With the exception of the 80’s thrash metal explosion, the emergence of the second wave of black metal was responsible for crowning more legendary bands than any other. Bands like Darkthrone, Emperor, Mayhem, and Immortal rose like titans among the nascent Norwegian black metal scene. Although each of the hallmark bands occupied their own niche, the sound they achieved from gritty basements and shitty microphones was rawer and scarier than any other kind of metal being produced at the time. As the black metal scene took metal by storm, the microscope on Norway’s underground intensified via the intrigue of church burnings, Varg Vikernes’ high-profile murder trial, and whisperings of Satanic cults. Fuelled by this peculiar accelerant of mystique and danger, dozens of black metal albums released in the early 1990’s garnered the sort of worship to catapult them safely into “classic” status. But, inevitably, the veil surrounding black metal began to disappear, and with it the propellant necessary for truly “classic” albums. By the mid 1990’s, the sounds and styles of black metal had been appropriated far beyond the realms of Trondheim.

But although the microscope lifted from Scandinavian black metal as the scene fractured and it’s influence diffused across the world, fantastic albums continued to emerge. Bands like Kvist and Vinterland released fantastic albums at the very end of the second wave’s heyday in 1996, but by then acclaim had largely been bled out of the scene. Kvist and Vinterland are hardly the only examples of bands who were just a couple years late to be considered among the second wave’s treasured elite (for whatever that’s worth). In fact, most who enjoy the second wave champion a particular band who they believe deserves more adulation – which, incidentally, brings me to Lord Belial’s superlative effort, Enter the Moonlight Gate.

Released in 1997, Enter the Moonlight Gate was undeniably too late to profit off the misdeeds of mayhem (cough) that initially bestowed the genre its morbid intrigue. But that’s not such a bad thing at all, because in some ways Enter the Moonlight Gate is not a second wave album at all. Female vocals (gasp!) and decidedly un-kvlt flutes distance the album from the work of many of Lord Belial’s predecessors. But these musical departures from the established second wave sound, which could be viewed as innovation or sacrilege depending on one’s viewpoint, are not what make this a great album.

Enter the Moonlight Gate is transcendent because of its impeccably executed atmosphere which, at times, transports the listener straight to the center of Hell itself. Although there is no indication that the band attempted to write a concept album lyrically, in a musical sense the band almost never allows the listener to escape from the hellish soundscape they’ve created. In the context of the album, even the female vocals and the flute threading through the album sound more like the clarion of the Pied Piper and the keen of a siren than the calming melodies they would sound like in isolation. Right from the album’s snarled opening seconds, the listener is dropped in a chaotic fury of screeching guitars and thunderous drums. Listen to vocalist Dark’s commitment to “enter the moonlight gate” in one verse, and his tortured screaming over a frenzied tremolo riff and bestial roars in the next. Soon afterward, Dark’s voice is replaced by the equally unsettling wailing of guitar strings mimicking the screams of tortured souls. Almost every song has these standout moments when a listener is transported to some layer of hell through an agonized scream from Dark or a sampled explosion or during one of Sin’s cavernous drum sequences.

But the crown jewel of an already incredible album, both musically and in keeping with the overall hellish theme, is the album closer, “Realm of a Thousand Burning Souls (Part 1)”. From the first articulate yet relentlessly aggressive riff, the listener is in for a treat. As the song develops over its ten minutes of actual playtime (much of the end is silence), the song descends further and further into the depths. A low monastic hum, an acoustic guitar, and those enchanting female vocals join the fray for the finale as Dark assumes the guise of Satan mocking the pleas of Christians as they are consumed by hellfire. If that’s not black metal, I don’t know what is.

Enter the Moonlight Gate was at once ahead of it’s time and released too late to be relevant in a wider musical sense. The songwriting isn’t just leagues ahead of, say, A Blaze in the Northern Sky. It’s in a different ocean entirely. The album’s effective production, which is dense but has enough separation between the instruments to come across clearly, would not have been possible with the recording methods of many second wave artists. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where this album fits in some arbitrary classification system or larger musical narrative. The pantheon of second wave black metal bands is cluttered enough as it is. Enter the Moonlight Gate stands alone as a superb piece of music.

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