In 1991, four miserable spectres of negativity and despair came together,
bonded by a common sense of loss and hopelessness. The dark entity that would spawn from this gathering would come to be known
as Bethlehem. For a few years, this German band worked to cultivate their sound, harnessing the blackest feelings that could
be called forth and capturing it on tape. In 1994, they created something so bleak and depressing that to listen to it is
to tempt fate itself and to descend into the depths of the abyss with no guarantee that you will ever again see the outside
world. And even if you do, your vision will be forever altered and coloured by such dismal hues that you will never be the
same. Thus is the result of having experienced Dark Metal.
I was first exposed
to Bethlehem through a penpal, from Sweden, that sent me several songs on an old battered cassette. At the time, I often journeyed
to an old cemetery on or around the night of the full moon, to soak in the atmosphere and get away from the filth of living
humans. Occasionally, I would take music with me and on this night, I was armed with my Sony Walkman and a tape that ended
up leaving its mark on me, permanently. Listening to depressing music was nothing new; this often occurred when I was already
feeling low, and random doom metal bands would fill my ears and feed the mood, in a way. However, the feeling that came from
the first Bethlehem album was something different. That night, among the graves of those who had already served their time
on this earth and passed beyond the gates of the mortal realm, a new kind of darkness opened its gaping jaws before me.
opening moments of "The Eleventh Commandment" possesses more of a black metal feel, though this soon changes. The almost upbeat
riff is ensnared by an overwhelming sense of doom and oppression. The pace slows down, considerably, and the vocals take on
a deeper tone as well. As the song progresses, a mournful lead slithers through, before giving way to an ominous tremolo riff
that is accompanied by mid-paced drumming. In the course of one song, elements of black, death and doom metal are brought
together in a very unique manner, creating something that can only be described by citing the album's title: Dark Metal.
The second track is something altogether different, a beast that exists to torment you
in the deepest of nightmares. "Apocalyptic Dance" brings to life such horrors that it almost feels that you are being pulled
into a dimension of pure suffering, as the woeful melodies slowly suffocate you. The song moves at a glacial pace, slowly
crushing all hope and replacing it with a cold emptiness that transcends words. The song includes some rather subdued moments
where there is little else but a few words spoken and brief utilization of a clean guitar. After about four minutes, the song
appears to begin in earnest, with yet another black metal riff that is joined by Classen's higher pitched vocals as well as
subtle keyboard use, giving the sound of a funeral organ. This is followed by a section with just the bass guitar and another
keyboard effect that sounds like a cello, adding depth to the already sombre atmosphere. This is contrasted by the transition
to a faster pace, moving from the realm of doom back to a blacker area. The blasting drums and raspy vocals soon fade into
nothingness, with a truly sorrowful clean guitar melody emerging from the shadows, with a plodding bass line underneath and
minimalist drums. From the dark comes a grief-stricken lead solo that infects your heart with a poison that puts you in a
hallucinatory state, unable to distinguish nightmare from reality. Visions of loss and trauma fill your mind, as demons from
the past reach out for you, draining you of life. The song ends with a piano melody that lures you on, deeper into the darkness.
Coming" is the next song, and this one picks up right where the previous one left off. The slow doom riffs weigh heavily on
your soul, crushing your feeble hopes and grinding them into dust. The deeper vocals suit the heavier riffs, and the relatively
clean production allows for every note to have the fullest effect in annihilating any lingering remnants of positivity. The
guitar harmonies encircle you with gloom and anguish, bringing forth the deepest of pains that exist within the recesses of
your mind. The middle of the song introduces an ephemeral tremolo melody, soon leading to another mid-paced riff. As it all
ends, a wretched guitar passage leads you back to the impenetrable obscurity where you shall continue to wither and fade.
is followed by "Vargtimmen", which bears little resemblance to the previous tracks. The main riffs lack the same type of dismal
vibes that characterize the rest of the work, despite brief hints of despondency. The song still has more of a down-tempo
vibe, but it is not as severe and this serves as a brief respite from the mental and emotional onslaught of the album.
Nocturnal Prayer" resumes the descent into the blackest regions of misery and torment. It begins with slow doom riffs that
truly feel as if they are pulling you down, deeper into an abysmal melancholy from which you know there is no escape. There
is almost a sense of beauty in such irrevocable hopelessness and ruin. In a way, this only works to prevent you from even
trying to turn back, as you are strangely attracted to the tenebrous landscape before you. Though the things briefly pick
up speed, it inevitably returns to the listless pace from bearlier Another organ passage adds a layer of sorrow and soon you
see a crypt that is illuminated by funeral torches. A coffin waits for you, wide open and so inviting. Another guitar melody
rises from the murkiness to shred your flesh and allow the crimson stream to guide you toward the eternal grave. With the
final notes, you finally realize that no one will be there to weep for you. As you pass from one level of hell to another,
it becomes clear that you are already forgotten and that you shall perish in utter solitude.
From the very first moments
of "Funereal Owlblood", you can feel the life being drained from your body and all energy dissipating in the cold night sky.
The depressive guitar riffs are joined by some of the deepest vocals to appear on the entire album. The drums are crushing,
yet simple, while the primary focus is exactly where it should be: the hauntingly miserable guitar melodies. During these
moments, the listener is imbued with a profound sense of emptiness. By the middle of the song, there is a dynamic shift as
the songs takes on a faster pace and the vocals are much thinner than before. Sections like this give the album its black
metal feel, though it is rather brief. As things slow down once more, untold horrors are visited upon your mind, as you soon
dread what is to come.
"Veiled Irreligion" contains more sorrowful melodies that carve right through your chest like
a freezing cold blade. The pace is varied, going from lethargic and oppressive to rather upbeat in a strange way. While the
slower sections are truly anguished and create a sensation of pressure on your chest, the other parts alleviate this just
enough to allow you to pass through, relatively unscathed. However, just as you think you are out, the final austere notes
wrap around you and give one final squeeze.
The album ends with "Gepriesen Sei der Untergang", which is even slower
and more ominous than some of the previous tracks. The atmosphere is less depressive and more hellish. It is at this point
that your own cries die down just enough to hear the demonic laughter emanating from the shadows, as your journey through
the realm of eternal flame begins. A few sombre chords from a clean guitar signal the end of the proceedings, as your pathetic
soul wanders deeper into endless torment.
As common of a saying as it may be, Dark
Metal is not for the faint of heart. If any sense of despair or melancholy resides within you, the bleak melodies and
soul-crushingly oppressive riffs will allow it to wholly consume you. While doing so may be dangerous and leave you in a pool
of your own blood, this album is best appreciated in the solitude of the nocturnal hours. Whether it owes more to black or
to doom metal is inconsequential, as this record should appeal to anyone that wishes to immerse themselves in something truly
dark. Take it for what it is and get this immediately.
(19 Sept. 2011)
Dictius Te Necare is the
second full-length album from Bethlehem, and represents somewhat of a departure from the sound that they established on 1994's
Dark Metal. The title is Latin and translates to "You must kill yourself". Inside
the booklet, one can see the dedication to all suicide victims. Released in Aprl 1996, through Red Stream, this record introduces
a new member of the band and a different approach to creating the same type of atmosphere as before. Replacing Andreas Classen
as vocalist is a character by the name of Landfermann, whose style is quite different and much more extreme than what most
were doing around that time. This is most notable because it is the vocal performance, more than anything else, that has managed
to polarize the opinions of listeners for the past decade and a half.
"Schatten aus der Alexander Welt" was the first
song that I heard from this album, and it begins things with a high level of intensity. From the opening moments, the terrifying
shrieks of Landfermann grab your attention and one only notices the musical differences after taking time to digest this shocking
change. For those familiar with Varg's vocals on the early Burzum albums, this is still a little much to take in, as it is
far more over-the-top. There is some variety in the vocal delivery, but the insane screaming and demented howling dominate
the sound. Musically, this track sounds more like black metal than doom, sort of like Dark
Metal in reverse. The fast drumming and tremolo riffs, along with the tortured wailing gives one the impression that
this is a different band, altogether. There are brief sections that are very calm, utilizing clean guitar to create a dismal
feeling, but these serve only to bridge different parts of the song, really. Near the middle, there is a riff that sounds
as if it was inspired by Hellhammer / Celtic Frost, so there is even more of an argument for the black metal material that
is present on this record.
The next song is "Die Anarchische Befreiung Der Augenzeugenreligion", which starts out with
a much slower pace while retaining the tormented screams and the overall depressive feeling. With that said, this does not
come close to the darkness found on the previous L.P. There is a decent amount of variety in the riffs and tempos, but they
do not work together to create a cohesive feeling. Instead, it seems very inconsistent and each riff has a purpose all its
own, having little or nothing to do with the track as a whole. The song is not bad, but it does not accomplish enough to justify
the fact that it stretches beyond nine minutes in length.
"Aphel - Die Schwarze Schlange" is one of the highlights
of the album. It begins with a tremolo riff that instills a sense of tension and dread in the listener, with distant howls
that soon come to the forefront with a venomous fury. This tempo does not last long before a thrashier riff comes along and
alters the vibe for a few moments. As this schizophrenic piece continues, a calm section with only clean guitar and the ravings
of a total maniac soon explode into a black metal-inspired frenzy. This carries on, with the pace changing quite often, until
the latter half of the song. Things get very quiet and subdued, with a clean melody that comes to you like a cloaked figure
offering a fresh blade. The almost muffled vocals urge you to take the knife and to caress your flesh with the cold steel.
And then, it happens... all conscious thought fades as you are overwhelmed by the utter misery of the riff that follows. With
ease, the blade slides into your skin and the blood comes gushing out. The wound is deep, and the tormented howls and anguished
cries echo those that reside within your feeble spirit, as your body collapses to the ground in a crimson pool.
pace picks up a bit with "Verheißung - Du Krone Des Todeskultes", which is absolutely necessary to ensure the listener is
alive long enough to hear the entire album. There is some odd effect on the vocals, and the riffs are not as overtly bleak,
but it improves as it goes along. The main feeling is negative and somewhat sombre, but not to an agonizing extent.
Irreligiosität" is a re-recorded version of "Veiled Irreligion", from Dark Metal.
As with the rest of the album, the lyrics are in German this time, which actually adds something to the atmosphere. There
are some changes in the arrangement, helping to accentuate the style of this album, but in the end the original possessed
a much darker and more depressing atmosphere.
The next song is "Tagebuch Einer Totgeburt", which is one of the other
highlights of this record. From the acoustic intro to the mournful guitar riffs and woeful cries, this is utter misery and
hopelessness captured on tape. Whereas many of the songs feature sections that do not mix well with the rest, everything here
comes together to build a sense of despair and sorrow. Rather than being filled with the urge to end your own existence, this
inspires more of a feeling of laying in the floor, lifeless, waiting for death to come to you instead.
Allmacht" brings the album to its conclusion, utilizing much less despondent riffs and going for a heavier doom approach,
in a way. It is the second-longest track on here, and is somewhat disappointing. While it works well as a doom metal song,
it does not convey any powerful feeling, so it comes across as a bit of a letdown.
Te Necare is a good album and contains some of the best songs of Bethlehem's career. As opposed to the last album,
where there was a mixture of black, death and doom metal, this is mostly a combination of Black and Doom. However, when all
is said and done, it lacks the oppressive atmosphere of pitch-black darkness that characterized Dark
Metal. It is almost as if they counted on the vocal performance to take care of that moreso than the music, itself,
and did not put the same effort into all of the songs. At any rate, this is a solid album and well worth picking up, though
it could have been even more essential had it possessed a similar vibe to the previous record.
(25 Sept. 2011)
With their first two offerings, Germany's Bethlehem established a
style of music that really defied all traditional labels, so much so that their music was known as 'dark metal'. The band's
approach blended elements of black, death and doom metal to create something so dark and miserable that it likely pushed a
good number of unfortunate souls to an untimely end. In March 1998, Bartsch and Matton (aided by a new line-up) returned with
the third morbid chapter of Bethlehem's career, titled Sardonischer Untergang im Zeichen
irreligiöser Darbietung (S.U.i.Z.i.D., for short). It was at this point that
they lost me. Unlike Dark Metal and Dictius Te Necare, this record fails to create a dark and miserable feeling
and is far too experimental for its own good. There are a few good ideas, here and there, but they are buried inside this
hideous and foul exercise in mainstream flirtation.
The prevailing atmosphere of this L.P. is one of failure and missed
opportunities. There is an overwhelming sense of misery and despair that is conveyed by some of the material, yet the majority
is laughable and hard to stomach. There are some stylistic changes that make quite a difference in the overall presentation.
In a sense, this record is the beginning of Bethlehem's experimental phase. While the music still consists of a mixture of
mid-paced doom riffs and fast tremolo melodies, interrupted by woeful clean guitar passages, there are some riffs that sound
more rock-based and several aspects that give the album a gothic vibe. A handful are even reminiscent of the type used on
Katatonia's Brave Murder Day. Also, the drumming is somewhat mechanical and overactive,
at times, which gives the album hints of an industrial feeling. The vocals are another source of disappointment. Marco Kehren's
performance is not that bad, but he fails to really do anything to stand out from the band's previous vocalists. In fact,
he seems to be trying his best to mimic Landfermann's tormented howls, from Dictius Te Necare.
His attempt is a little over-the-top, but not horrible. On the other hand, the clean vocals are utterly ridiculous. His voice
has a comically deep tone, the sort that cartoon vampires use, which does nothing but add an unnecessary layer of cheesiness
to the proceedings. Even worse, the band recruited a woman to pollute much of S.U.i.Z.i.D.
with her worthless goth mumblings. This, along with the overuse of the softer parts, helps to soil what could have been a
The songwriting is absolutely atrocious. There is one good song on here, being "Durch befleckte Berührung
memer Nemesis". Starting out with this track, one would expect a continuation of Dictius Te Necare. Sadly, only disappointment
would follow. "Du sollst dich töten" is passable, but the drumming and the clean vocals really hold it back from being as
good as it could have been. Similarly, "Luftstehs'Ibläh" is also somewhat alright, though some of the riffs kill its momentum.
The rest of the songs are pure trash, ruined by clean vocals, female rambling and incredibly inconsistent compositions.
top of all of the other problems that hold this record back from being worthwhile, the production is far too clean and overdone.
The drumming is too high in the mix, only making more obvious the many poor choices regarding percussion. Dictius Te Necare was a little too overproduced for its own good, but the quality of the material made up
for it. In this case, going further in that direction was just another in a long line of bad decisions. Everything is too
polished and sterile, which does not work in favour of a record whose success hinges on its ability to create a bleak, dismal
atmosphere or imbue the listener with dark feelings.
In the end, S.U.i.Z.i.D.
is a terrible album that should have been much more. The addition of the goth / industrial elements makes this one difficult
to take seriously, at times, which is a death sentence for this style of music. As well, the fake and plastic production would
have ruined it, regardless of how the songwriting turned out. In many ways, Bethlehem tried too hard, losing the genuine darkness
that made their first two efforts so successful. Those new to this band should bear in mind that Dark Metal and Dictius Te Necare are the only essential releases,
with the rest being rather worthless by comparison.
(16 Feb. 2012)