Sweden’s Dark Funeral is a band steeped in bold claims, the most frequent being “The Ineffable Kings Of Swedish Black Metal”. It says so on their t-shirts and right on their website, so it must be trve, right? Let’s break it down: The band’s inception dates back to 1993, right in the thick of the Norwegian church burning and murder scandals, so that gives them longevity and proper Scandinavian black metal cred. A discography spanning twenty-two years, with six full lengths, four EPs, one live album and two video albums. Tours spanning the globe. Albums stamped with a few of the most significant labels in metal history. All of the aforementioned facts are significant accomplishments for any band to boast about, but in the land of Odin, the only band to rival Dark Funeral with those stats is Marduk, indeed surpassing them in both longevity and prolificity with releases (We will exclude Bathory from mention here, as they were the progenitors of the first wave of black metal, with Dark Funeral residing in the second).
While not very prolific or timely with releases, Dark Funeral’s work ethic is unparalleled. The band is constantly touring and making strides to be bigger and better through clever marketing and mass visibility across all social media platforms. Due to some legal complications with their former label Regain Records, they held out releasing new material until the smoke was clear and contracts were fulfilled in order for new label Century Media to re-release their entire back catalog. So, despite the setbacks, the band has busted ass to remain in the collective consciousness of their fans since the release of Angelus Exuro pro Eternus in 2009, finally trudging their way to present day with a collection of new barnstormers in the form of Where Shadows Forever Reign. The adversity has only bolstered the hype, and one visit to founding guitarist and primary songwriter Lord Ahriman’s instagram will reveal hashtags like #epic and #masterpiece to describe the nine tracks of carnage contained herein. So is there any substance to back these claims?
Since their inception, Dark Funeral has strived to be the fastest black metal band on the planet. They have achieved this not with small intense spurts, but constant euro-style blasting throughout almost every song. Early spins of debut album Secrets of the Black Arts found this writer laughing hysterically with each track skip, almost every song starting with the same distorted minor chord flourishes over fast and furious blasts, with only the slightest shifts in tempo. At times, It’s been difficult to distinguish one song from the next over the course of their career. They found their aesthetic with the flourishes over the blasts, and stuck to the formula consistently. However, their songwriting skill has improved with each successive release, with each album having at least one “hit”, usually defined by catchy lyrics that make for a good singalong for a live crowd ala ‘Hail Murder’, ‘666 Voices Inside’, and ‘My Funeral’ et al. Where Shadows Forever Reign picks up where Angelus Exuro pro Eternus left off, sharing similarities in tempo variety and the focus toward good songs rather than exercises in endurance.
“Shadows” is the first album since Secrets of the Black Arts not to feature Emperor Magus Caligula on vocals, marking the debut of Heljarmadr (Andreas Vingbäck). His style lacks distinction but is perfectly suitable to the music, bearing considerable similarity to his predecessor, if not slightly more intelligible in his delivery. Naysayers should be convinced by the time they reach the chorus of album opener ‘Unchain My Soul’ that Heljarmadr is the real deal, with his conjuring snarl of “I raise the dead!!” protruding from the speakers over catchy and memorable arrangements. The speed and aggression remains intact, yet is focused toward effective song craft rather than trying to outdo themselves or upstage other bands. Despite this, skinsman Dominator reaches some of his fastest recorded blast tempos, though the speed fits are extremely controlled and not as constant or frequent as the Matte Modin era. In the live environment, Dominator plays Modin era songs much faster and with more control than his predecessor, so he is certainly capable of pulling it off, but the perceived aim with Where Shadows Forever Reign is to make each deadly strike count; a few lethal grenades instead of a hail of bullets. This is most evidenced by the short bursts in ‘As One We Shall Conquer’, and also the triplet infused verses of the previously released single ‘Nail Them to the Cross’. The one exception to this “less is more” direction is ‘Beast Above Man’, which is consistently blazing throughout.
The most notable difference with “Shadows” compared to their back catalogue is the production, trading in the polished for the organic, which works remarkably in their favor. Midrange-rich guitars, biting vocals, and completely dry drum tones replace the staple scooped guitar tone and reverbed, polished drum sound characteristic of earlier albums. Part of this shift in sonics is due to the absence of longtime producer Peter Tagtgren, who handled production duties for their entire catalogue bar the Daniel Bergstrand produced Attera Totus Sanctus, who is back at the helm for Where Shadows Forever Reign. Unlike Tagtgren, Bergstrand was never much of a straight from the box producer, instead focusing on the needs of the music at hand rather than stamping his signature sound on everything and calling it a day. Indeed, both Bergstrand penned albums sound nothing like each other.
The strong focus on dynamics sees the band exploring the opposite end of the speed spectrum, slowing things down to a jog instead of a sprint, which by Dark Funeral’s standards is practically bordering on doom. ‘As I Ascend’ trudges along ominously, fitting in its place as the fourth track to give a much needed reprieve from the full-on assault of previously mentioned ‘Beast Above Man’. Second single and fifth track ‘Temple of Ahriman’ creeps along in a similar vein, albeit slightly more dynamic and faster in its delivery. The band’s efforts toward proper album flow and pace is clear. The middle of the album is significantly slower than the rest, falling in line with the traditional flow of many classic metal albums. ‘The Eternal Eclipse’ marks the upward slide through four songs toward their familiar frenzied pace, ending with the brilliant ‘Where Shadows Forever Reign’, which is arguably one of the strongest points of the album and a perfect bookend to a surprisingly refreshing black metal expedition. The verse melody is an earworm, sorrowful and almost forlorn, and as artful as this caliber of black metal is going to get.
Where Shadows Forever Reign is a solid and well crafted collection of songs by one of the best black metal bands Sweden has to offer. Dark Funeral’s growth is apparent. However, it begs the question of motivation. Are they hoping to break out of their comfortable cult status position in the black metal underground? Or are their motivations more selfless, thinking of the listener instead? Not that a millisecond of this album suggests commercial aim, but in the scheme of their discography, this album is easily the most accessible. Listener friendly? It depends on the listener. If you’re looking for the relentless Dark Funeral of old, there’s some of that here, but this album will not be as satisfying as say, Vobiscum Satanas or Diabolus Interium. If you enjoyed Angelus Exuro pro Eternus and want the next logical step but with rawer (better) production and better songwriting, this is the album for you. Masterpiece? Not quite, but it’s a great album that deserves to be on anyone’s year end list.