June 28, 2016 Satyricon’s Nemesis Divina 20 Years Later
Every wave has a crest, be it the frothy whitecaps of an ocean, or the invisible crown of a sound wave. Music is no different. Quite literally named, the second wave of Black Metal erupted out of Norway and quickly infected the world stage. In an amazingly brief explosion of ambitious reach, punctuated by the vector of long-dormant anti-Christian sentiment, a host of albums were released one atop the other; each one pushing the next one to further heights of neo-classical pomp, hyper-blast speed, and violent atmospherics. Out of this initial exhalation of sonic terror emerged a finite number of albums that achieved legendary status among fans and journalists of Heavy Metal’s darkest offspring. Out of that clutch of elite long-players, few can claim to be as completely and unflinchingly dominating as Nemesis Divina.
Satyricon arose quite early in the second wave, unsurprisingly as a Death Metal band. With Sigurd ‘Satyr’ Wongraven at the helm, the Norwegians’ direction soon changed to embrace the icy northern sound of Black Metal. Together with supremely talented drummer Kvetil-Vitar ‘Frost’ Haraldstad, Satyricon released two demos, two full-length albums, and a split with countrymen Enslaved. Up to this point, Satyricon played a hybridized style of Norse Black Metal mixed with a helping of what would eventually become the Neo-Pagan Folk Metal genre itself. Amid mostly mid-paced songs of traditional melodies were flutes, keys, and subject matter devoted more to the mystical forests and myths of the ancient Norwegian culture than it was to the Christian Devil.
The world may not have known it yet, but the creative core of Satyricon – that being Satyr and Frost – were never going to be content to stand still. Now boasting a second guitarist going by the stage name of Kveldulv, the band was ready to take another step into the future. Kveldulv was not just any hired gun, but a legend in his own right. Fans will recognize him as Ted Arvid Skjellum, a.k.a. Nocturno Culto, he of Darkthrone fame and another one of the Black Metal scene’s early pioneers. These were creatively restless men, and as with all such collectives, an outside observer looking back can measure the career path of a band like Satyricon and point to the elusive and sublime pinnacle of expression within said genre.
For Satyricon, Nemesis Divina is that pinnacle; it goes down in music lore as the apex predator of the second wave of Black Metal, and for the band, it was their Powerslave, their Reign In Blood, their Master of Puppets. And just like Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Metallica did for years after those releases, Satyricon has yet to write the same kind of music again. Unlike those three, they have yet to attempt to reach back into the past to regain that initial spirit.
Fans can argue whether such classics as Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, the benchmark of Emperor, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Mayhem’s finest hour, or perhaps A Blaze in the Northern Sky, by Darkthrone, were better albums or meant more to the genre of Black Metal. These arguments are great for passing the time, and no doubt they will go on for another decade or three, but what cannot be argued is the place Nemesis Divina has earned to stand among them. Perhaps more so than the aforesaid releases, Nemesis Divina boasted the culmination of not only the creative height of second wave Black Metal, it also combined a hint of Folk-tale, Pagan Metal darkness with a neo-classical edge to create a healthy degree of aural battery, as well as a spiritual journey into the mindset of these restless young artists like no other before it. As far as Black Metal albums go, Nemesis Divina displayed a grandiose pomposity that stands up to this day. The album reeks of arrogance, of elitism, and within its 41 minutes of playing time, it stands as a world unto itself.
Recorded at Waterfall Studios in the first frigid months of 1996, it was released shortly thereafter on the 22nd of April. Most fans in the States caught up after it was released by Century Media records the following year, but the music itself had been written between 1993 and 1995. Lyrics were handled by Satyr for all but one composition. On “Du Som Hater Gud” (you that hate God), the lyrics were contributed by Fenriz (Darkthrone).
Nemesis Divina begins in foreboding fashion, the hanging tension created by that opening salvo of riffs followed by mystical keys, before Satyr prefaces grimly “this is Armageddon!” The hyper blast of “Dawn of a New Age” ensues as, lyrically, Satyr re-imagines the Book of Revelations. Dripping with portent, the drumstick-on-wet-cardboard of Frost’s kick-drum emphatically underpins fancy guitar work, well-placed atmospheric keyboard tones, and always Satyr’s surprisingly enunciated growl. The Wagnerian pomp of the slower sections is perfectly integrated with the rapid-fire parts, and there is even a haunting break in the middle where the song is allowed to become dream-like. Here, a spoken word monologue is placed, provided by the hauntingly beautiful Andrea Haugen (Hagalaz’ Runedance/Nebelhexe). The song ends with perhaps the best verse in Black Metal: “For the great day of wrath is coming, and who shall be able to stand?”
“Forhekset,” or “bewitched,” stands as perhaps the most perfect marriage of Pagan Metal flourish to harsh Black Metal ever committed to tape. From 1:38 to about 1:50, the band composed what is arguably one of the most gorgeous transition pieces yet heard in the style. From the hanging keys, Satyr’s mother tongue like gravel caressing the soft flesh of a human face, to the bottom end blast rolling in like carpet bombs, there are few moments on a Black Metal record this deliciously cold. The song ends on another clever, snappy transition to a more Pagan Metal beat, fading off on a sing-song melody bolstered with piano. Prideful, savage, tuneful, and flawless.
But the excellence continues. “Mother North” stands as Norse Black Metal’s true anthem. From the “whoa-oh-oh” verses interspersed with neo-classical and tremolo guitars, it was, is, and shall ever be about standing alone, resisting the sheep, and the frigid middle finger to society and religion that Black Metal was always meant to convey. Put together like a classical piece of the highest order, its sheer magnitude, its differing sections, and easily memorized verses, gave it wings.
“Du Som Hater Gud” harked back to their first two releases, but with another proud piano section insinuating itself into the music in triumphant fashion. “Immortality Passion” starts with a brief classical intro, before morphing into the peerless mix of Pagan Metal and Black Metal that this album captured so well. The title track is a far more straightforward affair, harsh, grating Norwegian growls bubbling over the cauldron of boiling Black Metal beneath it. The sheer apex of tremolo riffing perched atop a beautiful blast beat, the song somehow made the ugly ingredients of Black Metal sound as wonderful as a choir of children. Satyr laughing into the breach at :34 just sums up the arrogant scorn Satyricon harnessed and wielded with such wonderful intent. Closing with “Transcendental Requiem of Slaves,” a composition of guitar and ambient tones, Satyricon reached for that cold, electronic feel that would someday become the modern, eclectic, industrial soundscape that bands like Thorns, DHG, and Mysticum would incorporate.
Nemesis Divina was a moment in time that became timeless. In that first half decade of Black Metal’s second wave, it was, metaphorically speaking, the precise moment when the guillotine blade severs the head from its victim. Black Metal was slightly different when that blade was still falling, and Black Metal again was different after the head stopped rolling around in the basket. Satyricon would move on from this form of expression, having in all likelihood exhausted the creative impulses from whence it came. Twenty years later, the album has not truly seen its equal, though it has influenced and birthed some noble attempts at its grandeur. As far as timelessness is concerned, there can be no better compliment than that.