OV HELL DO WELL AS BLACK METAL’S VOLTRON ON THE UNDERWORLD REGIME
I suppose I distrust supergroups because it’s too easy. Throw a bunch of dudes in bands people like together and it should instantly equal something people like/something people will throw money down to hear. And while there are exceptions (Them Crooked Vultures, Shrinebuilder, Cream) to the eating-up-downtime/cash grab rule, it’s more often than not the standard (see: Damn Yankees, Chickenfoot, a library’s worth of other names). But occasionally bands fall right in the middle, where they’re not in it for breaking new ground but also aren’t in it to exploit listeners to get a new yacht (or a first yacht). And along with that comes a sense of nothing-to-lose, in that the bandmembers will have their more-successful day jobs when the project ends, so why not have a good time in the meanwhile? And this is the case for black metal dream team Ov Hell, which includes members of some of the most important bands in Norway. Jagged yet refined and mean but kind of fun, Ov Hell manage to sound pretty decent on their debut, The Underworld Regime. Not quite a classic but certainly more than a distraction, Ov Hell are some of black metal’s most essential dudes flexing their frostbitten muscle, and that’s certainly never a bad thing to hear.
This is, of course, if you can stomach the genre’s inherent cheesiness. Comprised of Dimmu Borgir vocalist Shagrath and King ov Hell of Gorgoroth (uh, the one that’s not legally allowed to exist anymore) acting as central composer along with session help from Enslaved’s Ice Dale, Teloch of 1349, and Satyricon/1349’s master sticksman Frost, there’s a lot of potential for top shelf black metal. It’s also a breeding ground for frosty silliness that would make even Immortal chuckle. And oh, it’s there: “forest” is one of the first words grumbled on the album; the intro to “Ghosting” (which… I didn’t know could be a verb) features prominent thunderstorm samples; the howling wolves at the beginning of “Perpetual Night” sound like they were swiped off a novelty sound effects record; the spiky battlewear-equipped/bullet belted bandmembers photoshopped onto a church with an upside-down burning cross at the alter… And then there’s “Post Modern Sadist,” which is a clusterfuck of black metal cliches. It opens with about a minute of whispers, noise, the sound of creaky old wooden doors opening, Gregorian chanting, and a girl sexily insisting that someone “fuck me with a crucifix.” Then the song kicks in — a fine mid-paced black metal stomp — with the opening couplet “I am my own holocaust/ Separated from the love of God.” Now, what ANY of this has to do with sadism or postmodernism — especially the latter, as I don’t get the sense that this is sadism with ironic detachment, nor sadism that’s self-aware… somehow — is completely lost on me. It’s the sort of meaningless gibberish that black metallers spew forth in an attempt to sound edgy and/or profound. If there is an element to black metal that makes you roll your eyes, it’s hanging out on The Underworld Regime.
This would be an issue if the music around it didn’t kick so much fucking ass. With a group of dudes as impressive as this, all the great things about black metal are all but guaranteed to show up. And they do: the riffs are wall-to-wall excellent, Shagrath’s vocals — even despite the fact that I’m not particularly fond of Dimmu Borgir — are solid, and I’ll be damned if there’s a better drummer in black metal than Frost that’s not named Trym or Hellhammer (and even then, it’s a three-way tie). Ice Dale and Teloch even manage to throw in a spidery arpeggio every now and again to keep things from devolving into a haze of tremolo-picked minor chords. Yes, it’s cheesy, but like good power metal, it fully and unironically embraces it, transforming what most would make a groan-worthy affair into chest-beating awesomeness. And despite black metal’s penchant for raw production, The Underworld Regime is slick but appealing, sounding unabashedly stadium-sized and confident. All-in-all, it’s immensely listenable, abrasive enough to qualify as decent black metal but polished and well-constructed enough that listening to the album as a whole isn’t much of an endeavor. If recent release by Hiems and Valkyrja got you interested in black metal that’s fucking HEAVY, Ov Hell will also be right up your alley. They may not know what postmodernism is (or may but couldn’t make the connection to sadism that they would have liked), but they certainly know how to make great black metal more than most.
(3 1/2 out of 5 horns)