Norwegian black metal is a genre and a scene filled with heroes. Yet few people know one of it’s most important creative minds – because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The man is Snorre Ruch. The band is Thorns. And the album that we’re digging out from the vaults here is the only full album they ever made.
A Murderous Background
As the Norwegian BM scene of the early and mid 90s passes away from recent memory, turning instead into legend, many wont know the background to Thorns’ music.
So, briefly: Ruch was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his role as an accomplice in the murder of Mayhem’s Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth. The man who murdered him, Varg Vikernes (Burzum), has played down Ruch’s actual role. You can read much more about this elsewhere, and the whole thing remains far from clear.
Yet that role landed Ruch behind bars at exactly the time he could have and should have been moulding the very shape of the Norse sound.
He’d already been doing it – he’d briefly played in Mayhem, while Faust from Emperor was a member of Thorns in the early 90s before he would commit a murder of his own.
So he spent arguably the prime years of the Norse black metal in jail. Yet when he emerged, it would be he who would make the album that rocketed the sound of the genre into entirely uncharted territory with this album.
The Ultimate In Post Black Metal
Well, perhaps not entirely uncharted. Moonfog, the label set up by Satyr from Satyricon as a vehicle for his very particular post-BM ideas, had been releasing a few albums that were breaking away – in sound and imagery – from the traditional Black Metal ideal.
And of course before that, you did have the likes of Arcturus, Ulver’s ‘Blake’ opus, and, miles away, Aborym.
‘Thorns’ however was something altogether more powerful, futuristic, cold and alien. It may just be the best record to come out of the radical, brief, Post Black Metal aesthetic. Sometimes I think it was the last true development on the genuinely evil expression of Black Metal before hipsters decided to co-opt it.
Cutting Riffs Of Frigid Cold
Right from the start it slays. Hellhammer on drums is at his most clinically potent as ‘Exitence’ rams the very air in front of the speakers.
Yet it’s not that that you notice. It’s the digitized, razor-like bite of the guitars. They embody every ideal of this album: a frigid, terse and pitiless scything, like the sound of metal cutting through metal.
‘World Playground Deceit’ challenges you with its incomprehensibly 8-bit games console riff and relentless drive. That it breaks down into a stomp evoking Metallica’s ‘One’ is all the more surprising.
All this before the otherworldly Alienesque of ‘Shifting Channels’ – a sketch piece of mechanoize, slamming its Godflesh inpsired hammer and anvil samples with incredible heaviness.
Two Classic Tracks
Well lets face it, they’re not classics because hardly anyone remembers this album, at least as much as they should. But there are two tracks on here that are among the most sumblime momemts in Black Metal whole: ‘Stellar Master Elite’ and ‘Underneath The Universe II’.
‘Stellar Master Elite’ is just a punisher of a track. Opening with that instantly recognisable flanger, in short order it combusts into being, led with that Borg vocal sounding divorced from all feeling and intent only on command.
There is no small amount of ‘Domination’-era Morbid Angel in it, both in attitude and delivery.
Of the two ‘Underneath The Universe’ tracks (the first another sketch piece), part two is simply a masterpiece of dark black metal mood music. Its elastic, bending lead riff only increases the force of the crunch that immediately follows it, while the vocal once again plays the part of the omnipotent, cold space-being that lords over this entire album.
Aged Well, Most Unlike Peers
The real surprise though is how well this album holds up. Let’s not beat around the bush: time has not been kind to its contemporaries.
The Dodheimsgard albums now sound thin and weedy; Ulver’s ‘Blake’ a little too earnest; Satyricon like they were trying a bit too hard; Aborym too reliant on the industrial bits; Solefald’s ‘Neonism’ tragically inconsistent – and Mayhem just plain got it wrong. They would all recover to greater or lesser degrees.
Yet this album stands tall fourteen years later. It betrays nothing – not the naivete, crap productions, half formed ideas nor silly stylings the way their peers did, in retrospect. (It’s worth noting that its artwork is still amazing).
Putting on this album deserves time and immersion. It needs listening to in full, as a real concept piece. It says something.
In fact just listening to it again (a lot) recently, it strikes me that this album contains many of the seeds that would go on to germinate in Mayhem’s masterpiece ‘Ordo Ad Chao’ and even as recently as last year’s ‘Esoteric Warfare’. It was obviously formative for Hellhammer – and certainly Blasphemer. I swear I can hear ‘Anti’ and ‘Wall Of Water’ in here, in embryonic forms.
All of this is Snorre Ruch’s predicament. To have crafted one of the finest and bleakly expressive pieces of black metal music recorded, endorsed with performances from the genre’s key talents (Hellhammer, Satyr) – he would retreat straight back into the shadows when it was released.
We have not had a follow up.
And yet perhaps we dont need one. It’s a nigh on perfect piece of high concept, musically compelling extreme metal. It was the product of a very particular time and place, and so perhaps has no need to be repeated or advanced upon.
Could it even be advanced? It’s doubtful.
All the heroes: Euronymous, Varg, Grutle, Ihsahn, Fenriz, Gaahl – they’ve all done important and amazing things.
They’ve never, ever, done an album like this. There can be no way to emphasis enough how much this has to be in your collection.
– Earl Grey ::: 16/01/15