Monday, October 15, 2012

Sworn - Bastards and Conquerors

Bastards and Conquerors is the sophomore release of Norwegian black metal band Sworn. The band’s 2007 debut, The Alleviation, has remained one of my favorite Norwegian metal albums. The way that Sworn composes very melodic black metal while pulling influences from several other areas of heavy metal has not only inspired me in my own songwriting, but has also just left me completely fulfilled and satisfied. It was literally right before the release of this album when I first got my hands on The Alleviation, and I actually didn’t bother listening to it until about four months after its release. Although I’m aware that Sworn has been fairly successful in Eastern Europe, I know nothing about any fans of them in the USA. So therefore, any news about their activity is in a language I can’t understand (it’s usually Norwegian, Ukrainian, Polish, or Russian). A couple immediate observations that one would make before listening to Bastards and Conquerors would be that the artwork follows the same color scheme as The Alleviation; the cover has the same situation where it’s a single being in a nature setting. If you would take that and base all prejudice on it, you would come up with the conclusion that Sworn has taken the approach of simply strengthening and solidifying their sound without making any progressions or changes.

That’s what I thought to, but to be honest, this sounds like a completely different band altogether! The first MAJOR change that is immediately noticeable when the music starts playing is that everything is mixed differently. Something that I think is an extremely important trait on an extreme metal album is the sound of the guitar distortion. The distortion on the guitars in The Alleviation was extremely fuzzy and very easy on the ears; they didn’t have any edgy grittiness, almost smooth. This is actually something that isn’t too uncommon in the black metal genre at all. But I have yet to hear an album that goes THIS far. In Bastards and Conquerors, the guitar distortion sounds very rough, edgy, crunchy, and more traditional. To be honest, they sound like the types of distortion that you would hear on a death metal record, not particularly a black metal one. The reason why it sounds more death metal-like is because there’s a considerable amount of bass backing up the high-pitched grittiness of the guitars. This is present both in the bass guitar and the kick drums.

The vocals have taken on a completely new direction of their own. Instead of sticking to a traditional black metal scream (and nothing else), you hear a 50/50 balance of both growling and screaming. I will admit that although I would rather that they not be present in this situation, the growls are fantastic. The growls literally match every quality of what I think a good growl SHOULD sound like. They’re demonic, very deep, exhaled, powerful, and efficient. So not only do we have the guitars sounding more death metal than black metal, we NOW have the vocals striving for a more melodic death vibe than black metal. This album is turning out to be a melodic death record that sounds like black metal (if that makes any sense at all). The screams sound a LITTLE different than on The Alleviation, but that’s probably due to the touring they did in support of their debut.

The lead guitar riffs that worked as the front-end in The Alleviation have apparently been replaced by keyboards. I remember there being a couple instances of some keyboards working as a background in The Alleviation, but when the first track (Beyonder) threw itself at me, the increased volume of the keyboard-induced string section caught me by surprise. I would say that this is yet ANOTHER thing that’s not common for black metal, but that’s not exactly true because there’s an entire fucking GENRE called “symphonic black” (including Dimmu Borgir, Anorexia Nervosa, Emperor, Bal Sagoth, etc.). The most intriguing outcome of this increasing role of the keyboards is how much it transforms the sound of everything else. The way it just literally changes EVERYTHING about this record is borderline indescribable. It’s weird, but all the changes that it makes are in a positive direction.

The song structure, like most extreme metal, is very complex. Sworn has a thing for making stuff that’s more complex and thick than normal. Not so much with how much there is in their music, but more with the diversity of all the different styles of verses and interludes used. They go from playing a traditional driving black metal sound to blending into an epic Wintersun-like transition that then drops into an exaggerated breakdown. I’ve heard all of these things in black metal, but it’s not too often that I hear all of these things in one single song (some good examples would be Ascendant and Carnal Monuments). Yet oddly enough, with all of these complex changes made and sounds fused, the end result still tells me “black metal”. In other words, there are obvious things in here that aren’t traditional, but the base that they’re all built on is what we all know and recognize. Another example would be Winds of Plague, a deathcore band that has a shitload of orchestral elements in their music, but it still sounds like deathcore.

To be honest, I still prefer The Alleviation over this. Although that is true, Sworn have decided to take on a much more innovative path of musical creativity that not only fuses, but defies the boundaries of the black metal genre. Bastards and Conquerors is a black metal album that everyone needs to hear because it’s an entirely different world within itself. I would give this album 16/20.