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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

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While Satyricon wasn’t the first black metal band to capitalize on the visual media in the second half of the 90s – they were able to make the most memorable entry. Although being predated by its regional peers Gorgoroth and Immortal, Satyricon distilled the black metal genre down to its most recognizable visual cornerstones. In that sense “Mother North” and its video herald the end of an era for the band. The release of the VHS was widely publicized in the metal press at the time, and with the extracurricular activities of several prominent scene figures filling the international tabloids (and that “Satan’s Cheerleaders” article by Spin Magazine author Darcy Steinke, in particular) - the band choose the ideal time to release the VHS. The interest in the genre was at its fever pitch, and what better way to win over a few new fans than by producing a full-length video?

One of the first things you will notice is that Satyricon simply followed what its predecessors had laid before them. As “Mother North” was predated by the David Palser-shot Immortal “Battles In the North” promo videos, Dark Funeral’s independently produced “The Secrets Of the Black Arts” (from the album of the same name) and Gorgoroth’s crude live recording of ‘Crushing the Scepter (Regaining A Lost Dominion)’, the duo of Satyr and Frost simply took what worked for each, and recombined them in their own work. The only remotely original idea that this video has is the presence of a model by the name of Monica Bråten, who (according to popular wisdom at the time) was Satyr’s then-girlfriend. Her presence can be reduced to nothing but an extended cameo, and the only thing Bråten is mostly remembered for is the fact that she wore little to no clothing during the second half of the original video. The video was produced and directed by Satyricon frontman Sigurd Wongraven (Satyr). While it is better than most self-produced efforts of the genre around this time, it is clear that Wongraven had no background in visual media or its related studies. The composition of the shots is functional for the most part, but several sequences border on home-video territory in terms of framing and blocking. “Mother North” comes in two varities on this VHS, first there’s the original uncut version, and a second clean PG-13 version for general airplay.

Mother North – the video
“Mother North” was released in 1996 at the dawn of the symfo black metal explosion and the stratospheric rise of vampiric imagery in the genre. The tape consists of an intro, the censored music video, a middle section that serves as an introduction for the uncensored music video, and the end credits. There are important differences between the two. By and large the two videos are similar in scope, but the difference is obvious. Satyricon had always been a band that avoided the most recognizable clichés of the genre. Major themes in the band’s first three records are Nordic pride, appreciation for one‘s heritage and culture, and the breathtaking beauty of Norway as a country with its forests, mountains, lakes and fjords. All of that is conveyed to a satisfactory degree through out the video, the “gore” scenes however feel cheap, insulting and misplaced.

Thankfully, the video is consistent with the imagery the band had decided upon for the “Nemesis Divina” album from which this track is culled. Satyricon has always had imagery problems, at least in terms of as to how they wanted to project themselves as a band towards its audience. In the early days of “Dark Medieval Times” the duo used corpsepaint. For its second album “The Shadowthrone” only Frost used corpse paint, and for the “Nemesis Divina” album Satyricon opted again to use corpse paint. Luckily the band is consistent in this promotional video. The video itself can be broken down into three scenes: individual shots, group/story shots and effect shots – or a combination of each. The effects are largely successful, although the impalement – and vampirism scenes are executed with a considerable amount of success, the problem lies elsewhere.

Another problem is the inconsistent usage of its one extra cast member, the enchanting Monica Bråten. For the first half of the video she’s meant as a physical embodiment of Norway’s strength and beauty as a country, in the story shots she’s either a wood nymph or Satyr’s regal queen. The main portion of the video consists of the band defending the dominions of Satyricon, shots of the moon, firebreathing, burning Christian iconography – and inconsiderate use of a smoke machine. Through out these central scenes Bråten appears clothed in a filmsy, see-through dress. In stark contrast to the first half the second portion of the video seems to be confused as to what use her for. For no reason at all Bråten now has shed whatever little garment she had, and does a sultry dance while looking straight into the camera. For some hitherto undiscernable reason Satyr vampirizes and impales her on a broad sword with the usual close-up shots of blood and grue. The obvious problem is that this whole subplot is internally inconsistent with what had been established, plot-wise, earlier in the video. To add insult to injury, these very scenes seem to undermine the entire premise of the song for which they were shot. If Bråten represents the pride, beauty and honor of Norway the band so adamantly want to defend from Christian inquisition, when then vampirize and impale her?

The final problem is the inexplicable nudity scenes that Bråten has to partake in during the second half of the video. Whereas the first part had her cavorting around alone, or in company of the three men in a forest, here she now just dances in the buff for no reason other than to titillate the audience. The nudity itself isn’t so much the problem, but its presence distracts from what the main narrative wants to convey. Bråten is decidedly easy on the eyes, and her uninhibitedness to flaunt her body so graciously in front of the world is commendable, but what purpose do these scenes serve beyond the superficial? As if the nude dancing wasn’t enough, along with impalement and vampirism scenes there’s a shot on Monica sitting/lying down as the camera leers over her athletic body. One of these shots trips the line of bordering on sexploitation, and Satyr’s love for the zoom function actually reminds of the works of the late Spanish cult director Jésus Franco Manera and his 1970s output as “Vampiros Lesbos”, “Eugenia” and “Erotikill”. Like his productive Spanish compatriot Wongraven too spents inordinate amount of time leering over Bråten’s mammary glands and pubic area. That isn’t a sin in and of itself, but it doesn’t help move forward whatever little plot this video has either. In fact the video seems to completely go off the rails towards the end, as shots of Bråten dancing and lying seductively are interspersed at points that make no sense at all.

Differences with the censored version
The key difference between the censored and uncensored videos lies mainly in the scenes containing either nudity or gore. These scenes have either been shot differently, or been blurred out during explicit parts. In the vampire feeding scenes, you only see a darkened shot of Satyr, while the uncensored video lovingly pans over Bråten’s body with Wongraven feeding of several body parts. In the censored vision there’s a spooky glimmer of light after the feeding scenes, while the uncensored video has a shot of Satyr as bits of meat fall out of his bloody mouth. The erotic dancing scenes are largely similar with the exception that the censored edition blurs out Bråten when she’s coming too close within the camera’s reach, or when her pubic area comes into the frame. In the censored edition Monica’s face has shot in close-up, followed by a posing shot of Satyr, followed by another blurred shot of Bråten dancing. The concluding chapter of the video has more of Bråten’s erotic dancing, with the censored version blurring everything out while the uncensored edition continues to leer willingly over her firm body. The uncensored edition ends up with a quick-cut highlight reel before going into the credits.

One’s enjoyment of this visual media piece is largely dependent on how much importance you place upon cohesion and consistency. “Mother North” is, obviously, easy on the eyes, but its few strengths do not free it from its more glaring shortcomings. More goofy than scary, and insultingly pandering instead of sophisticated the video is testament to the fact that Satyricon, as a band, were in the industry for the wrong reasons. As both a black metal and a metal video in general it does everything you expect it to do, but outside of that there is little to recommend from a technical standpoint. The production values are cheap, the props are recycled from the band’s “Nemesis Divina” photo shoot and the special effects mostly lose whatever little impact they had due to Wongraven’s insistence to shoot them from too close. Extreme metal was never known for its excellent music videos, and this one is no different. Check it out if you are really curious. Don’t expect to be wowed. Emperor did this better a year later.