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By the time “Nightwing”, the fifth Marduk album and second with vocalist Erik Hagstedt (Legion) behind the microphone, hit the market the band had become familiar with its new style. Released a year after “Heaven Shall Burn…” it is a continuation of that album’s sound with overall increased levels of density. The line-up remained identical from the preceding album, and that internal stability paid off dividends in terms of consistency, and performances from each of the members. While it does not quite have the same impact as it its immediate predecessor “Nightwing” is a reliable but unimaginative follow-up to a great breakthrough album. It is, however, the last good Marduk album for quite some time, as the band would fall into a rut and lose steam shortly after its release.

To say that “Nightwing” is intense would be an understatement. The performance of drummer Fredrik Andersson borders on death metal territory considering the breakneck pace and percussive density he brings in said department. The bass-heaviness of Marduk’s early albums is carried over, and Bo Svensson (B. War) provides thick, oozing licks that propel the riffs from mainstay and creative force Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson to the front all while holding down the bottom-end heaviness. Two albums into his tenure with the band Erik Hagstedt (Legion) delivers his last worthwhile performance, as his voice would rapidly deteriorate on the successors to “Nightwing”. Some of the lyrics reek of process and latter-day Deicide (say “Serpents Of the Light”) too with memorable passages as: “Slay the Nazarene / Die, die, die!” Both ‘Of Hell’s Fire’ and the aforementioned ‘Slay the Nazarene’ have particularly poor lyrics to go along with the highly efficient but hardly exciting Norsecore. Was a bit of eloquence and verbosity too much to ask in black metal at this point in time? The theological sub-branch of the genre was still a couple of years away from exploding – but other big name bands such as Ancient Rites, Dissection and Emperor were lyrically more ambitious.

Marduk_old-lineup“Nightwing” is divided into two specific chapters. The first four songs encompass the "Dictionnaire Infernal", Marduk’s now patented attack on all things religious. Chapter two "The Warlord Wallachia", comprising of the last four songs, further fleshes out the Vlad Tepes narrative of the preceding record. ‘Nightwing’, the title track, is omitted from the tracklist altogether as it fits with neither chapter. “Nightwing” is the second part of the ‘blood’ chapter in an abstract tribute to Bathory’s landmark 1988 “Blood, Fire, Death” album. Further records include the preceding “Heaven Shall Burn” (blood), “Panzer Division Marduk” (fire) and the duo of “World Funeral” and “La Grande Danse Macabre” (death). In retrospect it makes the albums part of the movement a lot more interesting as up to this point in time Marduk changed a lot musically, but the way they structured their album has remained identical from yesteryear when they were a death metal band.

It is no surprise that there are more cinematic references to this album than you’d initially expect. That Håkansson loves cinema in its many forms is no secret, and “Nightwing” is littered with references in that regard. The spoken intro to ‘Slay The Nazarene’ is taken from the 1973 movie “The Wicker Man”. The main riffs of ‘Nightwing’ were adapted from the score of the 1991 vampire film "Subspecies". The lyrics are also based on the plot of the movie. The album’s main concept (and entire second half) is dedicated to further detailing the historical account of Romanian warlord Vlad Tepes. While the concept was initiated on the preceding “Heaven Shall Burn…” the subject appeared at its earliest on “Opus Nocturne” with the track ‘Deme Quaden Thyrane’ which was re-recorded here. This was probably done for completeness’ sake, but also out of convenience because this meant the band needed one less new song to write to complete the concept. That ‘Deme Quaden Thyrane’ fits the slower direction is rather opportune, as Marduk didn’t went all out high-speed black metal until “Opus Nocturne”.

The songs dealing with Vlad Tepes suffer from the same defect that made the “Heaven Shall Burn…” prologue a test in patience more than anything else. All these songs are directionless slow trudging cuts that work miracles in terms of pacing when they appear sparsely on each album. When taken back-to-back as the second half of an otherwise blisteringly fast genre effort they are poorly paced and constructed, supposedly epic songs to forward the Vlad Tepes narrative started two albums ago. Even in its death metal phase Håkansson never really excelled at writing slow material (‘Holy Inquistion’, ‘The Sun Turns Black As Night’ and ‘Within the Abyss’ excepted, if you are feeling charitable – or plainly adore that old dirgey death metal sound). Not only are these slow tracks horribly paced and constructed – they sit poorly with the preceding blisteringly fast tracks that serve to open the album. There’s no sense of journey with the narrative cuts, and Marduk’s musical frame is too limited (and limiting) to truly make something from these tracks. Since they had worked years to find their sound they weren’t going to revert back into their death metal form to make this work, which would have benefitted these tracks tremendously. Only ‘Anno Domini 1476’ sounds truly ominous and atmospheric in its eeriness, and this mostly due to the haunting choirs that appear sparingly and the militaristic percussion. Not only are these tracks listless and dull, they don’t sound very ominous either – which is the entire raison d’etre of black metal in the first place. Most of these tracks don’t build up to a climax, and what little there is of mentionworthy payoff isn’t worth sitting through most of them in the first place.

Marduk, to its credit, is consistent and reliable in what it does, and how it goes about accomplishing its very specific objective. In an almost Mortician sense, Håkansson relies on the tried-and-true formula established on “Opus Nocturne” and deviates not an inch from what worked in the past. Once again the album was recorded at Abyss Studio in Sweden with much in-demand producer Peter Tägtgren. Whereas “Heaven Shall Burn…” had a smooth sounding production that was richly textured in its digital gloss, “Nightwing” instead comes with a hostile concrete-and-steel sounding death metal production job. In fact this is the type of production that I’d wish Kataklysm’s “The Temple Of Knowledge” had. It’s certainly a headscratcher to see a black metal band do a death metal production better than an actual death metal band. The artwork by Belgian painter Kris Verwimp and Swedish artist Stefan Danielsson fits the early catalog. After this record Marduk would go into a different direction visually. “Nighwing” is a sturdy and reliable Marduk album – but its early death metal direction was plainly better.

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After the band imploded due to the extracurricular activities from its members in the wake of the “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” release – it was surprising to see Mayhem resurfacing so unpredictably quick after what would have killed any lesser underground band, or any band whose history or its alleged legend and underground reputation far outweighed its actual musical output. For this session, we have de facto leader Jan-Axel Blomberg (Hellhammer) - the sole survivor of the previous incarnation of the band, and now the inheritor to the Mayhem brandname - returning behind the drums. Early vocalist Sven-Erik Kristiansen (Maniac) was redrafted along with original bass guitarist Jørn Stubberud (Necrobutcher) to give an aura of credibility to the proceedings. Replacing late guitarist and main songwriter Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous) was a then-unknown guitarist by the name of Rune Eriksen (Blasphemer), who had a comparable but far more technically proficient playing style than his predecessor. His substitute was the next best thing in absence of the original. So, what is “Wolf's Lair Abyss” exactly? It is a structural and musical retread of “Deathcrush” in more ways than is healthy.

3059807_640pxTo get the most obvious thing out of the way, this is a modern interpretation of what “Deathcrush” was. Like that EP it starts off with a semi-industrial, martial intro here being the track ‘The Vortex Void Of Inhumanity’. The intro in effect foreshadows the direction the band would explore on the polarizing 2000 concept record “Grand Declaration Of War”. Like “Deathcrush” the EP kicks off with the most violent and abrasive track of the record, namely the uniformly crushing ‘I Am Thy Labyrinth’ and just like its famous predecessor “Wolf's Lair Abyss” will then throw another fast song at the listener with ‘Fall Of Seraphs’, before giving a slight breather with ‘Ancient Skin’. Like “Deathcrush” concluded with ‘Total Fucking Armageddon’ this EP ends with another notable blaster in form of ‘Symbols Of Bloodswords’. Then there’s also the fact that Maniac screeches his way through this EP and the earlier, arguably more legendary one. The overlap in personel only serves to emphasize the similarity in terms of composition and overall architecture. The differences are only superficial, and besides Maniac’s incessant screeches and a few riffs here and there it’s hard to tell apart from contemporary death metal as far as intensity and technicality is concerned.

‘I Am Thy Labyrinth’ opens with same Aarseth-written riff that fellow Norwegians Emperor had used the year before in tribute to their fallen comrade on ‘Ye Entrancemperium’ on its second full-length “Anthems To the Welkin at Dusk”. One thing you’ll instantly notice is how violent the band sounds on this EP. Where “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” was just a basic ‘90s death metal record with slightly different riffing, ghoulish vocals and abstract occult lyrics, this new EP is black metal of the Norsecore variety: percussive, dense and speed-based more than anything. The drumming on the last record was thrashy, and tasteful in regards to fills and rolls – here it sounds as if Blomberg is auditioning for the likes of Angelcorpse, Krisiun, Hate Eternal or Nile. The whole thing becomes considerably less impressive when considering that Swedish former death metal band Marduk had written two records in the same style a few years prior. Just like “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” before it, and like the Swedes in Marduk, this EP is incredible in its pumping bass-heaviness and overall level of clarity.

Maniac sounds even more depraved and demonic than on his first recording with this unit. The early singers for Dark Funeral, Marduk and Gorgoroth all sounded ghoulish and unearthly, but here Kristianesen takes it to a whole new stomach churning level. Assisted by the delicate clean vocals and monk chants of Kristoffer Rygg, the vocal performance on this EP is second to none. This easily matches Attila Csihar’s psychotic and strange vocals on the preceding “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” album on every aspect in schizophrenic delivery and overall weirdness. The fact that Mayhem here sound exactly like everybody would imagine they did isn’t very surprising. The band needed to re-establish its brandname after the extended hiatus of the previous recording, now overshadowed by its reputation and criminal record, there was no way the band could just return with an “okay” album or EP. No, this needed to sound familiar and relentless.

This is meat-and-patatoes, completely unadventurous Norsecore by one of the Scandinavian scene’s most enigmatic practitioners when it comes right down to it. The fact that this EP does little of interest musically only serves to prove that Mayhem the legend was more interesting than Mayhem as a band. The added injury comes with the fact that despite black metal was never meant to be commercialized and commoditized here its most famous unit gladly cashes the cheque that its non-musical activity had brought them in terms of marketability. Mayhem never was the most gifted or the most impressive of the Norwegian black metal hordes, and this EP doesn’t really change that fact. First, it proved that even death, incarceration or lack of members can’t stop Mayhem and second, Mayhem was never above imitation. “Wolf’s Lair Abyss” sounds nothing like the Mayhem of the past - but like a carbon-copy of “Heaven Shall Burn…” Marduk and “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” Dark Funeral, both released the year before in 1996. These innovators have a trackrecord of imitating the day’s popular sound – and “Wolf’s Lair Abyss”, like the two infamous releases before it, is not any different.

The EP was recorded at Studio Studio and Far Out Studio in Norway with Kristoffer Rygg producing. No stranger to controversy and perennial provocateurs the EP lends its name from Wolf’s Lair, Adolf Hitler’s secret headquarters on the Eastern Front. The lay-out was handled by Stephen O’Malley.  “Wolfs Lair Abyss” is a fitting return for a band that has always been eclipsed by their non-musical activity, and scene importance. That “Wolf's Lair Abyss” is nearly identical in construction to “Deathcrush” is no surprise, as the band needed to re-establish its musical relevance after the disastrous events of the preceding record tore the band apart. This sounds both familiar and reinvigorated, and it isn’t very surprising that Mayhem chose to go into a different direction after this EP.

This EP sees the return of the ‘The True Mayhem’ in its logo, a gimmick which the band continue to milk to this very day, mostly through their merchandising. This is the most flat-out ridiculous and downright silly thing when you stop to think about it. There aren’t many outfits called Mayhem today with same amount of notoriety, scene clout and industry leverage. Every single original member of Mayhem was either deceased (Øystein Aarseth), or ousted (Kjetil Manheim) long before Blomberg took over the creative – and business aspect of the Mayhem brand. Blomberg, who didn’t appear in the picture until “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, wasn’t even an original member himself! This pushes this whole “The True” business into the realms of the absurd, the comical and the preposterous. Kristiansen and Stubberud were the only original members. That makes 50% of “The True” line-up hired guns, or paid employees, whatever you want to call it. There was nothing ‘true’ about this Mayhem, and if it weren’t for the economic viability of the brand - this band would have remained buried, as it probably should have been.