux (Namroth Blackthorn), in what would be the best most stable and long lasting constellation to date. Blessed by both much stronger and better written material plus a glossy production that is able to harness their power and nuance, Enthroned was finally ready to prove their true worth. So how does this album stack up to their earlier releases? Let’s find out!

In structure the album follow the pattern laid out with Marduk’s “Heaven Shall Burn…” that was released three years before, while the overall construction of the songs recall “Panzerdivision Marduk” more than anything. This isn’t all that surprising since the latter Marduk album was released in the beginning of 1999, and Enthroned’s own new album would only arrive in December of that same year. On all fronts this third album is about extremity: extreme speed, extreme tightness and extreme subject matter. This is the album where Enthroned spread its wings a bit, and wasn’t afraid to venture into more technical territory with some of its song structures. Notable is that Enthroned now are finally fully black metal in all of its corpse painted, leatherbound and spiked glory. Traces of death – and thrash metal are so minimal that they can easily be missed when not paying close attention to what is happening or how things are written.

enthroned4Supposedly an album about “the Apocalypse from a strict Satanic perspective”, which is hard to tell from the actual lyrics because they mostly seem to deal with genocide, warfare and various forms of extermination. They are ever so slightly better than the hilarious pieces written for the preceding two albums. This can probably be attributed to the fact that most lyrics were written by other members than Franck Lorent. There are still grammatical – and spelling errors all over the place, but the whole thing at least appears to have some thought put into it, something that couldn’t be said previously. What radically different light or angle the “strict Satanic perspective” is supposed to shed on the topical Apocalypse is anybody’s guess. The lyrics certainly don’t help matters because nothing new is to be gleaned off them. Unless I’m missing something.

For the first and only time Enthroned was able to record in Abyss Studio in Sweden, and Tommy Tägtgren does a commendable job of capturing Enthroned’s barbaric offerings in a smooth and glossy digital environment that, for the first time, allows the many nuances in the band’s riffing to come to the surface. The drums are far less loud and crushing, but the crisp digital sound of the drum kit allows more space for the lead – and rhythm guitars to break through, while Franck Lorent’s vocals are still up, front and center. Curiously, the presence of Lorent’s usually thundering bass guitar is notably toned down compared to past records but it is still vaguely audible, but its presence is more supressed. It wouldn’t be heard again until the next album that was recorded elsewhere. The cover artwork by Adrian Wear is the band’s most sophisticated piece to date, and the whole presentation of this album exudes professionalism to nth degree.

Various problems arose with the production of this album. Track 5 ‘Post Mortem Penetrations (Messe des Saintes Mortes)’ is omitted on the first 2000 copies despite being mentioned on the tracklisting, and having its lyrics printed in the booklet. Track 4 is called ‘Retribution of the Holy’ on the back cover and on the last page of the booklet, and ‘Retribution of Holy Trinity’ inside the booklet (but the lyrics contain the phrase "...retribution of the holy trinity."). The hidden track after the last song, a fiery cover rendition of Exhorder track ‘Anal Lust’ was a nice surprise. Its inclusion here would only be explained by the direction the band would embark on after two more albums in the style perfected here. On the whole these production problems aren’t that much of a hassle – and they don’t take anything away from what this album intends to do. It wouldn’t be until the next album that Murphy’s Law would come into play, and botched what should have been a suitably punishing follow-up to this loosely conceptual battering about the Christian interpretation of the End of Days, the Apocalypse.

The booklet also contains an almost page-long rant by frontman Franck Lorent about the then-current state of the black metal scene, and who the band considers to be posers. This becomes especially funny in hindsight as Enthroned itself is firmly a second wave act. Much of its sound is derived from 90s Scandinavian (mostly Norwegian and Swedish) bands, and its key members had a background in death - , thrash – and doom metal prior to forming the band, and joining the burdgeoning black metal scene. In fact, rumors persist that Enthroned was targeted by French black metal scene purists Les Légions Noires for not being “necro” enough, and allowing outside influences to taint its sound. Discussions about the band’s purity of sound aside, “The Apocalypse Manifesto” doesn’t make any illusions about what it is: a solid second-tier effort from a band that had faced its fair share of bad luck, and finally regained some much needed stability. Even though the concept is fairly ridiculous, the band manage to pull it off in a fairly respectable manner, and their conviction about the subject is endearing, to say the least.

All these superficial and production problems aside “The Apocalypse Manifesto” is probably Enthroned’s most potent and strongest offering up to that point. Yet despite their progression, this is still deeply generic, incredibly mundane and well, inoffensive non-Scandinavian Norsecore. All the proper tools are in place and accounted for, yet the band isn’t able to write something to truly remarkable. Nothing on this album serves to set them apart from the other faceless competitors (and imitators) that had sprung up as a reaction to their first two albums. As blistering and unrelenting as this album is, it’s just that: unrelenting, and little more. This would continue to characterize Enthroned, who appear to be forever relegated to the role of bridesmaid while some of their peers would be able to move to greener pastures, supposedly those made of money. A sufficient and reliable second-tier act at best, Enthroned was able to build up a solid fanbase and niche within the underground, but that’s about it – and that’s okay.