lack metal requires a different set of ears than other metal. Instead of "heavy" and "brutal," the key words are "evil," "cold," and the like. Because black metal is about atmosphere, lo-fi production isn't necessarily a minus, and in fact can enhance the grimness of a recording. While in recent years more mainstream black metal acts like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth have employed synthesizers, female vocals, and polished production, Norwegian group 1349 has maintained a no-frills, old-school black metal sound. However, 1349's sound is more white-hot than cold. The band has described itself as "audible hellfire," and its new album more than lives up to its title.
1349 was named for the year the bubonic plague ("black death") spread to Norway, decimating over half its population. In 2003, the band released its debut, Liberation, an album of such inhuman speed that people wondered if the recording had been sped up. It had not; the secret was drummer Frost, who also plays in the black metal band Satyricon. Frost built up his chops through relentless daily practice, and his astonishing speed on Liberation (check out the jaw-dropping opening blastbeat), as well as the album's buzzsaw production, made it a black metal essential. 2004's Beyond the Apocalypse was more of a good thing, with better production and speeds other than "liquefy."
Hellfire continues the band's speedy course, but is more diverse than its predecessors. The first three songs are a blur of classic black metal ingredients: tremolo picking, jackhammering blastbeats, and dramatic, raspy vocals. "Sculptor of Flesh" stands out here with a distinct Slayer influence, both in the opening trills and the chugging half-time thrash riffs.
If listeners can make it this far, they're in for a treat. On Liberation, 1349 proved it could easily do the light-speed, trance-inducing drone typical of black metal. Since then, the band's songs have increased in length and diversity, and the latter half of this album has 1349's longest, best songs to date. "Celestial Deconstruction" and "Slaves to Slaughter" alternate tremolo picking with ringing, dissonant chords. "From the Deeps" begins with eerie chanting and clean guitar before dropping into a rare guitar solo and a slow groove, waiting almost three minutes before the requisite blastbeat onslaught. The good thing about the long songs here is that they're not rocket science. While there are tempo and time signature changes, there aren't pretentious guitar solos or unnecessary meandering. The band simply moves from theme to theme, attacking each riff with grindcore intensity. That it can do so over 13 minutes ("Hellfire") is a testament to its endurance and focus.
Unfortunately, the album's artwork doesn't reflect its intensity. The cover is badly printed, with murky contours and weak colors. To properly see the cover concept, visit the band’s website. And for the ultimate visual companion to this album, visit photographer Peter Beste’s website. Beste undertook a magnificent project on Norwegian black metal, including some great photos and interviews with 1349 members. This quote from singer Ravn says it all: "If you can feel the Hellfire while listening to our music, we have reached our goal."