My first exposure to Ancient was by viewing the video for "Lilith's
Embrace", from The Cainian Chronicle, a year or so after it had been released. Naturally,
I was absolutely disgusted by the horrible garbage that I saw and heard, and thus Ancient was written off as yet another band
of posers, polluting the black metal scene with female vocals, keyboards and other horrendous nonsense that was commonplace
at the time. Some months later, I was surprised when a friend in Sweden sent me a tape that included "Trumps of an Archangel",
from the band's debut album Svartalvheim. This gave me the impression that the band
used to be good, though I was again disappointed when I heard the whole thing. Recorded in late 1993 and released in May 1994,
this L.P. displays a different approach from their later works and demonstrates a more competent understanding black metal,
though the result is not all that good.
After an eerie intro, the aforementioned track wastes no time in unleashing
an assault of primitive-sounding black metal. The production is not as raw as one might expect, with the guitars sounding
less sharp and more blunt. The riffs are certainly in the same vein as most of their Norwegian peers, featuring a good number
of sombre tremolo melodies mixed in with more old-school influences. The vocals possess a grim feeling that is very common
for the time period, and not entirely original.
"Huldradans" utilizes similar straightforward riffs, interspersed with
acoustic bits and melodies of a more epic nature that expand the sound of the band and allow for a wider variety in the overall
approach. The general vibe of the song is gloomy and the lead solo, near the end, adds a sorrowful quality as well. Ending
with another acoustic passage, the song displays a decent understanding of composition and all of the various elements work
together, quite well.
The next song is more memorable and is dominated by a mid-paced riff the hearkens back to Bathory's
Under the Sign of the Black Mark. "The Call of the Absu Deep" is one of the standout
tracks on the album, possessing a mournful vibe that somewhat drains the life out of you. The effect is limited, as the acoustic
part interrupts the gloom but still fits into the song in an adequate manner.
"Det Glemte Riket" takes a while to build
up, but features an atmosphere that is heavily influenced by old Bathory, much like the previous track. The bass is a little
too prominent on this one, but it does not distract too much. The songwriting is a bit too ambitious for the band's abilities,
leaving this one sounding like an inconsistent mess.
The gloom returns in the early moments of "Paa Evig Vandring",
which is a very lengthy song that clocks in at over nine minutes. The keyboards kill whatever feeling the acoustic guitar
is attempting to create, but the main riffs are, again, mid-paced and maintaining the same influences as the last couple songs.
Later on, a funeral organ adds a sense of morbidity to the proceedings, but the music does little to build on this. A nice,
high-speed riff is teased, but it is ephemeral. By this point, the album is rapidly losing momentum, which comes to a halt
with the following track.
"Ved Trolltjern" is another experiment in atmospheric black metal, which is more of an interlude.
This track is worthless and it is safe to say that the album is dead in the water, at this point.
Finally, it seems
that the members of Ancient quit screwing around and get back to business on "Eerily Howling Winds". This gets back to the
tremolo melodies, mixed in with some old school riffs, and a faster pace. Unfortunately, it is also joined by some horrible
clean vocals that give it some kind of gothic feeling. This song tries to get things going again, but the inclusion of unnecessary
elements ruins it.
"Likferd" is a solid track that starts with a brief intro before things pick up. The first couple
of riffs are average, but a hypnotic riff emerges after a minute or so that also leads to an increased intensity in the drumming.
This seems reminiscent of early Darkthrone, though not as well-executed. More tremolo riffs appear, later on, creating a mildly
epic and sombre vibe, and continuing for the remainder of the track, allowing it to end on a high note.
Svartalvheim is a terribly inconsistent record. Ancient is quite competent in writing and playing standard
black metal in the northern style, but their reach often exceeded their grasp and whatever ambitions that they had to achieve
something more led to utter ruin and the failure of the album as a whole. Out of ten tracks, only four are of any worth, and
even those are not extraordinary. If you find this in a discount bin (or for free), then it is worth checking out just for
a handful of songs, but to invest any real time or energy into seeking this out would only be a waste.
(14 Oct. 2011)