It’s 1994, and the Scandinavian metal scene is buzzing with activity. But while most of the contemporaries of Merciless had spent the past few years expanding the boundaries of extreme metal, Merciless had gone the opposite direction entirely. In 1990, Merciless released their debut The Awakening, which was as heavy as any death or thrash metal record available at the time. Solidifying their credentials as one of the pioneering Scandinavian extreme metal bands, Merciless was the first band signed to the Deathlike Silence Productions record label owned by Euronymous of Mayhem. But rather than continuing to break the same barriers of heaviness and speed that brought them acclaim in the first place, 1994’s Unbound saw the band make the dangerous decision to slow down, refine, and expand their sound into a polished album that ran against what much of the current Scandinavian metal scene was doing.
Perhaps the most important stylistic change to appear on Unbound is the kind of song structure that allows for a thrash metal band to write three songs over five minutes long, and one over eight minutes without sounding terrible. For comparison, the eight songs populating The Awakening run a scant 27 minutes. Of course, any old thrash band can write long songs; but it takes significant skill to stave off monotony. It’s a testament to the band’s talent that the longest song is also the best. “Back to North” (which was brilliantly covered by Moonsorrow) comes in at towering 8:37, but earns its keep the whole way. Opening with the sounds of battle, a galloping thrash riff soon erupts to form the backbone of the track, keeping the energy up without overwhelming. Then, about halfway through, an acoustic interlude allows a quiet breather before Merciless picks right back up with more intensity than before. A bass-only section and a couple high-pitched guitar leads that play far above the crunch of the rhythm are also used to break up the thrash beatdown in the song.
Merciless return to these tricks on the other long songs, especially the album opener. “Unbound” begins with a pleasing flute/acoustic guitar intro that would not have fit the aggression of The Awakening one bit, but quickly shifts into a soothingly thrashy riff to mollify metalheads crying foul. Although Merciless display an overall reduction of ferocity on Unbound, fast and aggressive thrash metal riffs still comprise the majority of the album. They did not remove heavy riffing from their repertoire as they progressed; they simply added sections that were not so focused on sounding heavy. “The Land I Used to Walk”, for example, is loaded from end to end with quick, crunchy riffs that would have fit right in with The Awakening – except for the twice-struck cowbell appearing near the end of the song. Interestingly, “Nuclear Attack”, another full-steam-ahead thrasher, also features some cowbell. It’s certainly no progressive pinnacle, but even on some of the most straightforward thrash tracks on Unbound, Merciless show a flair for experimentation and humor that does not jive with the ultraconservative demeanor of many of their contemporaries.
Unbound is a thoroughly well-rounded effort, with exceptional production and musicianship to complement the evolved songwriting. I am of the firm belief that death/thrash metal production need not have advanced since the mid 1990’s, and this album is a prime example of why. Far from the tepid, overproduced wrecks that some bands try to pass off as extreme metal these days, the production on Unbound is clear without compromising the lovely crunch and grit of the guitar chords that form the basis of thrash. Every instrument sounds exactly as loud as it should be. The raspy snarls of their vocalist, Rogga, are surprisingly articulate, but still retain plenty of pent-up vitriol suitable for thrash. The drums are particularly well mixed and well performed. They sound powerful without being too loud, and constantly provide interesting fills while keeping the beat at lightning speeds.
Unbound is a peculiar album for its simultaneous evolution in the sound of Merciless while regressing from the unrelenting death/thrash sound that first established them in the Scandinavian metal scene of the early 1990’s. For a band to successfully evolve their sound is no simple task, but Merciless managed to do it on Unbound with some nifty song structures, acoustic meanderings, and a tickle of cowbell.