In my previous two Heavy Rewinds, I covered bands in completely different realms of the Scandinavian extreme metal renaissance of the 1990’s. Lord Belial showed us what the black metal scene might have evolved into had it not fractured so quickly, and Merciless proved that progress doesn’t have to entail more extreme, aggressive music. But don’t tell that to the third installment of this unholy trinity of Heavy Rewinds. Marduk is in the business of blast beats and BPM, and was responsible for some of the most aggressive music around in 1994.
In any emergent extreme metal scene, there are always bands intent on pushing boundaries of speed and heaviness. When thrash metal exploded into popularity, Slayer was its champion of extremity. In first wave black metal, Bathory was clearly the most transgressive. And in its second wave, Marduk was among those casting torchlight into unexplored depths. Marduk’s use of blast beats and tremolo picked riffs were not remotely revolutionary. But the volume of the blast beats and the speed of the riffs ensured that an album like their acclaimed Opus Nocturne was as heavy as anything their contemporaries could manage.
But it’s not just tricks like blast beats that make Marduk heavy. They feel heavy because of an effective production job that takes advantage of every member of the band – even, gasp, the bassist. It’s a well-known black metal trope that bass is neglected, and often inaudible, in studio recordings. This is absolutely not the case in Opus Nocturne. The distorted bass guitar is audible in almost every moment on every track, and works to fill out the sound considerably without muddling it. Frankly, the buzzsaw trem-picked melodies the bass busts out from beneath the scream of the lead guitars functions so well, it’s a wonder that the style didn’t catch on more. In fact, Marduk liked the sound of B. War’s bass guitar so much, the production actually allows the bass to lead the guitar on occasion, like at about the 5:00 mark of “From Subterranean Thrones Profound”.
But besides the remarkable bass, the production brings out the best in each member of the band. The guitar sounds both raw and sharp, and the fury of the drums comes through loud and clear without masking the melody with their thunder. The vocalist Joakim Af Gravf has a sterling black metal snarl, sounding at once inhuman and familiar, like a man possessed. (Coincidentally, he sounds almost exactly like Dark from Lord Belial.) But in addition to his skills, the production sounds cavernous, almost as if the album were recorded in a massive subterranean echo chamber. Although the vocals always sound a little echoey, there are a few points in the album where the cavernous sound is clearly reached for. In “Sulphur Souls”, a massive roar (presumably from tortured souls) becomes the center of attention, rising above and drowning out the frenzied main riff. Then, in “Materialized in Stone” and “Deme Quaden Thyrane”, the same descending, positively palatial drum solo echoes through. These echoey, cavernous sounding tricks of production have the cumulative effect of making Opus Nocturne sound bigger, scarier, and heavier than it really is, like an invading army of vikings beating on their shields as they crest the horizon.
The illusory nature of the production of Opus Nocturne hints at an interesting problem in extreme metal. By 1994, the logical limit of how extreme a band with a regular vocalist/guitarist/bassist/drummer lineup could get had mostly been reached. Certainly, there was more progress to be made in the realm of technical death metal a la Necrophagist. But Opus Nocturne and its contemporaries were already pushing the physical limits of how fast tremolo riffs could be picked, and how quickly a double bass pedal could be mashed, and how evil a vocalist could sound. There simply was not much further it was possible to go. So, in order to circumvent this problem and make their music sound just a bit more evil and transgressive and groundbreaking, Marduk opted for these cavernous feats of production.
And yet – with all this hubbub about extremity and aggression in Marduk’s music, some of the best moments in Opus Nocturne arise from when the band finally decides to slow the hell down. The excellent “Materialized in Stone” is the best example of this. From the start, an atypically slow, groovy riff and a leisurely drumbeat set up the swaggering pace of the song. The strength of the simple, slow riffs, those echoing vocals, and occasional moments of drumming intensity combine to create an irresistibly catchy song that is more memorable than the pure aggression of many of the other tracks.
Opus Nocturne was a shining success for Marduk in every facet. Every trick they pulled seemed to work out just as they intended. As a consequence, the effects of such an important album are easy to trace in the years that followed. It’s impossible to listen to Tsjuder’s 2004 opus Desert Northern Hell, for example, without being immediately and powerfully reminded of Opus Nocturne. And yes – ten years after the release of Opus Nocturne, Tsjuder has managed to play a quicker, more violent brand of metal than Marduk could. But the diminishing returns of speed and extremity make the gap nominal. With Opus Nocturne, Marduk was one of the initial bands to probe the depths of extremity, and discover that there is, indeed, a bottom.