Bloodaxe – Raping The Ancient

Back in high school, during the winter months of my sophomore and junior years, I would often arrive at school quite early, before anyone else had arrived, indeed before the sun had even risen. Like many of the students there, I had an MP3 player to keep me company while I was busy learning absolutely nothing. During those cold, lightless, solitary hours, I could often be found huddled on the ground, back against a light pole, listening to Bloodaxe’s ‘Raping The Ancient’. I can’t think of a better soundtrack for that. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s lonely, it’s this album in physical form.

It’s almost inconceivable to me that this music could come from someone living in a populated area. The country of origin fits completely: the realm of Vinland is certainly the sort of land that such raw, frigid and oddly beautiful music would come from. But the region makes little sense; Thunder Bay, Ontario? With a population of over a hundred thousand? Impossible. This is the sort of thing that must have come out of the frozen northern tundra of the region, with a population per thousand square mile ratio about as low as the temperature. It’s such pure outsider music, almost exclusively designed for listening alone and introspectively, that any real contact with another person would simply ruin the ambiance of the album. I can’t imagine a better soundtrack for wandering for days alone in the snow.

Bloodaxe plays a very raw form of viking black metal that I’ve never quite heard anywhere else. I and a number of other people I know have expressed complaints over what the name ‘viking metal’ is attached to. We personally find it quite absurd to think that the vikings would have been listening to Falkenbach if given any choice at all. Bloodaxe, on the other hand, is most certainly something that should be called viking metal, presuming the term didn’t carry the connotations that it does. As you could probably guess, there’s not even the barest trace of folk influence apart from the two acoustic guitar pieces that act as bookends to the album. Even these, like the rest of the instrumentation on the album, are kept short and minimal. The music on here is essentially the exact opposite of, say, Ensiferum: the music here is not only some of the coldest I’ve ever heard, but some of the most desolate and barren as well. You will never hear a keyboard, a violin, a chorus, or any other sort of embellishment on this album.

Did I mention that ‘Raping The Ancient’ is fucking frigid? Well, it can’t be overstated. It’s truly music from the Tundra; dry, glacial, and remarkably unforgiving. Some of the songs here rival ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ in simply how enormously dark and merciless they are, and nearly best it on a number of them. Every sound on this album has had all the sonic moisture sapped from it, leaving every instrument hugely dry, windy and raw. All the melodies are simple, short, yet full, and the riffs are all fully functioning despite how bare-bones they may be, ranging from the somewhat complex (‘Superior Winds’) to the devastatingly primitive (‘While You Lie Bleeding’). Some of the riffs here are composed of just two chords, with only the somewhat audible bass providing a bit of depth to the melody. Such dedication to minimalism would hurt many bands, but it only enhances the heartless, polar atmosphere of ‘Raping The Ancient’.

The guitar tone is viciously beautiful. The vast majority of the riffs are tremolo-based, with distortion hopelessly overdriven to make them even more distinct. The guitars and bass actually sound like keyboards more than stringed instruments at times, simply because there is essentially no semblance of rhythm to be found in the guitar or bass. You can’t hear individual notes on most of the songs on the album: only the gradual shifting of tones, gently scooping out these melodies with a sound that is at once soft yet razor sharp, the flow of notes changing like wind or water. Drums are almost exclusively relegated to blasting patterns apart from some rock beats on the later songs, and their sound is similarly agonizingly dry. Bass is a dull throb in the background, always audible but never at the forefront of the compositions, creating a sort of intangible heartbeat for the music to rest on. The voice of Lien is possibly the most heartless element of all, with black metal rasps that seem devoid of all humanity and mercy, like the very voice of winter itself. The occasional venture into clean territory is really no reprieve: such a sound is a monotonous and atonal narrative more than any actual singing.

The album is nearly like a wintry landscape itself, neatly divided into two essential halves. The first of these is the brutality and harshness of nature, taking the form of the first seven tracks on the album. Even the intro, ‘Midvinterblod’, is testament to such a theme, name being a dedication to the viking rituals of hanging slain game in the trees as a sacrifice to the gods. The next six tracks start and end without warning, short, two-minute bursts of violence that all resemble each other greatly. The tempo for each is almost identical, as are vocals and drum patterns, leaving only the riffs to really distinguish each piece from the next. Each track begins without any sort of dynamics and ends just as abruptly, as Bloodaxe sees no real reason to toy around once the story has been told. There’s an unbelievable savagery to these compositions, a sort of devastating indifference towards human life that most black metal bands could only wish to represent in their music.

The next half is quite a different story. This section seems to be more dedicated to the rugged beauty of nature, despite its deadly and often cruel nature. Starting with ‘Drifting Of Ull’, the pace remains the same, but a clear change overtakes the music. Lien’s lyrics are no longer venomously spit out in fits and starts, but rather delivered nostalgically with bits of improvised rhythm. The melodies, too, are like the Aurora Borealis in the Arctic sky: cold and dark, but unbelievably passionate and beautiful as well. The riffs at the end of the next track, ‘Thirteen Oar’s Of Misfortune’, follow suit with a similarly majestic tone. This is perhaps the most ‘viking’ of all the tracks on the album, at least in the sense that most metalheads know it by: more willingly epic than the other tracks, and with double bass patterns generally taking precedence over blast beats, adding an element of militarism to the atmosphere. ‘While You Lie Bleeding’, however, is the clear centerpiece of the album: the longest at over seven minutes, it represents ‘Raping The Ancient”s sole move to a tempo below fast, instead opting for a steady, mid-paced trudge to move the song forward. The drumming is more dynamic and the strange, shamanistic vocals of Lien stretch over wide swaths of time, with the riffs relegated to a droning background piece, a tad more conventional than the rest, but similarly frostbitten in tone. Its slow fade before outro ‘Gammellandet’, perhaps the most ‘normally’ beautiful track on this disc, is one that never ceases to amaze me with its endlessly powerful construction.

Bloodaxe will never be a very popular band. The music is stunningly harsh, and possesses a beauty carved from pure ice. It’s music that offers no warmth or sympathy whatsoever to the listener, instead marching ever forward in its neverending quest for savage violence and perhaps even more savage beauty. For those few of us that would revel in the unbelievable harshness of the music here, though, it is an instant classic, worthy of infinite listens, with an aesthetic that only grows more impassioned with time. Beyond highly recommended; this is very nearly mandatory.

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~ by noktorn on August 12, 2007.

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