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The times that an album’s cover artwork captures a recording’s general atmosphere as well as it does here are far and few. Mysticum’s debut album “In the Streams Of Inferno” is an intensely bleak, downtrodden, foggy and morose album. It was probably one of the earliest of its kind too, in 1996. Combining the harsh elements of Nordic black metal with the cold, inhuman and mechanical aspects of industrial, the band found an equilibrium that not only instantly set them apart from their peers, but laid the template for a subgenre. Unlike the copycat bands that followed in its wake Mysticum is equal parts black metal as it is industrial music. Both genres feed off concepts of alienation, estrangement and depression – that Mysticum was among the first to combine these genres speaks of their innovative spirit and willingness to think outside of the box and question the preconceived notions of the genre they called home. Thorns, Ulver and Dodheimsgard would venture into industrial and electronic territory later in their career – it was Mysticum that kicked open all the doors, it were they who laid the path.

The history of how Mysticum came to use industrial components for its rhythm section, and indeed the origin of the band is interesting in itself. The band was known prior as the formative industrial black metal outfit outfit Sabazios, who released a number of demos. The line-up in Sabazios was identical to the later Mysticum constellation, namely Benny Cerastes (vocals, guitars), Ravn Preben Mulvik (Prime Evil, also vocals/guitars) and Robin Malmberg (bass guitar, programming). Under the name Sabazios the unit independently released the “Wintermass” demo tape. This demo recording eventually led to a recording agreement with Oystein Aarseth’s label imprint Deathlike Silence Productions, and it was him who encouraged the band to switch names. Originally the record had a working title “Serpent Mysticism” and later “Where the Raven Flies”. Mysticum was originally signed to Deathlike Silence to release their first album that was entitled "Where the Raven Flies", going as far as to have promotional flyers printed bearing this album title - but due to Aarseth’s untimely passing it was never released under said title and imprint. “In the Streams Of Inferno” is a collection of re-recorded demo tracks, combined with new tracks specifically written for this recording session.

Around 1993-94 Mayhem had come to an end due to the incarceration, defection and passing of several of its key members. Left with no band second Mayhem drummer (and the band’s current figurehead) Jan-Axel Blomberg was enticed to join Mysticum behind the drums. When he decided that he wanted to revive the brand that made him the household name in the extreme metal genre, this left Mysticum in a bind. With their intended drummer no longer available, the band reverted back to the usage of drum computers. This would eventually lead to the album now known as “In the Streams Of Inferno”. A volatile and militant piece of Nordic black metal that flirts with elements of industrial and holds an unearthly, sci-fi atmosphere few bands were able to match.

Like there are two equally important and integral parts to Nine Inch Nails’ collective band persona - the abrasive, confrontational songs, and the more emotionally charged, fragile atmospheric tracks – the same rings true for Mysticum. The short intro instrumental ‘Industries Of Inferno’ (a clever phonetic approximation of the album title) is a soothing, all too short ambient track that recalls Nine Inch Nails’ own ‘A Warm Place’ from “The Downward Spiral”. Whereas Nine Inch Nails would eventually dedicate an entire half album’s worth to their more introspective, soothing and ambient material Mysticum would never go quite as far. Which is unfortunate because they were actually reasonably adept at such a thing.  Alas it was not to be thus we should make do with what we have. Once the atmospheric intro track has subsided the album truly starts.

‘The Rest’ kicks off with a martial industrial kickdrum beat that could easily be mistaken for a Eurodance beat of the same time period. Complementary to this basic beat is sparse usage of the snare drum, mostly in a marching, militaristic pattern. For a moment not considering the industrial aspect of Mysticum, there are a number of commonalities with pre-“In the Nightside Eclipse” Emperor, and not only vocally. For starters they share the same buzzing guitar tone and the riffing is largely similar in construction. As mentioned, the shrieking vocals also are akin to Ihsahn’s rasps in Emperor’s demo phase. Much like Emperor this band also uses minimal synthesizer lines to accentuate the riffs or enhance the atmosphere in general. Mysticum also play at a similar pace, but  the occasional foray into faster segments and the sparse usage of stock movie samples, among them, for example, the 1981 original version of “The Evil Dead” in the track ‘Let the Kingdom Come’ Mysticum is notably different and more individualistic in its approach in comparison to its arguably more popular and revered Telemark peers. By and large, Mysticum followed Emperor’s compositional lead – but kept its industrial components largely as a supportive device. The major difference with the creatively similar Limbonic Art is that Mysticum is about atmosphere, desolation and darkness primarily, whereas that other band was mostly about high speed and layers upon layers of keyboards and synthesizers.

The instrumental ‘In the Last of the Ruins We Search For A New Planet’ is exactly the type of post-apocalyptic sci-fi epilogue you’d reasonably expect of a band like this. The ambient rumble, the lonely plinking piano, and the light washes of keyboards all seek to do one thing: to create the most desolate, grim and cold atmosphere one would usually associate with the vast coldness of space, and the bombed out surface on an abandoned, blackened, lifeless planet. Just listening to this track you can easily image burned out, derelict buildings, the fog lifting and falling down, debris and dessicated human remains scattered everywhere with pools of fire burning as spheres in the nightsky look over that desolate vision as ominous watchers of fate. Somewhere, some place a radio is playing, sending out the desolate and repetitive tones of a slowly dying piano melody.

Interestingly Mysticum was one of the earliest known proponents of the industrial black metal sound. Yet nobody seems to lavish them with the praise they rightfully deserve in playing this groundbreaking new style in 1996. Only Switzerland’s Samael followed a similar path, but their 1996 album “Passage” was a transitional record, and it wasn’t until 1999’s “Eternal” that they fully embraced the industrial sound. The Dissection studio side-project De Infernali released an album in 1997, a full year after Mysticum’s debut. Dodheimsgard, a fairly pedestrian black metal band up to that point, didn’t jump on the industrial/electronic bandwagon until 1998-99. Even Italian experimentalists Aborym didn’t have a debut out until 1999. Thorns, the Norwegian band featuring Snorre Ruch, didn’t venture into industrial black metal territory until well into 2001. While all these later bands for some reason were heralded as innovators within their genre, nobody seemed to remember the fact that Mysticum predated them by several years. As is often the case with true pioneers, they are reduced to nothing but a footnote in the annals of the genre, as more readily marketable bands copied what they did.

As with many a debut most of the songs here are the strongest or most lauded cuts from the band’s earlier incarnation, and its subsequent demo recordings. “In the Streams Of Inferno” for the most part culls from the band’s archives, but also throws in a few entirely new tracks to differentiate the release from the demos that came before. ‘The Rest’ and ‘Wintermass’ are songs from the 1993 “Wintermass” demo. ‘Crypt Of Fear’ originally appeared in an earlier version on the “Medusa’s Tears” demo from 1993 as ‘Into My Crypt Of Fear’. ‘Where the Ravens Flies’, ‘Let the Kingdom Come’ and ‘In Your Grave’ appeared initially on the “Piss Off” demo from 1995. ‘Where the Raven Flies’ was known as ‘Where the Ravens Fly’ on said demo tape. All the other tracks were written and recorded specifically for this session. Strangely, there are no notable differences between the old and new tracks. Mysticum clearly knew what it wanted to do with this record, and the inter-song cohesion is truly spectacular. There would be a second Mysticum album a few years later, but “In the Streams Of Inferno” remains unmatched and unsurpassed to this day.

Mysticum gave a glimpse into the future, and it was bleak…

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After spending a good five years finding and optimizing their sound South Carolina death metal combo Nile was contracted by American independent record label Relapse Records. For their label debut Nile compiled the best songs of their demo phase, and wrote a handful of new tracks to balance out its debut. Mostly inspired by the early works of Cannibal Corpse, Incantation, Morbid Angel, Suffocation and Vader “Amongst the Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka” was a whirlwind of high-speed death metal intensity and a few brief atmospheric Egyptian-tinged flashes. So, despite the continual praise heaped upon these mortals – how good is that debut exactly? Well, it’s great for the most part, but it is littered with faults and shortcomings that would later be ironed out, thankfully.

Of the new tracks ‘Barra Edinuzzu’ is among the more ambitious. Although lasting little over two minutes it houses one of the most impressive dynamic changes and chord progressions on this record, and an epic finale. The album is different from future output because it largely culls from the foundations of “Tomb Of the Mutilated” and “The Bleeding” in the sense that these are chunky death metal cuts played at an enormous speed. The drumming recalls Jim Roe’s tenure with Incantation, and the whole has that technical framework and percussive density usually associated with early Suffocation. The riff set and hunger bring in an influence of early Vader, and the slower cuts (however few) are clearly inspired by the B and C records of Morbid Angel. Add all that up, and what you get is an impressive package that is only cut short by the brief running time of the majority of the tracks. ‘Ramses Bringer Of War’ is partly redeemed by the inclusion of the intro movement from Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, Bringer Of War’ from his classic symphony ‘The Planets’. Most other tracks are over before you know it, and the album itself is a rush of blastbeats, grunts and shrieking leads/solos. Thankfully by the second album Nile would have understood the importance of not rushing everything.

That’s the biggest strike against this debut record. In their quest to be as ‘brutal’ (gosh, I hate that term) as humanly possible, Nile often forgets that it is not speed, density or heaviness that is paramount, but songwriting is. Take opening cut ‘Smashing the Antiu’, which is basically one long blastbeat interrupted by a slow section in the middle, and the lead section towards the end. This song could have been so much more, by just distributing its ideas more evenly, which would have extended it by a minute and a half. As much I like the song, it is brimming with ideas that are never really explored beyond the barest essentials, only briefly hinting on what is lying underneath. Most of the time it feels like ‘Smashing the Antiu’ and ‘Barra Edinuzzu’ is one bigger song cut awkwardly in half. ‘Serpent Headed Mask’ is pretty much identical to ‘Barra Edinuzzu’ in terms of overall composition, and its atmospheric break greatly enhances the effectiveness of the cut. ‘Ramses Bringer Of War’ is, of course, one of the album’s signature highlights – and the fact that is was just a re-recorded demo track makes it even more impressive.

The line-up is identical to the ones of the preceding demos, with exception of the ousting of guitarist John Ehlers. This translates in a natural transition from a demo band into a full-blown professional outfit. The band sounds cohesive, tightly-knit and really gels together well. The interplay of the three vocals is what makes the band’s first (and second) album way more interesting than their later output. On here the band uses every vocal style at their disposal. Deep growls, throatier grunts, angry shouts, whispers, tribal chants, and even sparse narrative bits are employed through out. This would be abandoned at a later stage for a combination of more traditional death grunts. “Amongst the Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka” was recorded as a three-piece with only co-founder Karl Sanders handling guitar duties. Chief Spires (bass guitar) and Pete Hammoura (drums) both share vocals with Sanders, and only after the completion of this album second guitarist/vocalist Dallas Toler-Wade would be enlisted.

For the first time Nile recorded at Sound Lab in South Carolina with producer/engineer Bob Moore. The result is that this debut sounds a lot more forceful, meatier and generally more concrete compared to the preceding demos. Much like Kataklysm’s “The Mystical Gate Of Reincarnation” the album is heavy on the bottom-end, and expenses clarity and definition for the sake of an all-out barbaric onslaught. The absence of clarity, definition and range would be duly rectified on subsequent recordings, but for a debut the production is fairly impressive. The artwork and graphics by Adam Peterson also look great, and the whole package exudes professionalism and seriousness.  Curiously there is no photography whatsoever in the booklet for this debut, and that added a bit to the mystique of the band, and the relative novelty of their Egyptian concept. The lyrics, as the band name suggests, deal with Egyptian culture, history and mythology – while the album title refers to the pulp and atmospheric horror literature of H.P. Lovecraft. Nephren-Ka, also known as the Black Pharaoh, is a character from the Cthulhu Mythos who started the worship of Nyarlathotep, a malign entity also known as the Crawling Chaos. He is featured in the novel "The Haunter of the Dark", published 1936.

Although many will write this off as a dry-run or proof-of-concept for the albums to follow “Amongst the Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka” is the sole album of its kind in Nile’s catalogue. Savage, barbaric and completely unforgiving at any point, it is the watershed moment in the band’s blossoming career, and the offering that cemented their status as one of the genre’s brightest new hopes. As stated at the top, “Amongst the Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka” does a lot of things right, but it isn’t without its glaring faults or omissions. In fact, for all the power and brutality this album harnesses, it doesn’t set its goals all too high to begin with. Outside of the skill level and interesting lyrical themes this didn’t sound too different from what was being pushed out in most of the underground. Was Nile better than a great deal of their competitors? Absolutely. Was this band as much as a genre-savior as it was made out to be? Not in the slightest, although they did undestand the strengths of the genre better than most. That’s something at least