As is consistent with most genres of metal, black metal tends to be highly polarizing. Some people, such as myself (but only as of recent, to be honest) find in black metal a subtle but well-crafted beauty and complexity that is lacking from most other genres of extreme music. Others feel black metal to be the lowest rung on the ladder, perhaps a step above nu-metal with its rampant vocal effects and trite synthesized harmonies. If the only `black’ metal you know is Cradle of Filth, who at one time were top notch but are now like a bad carnival side show act, then it is easy to understand why black metal fairs so poorly in the public psyche. However, if you’re a fan of death metal, melodic thrash, or grindcore, there are a number of black metal bands that you’ll surely find pleasing. 1349 is one of them.
Their name is the year the plague hit Norway, and their music is just as ominous, destitute, and evil as their name suggests. “Hellfire,” much like their previous release “Beyond the Apocalypse,” is a blisteringly fast edition to the stripped down yet hauntingly beautiful catalogue of black metal bands such as Immortal, (old) Darkthrone, and (old) Emperor. The musicianship on “Hellfire” is staggeringly skillful. The drumming is both mind numbing and creative, and, like the guitars, never lets up. The songs are well written, an attribute that should not be overlooked in a genre of music so difficult for the average listener to approach. Even though the band never stops its assault, the listener is able to navigate through each song with little difficulty. Do not expect any orchestration such as one might expect on an Emperor album. Like I said, 1349 is stripped down to the bare essentials: buzz-saw guitars, near-constant blast beats, and demonic shouts and shrieks. Still, I maintain that through buried melodies and a haunting ambiance the band creates a unique sort of beauty, the type I feel black metal does so well. The beauty of despair, if you will.
The recording is thin, keeping in line with black metal tradition, but it is clear that serious effort was undertaken to yield a clear recording in which all instruments are audible and balanced. The drums walk a line between having a machine-like quality and a raw, organic feel that is made all the more dramatic by Frost’s ridiculous, inhuman skin work. I don’t know what the process of recording was like for this album, whether, like Vital Remains, the band pieced together each song, or, more traditionally, whether each instrument simply recorded their parts for each song, but I wouldn’t be surprised if “Hellfire” was cut and pasted. If this is not the case, how Frost manages to keep such consistency and speed is beyond me.
If black metal is your thing, you simply must get this album. If you like grindcore, bands such as Pig Destroyer, Gadget, or Leng Tch’e, then this is probably still up your alley. While I have yet to listen to the album start to finish in one sitting, mostly because it’s just too damn intense for that (or because I’m not intense enough), I have not been disappointed by any track on its own, and I rank this album as one of my favorites of 2005.