Album Review: SAMAEL Hegemony
Striking the right balance between extremity and pageantry can't be an easy undertaking, particularly for those whom – in their formative years – marched to an exceptionally darker beat. More often than not, maturation in the realm of symphonic-infused metal can take on an air of pomposity. Some notable examples of black metal getting perhaps a little too bloated on the baroque include Dimmu Borgir's last studio effort, Abrahadabra, as well as the way-over-the-top Thornography from Dani Fith and his black lace and eyeliner-clad cohorts in Cradle Of Filth.
Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that the above-mentioned examples are necessarily bad. Not at all. It's just that each will be forever defined by their seemingly self-important excesses of the sub-genre that birthed them.
So, what are the rules – if any – when composing for the Helvete Philharmonic Orchestra?
Like any great black metal band worth their weight in blackened, heaving earth, the first order of business should always be malevolence. Every single song should likely make an effort to achieve an underlying air of misery and calamity. Sure, symphonic elements can certainly contribute to this – sometimes even enhance – but more often that not they do the exact opposite by enveloping the rancor in a big warm, fuzzy blanket.
Similar to Dimmu and Cradle, Swiss blackened symphonic/industrial-tinged legends Samael began their tri-decade career in much the same manner as most early black metal bands: raw, primitive and to-the-core evil. The triumvirate of blasphemy that was their first three full-length albums (Worship Him, Blood Ritual, Ceremony Of Opposites) rivaled that of the Norwegian contingent in its crepuscular cacophony: the misery and calamity present in spades. It wasn't until 96's Passage that fans were met with their first real taste of the Samael symphonic experience. This was, for most of the band's early adopters, the beginning of the end.
Throughout the latter part of the 90's and into the 00's, the name Samael could no doubt be found in the playlists of every DJ spinning their medieval-meets-cyberwar wares in dark, dingy gothic clubs the world over. From here on out things got decidedly… bouncy. Gone was the foundation of black metal, quite literally obliterated from existence. This phase of artistic maturation – which included some truly forgetable albums in Reign Of Light, Era One, and Solar Soul – was tantamount to a full-scale rechristening of the band's sound. It wasn't until 2009's well-received return-to-form, Above, that things started to come full-circle.
We can likely all agree that Samael will never be the same band that released the genre-defining Worship Him over a quarter century ago. I have no delusions as it relates to this. I get it. That being said, we are likely the closest we are ever gonna get to that happening with their brand new, eleventh full-length effort, Hegemony. Defined by the band as an album that has its roots in the past, Hegemony also serves to carry the band into the future. This transition is no more apparent than in the songs “Rite Of Renewal” and “Land Of The Living”, the pair dealing in the circle of life and the idea of rebirth. Both tracks are picture-perfect examples in the art of creating engaging symphonic-infused black metal.
Clearly taking cues from Greek symphonic masters Septicflesh, who utilize the orchestral elements to elevate their compositions into film score-like realms – yet never at the expense of sheer malevolence – so too has Samael employed similar techniques. Gone are the overtly-bouncy, club-like moments. In its place are passages that once again explore what it means to be a symphonic black metal band, crafting perfectly balanced odes to both Lucifer and Beethoven alike.
Yes, Hegemony sees Samael returning to their roots. More importantly, it's an album that catapults this once very relevant band into the here and now. A closer listen reveals moments not too far removed from today's biggest and best. Be it the groove-oriented extremity of Gojira in the swirling-staccato of closing track "Helter Skelter", or the Swedish melo-death-meets-black-metal-like vibe of the album's best song, "Black Supremacy". The latter is undoubtedly Samael's finest moment since '94's "Black Trip"… good luck getting its chorus outta your head anytime soon!