After signing to Pulverised Records in 2011 following their breakout, the Ukrainian black metal outfit BALFOR released Barbaric Blood, an impressive effort on which the band flexed their compositional muscles with classic-sounding black metal riffs reminiscent of the work of seminal bands like Mayhem and Immortal, neatly packaged with a notable death metal edge to it. It must be said that the band did not provide anything revolutionary or particularly new and fresh, but Barbaric Blood is a solid release that most black metal fans could get down to, and I still sometimes stick it on six years after its initial release. The band hadn’t crossed my mind in quite some time, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear of a new release of theirs. With a title like Black Serpent Rising, I had no reason to expect any significant change on this album for the outfit. I went into this thing expecting BALFOR to bring some more crushing black metal riffage to the table with some meaty hooks, providing for another safe but solid release. However, Black Serpent Rising does mark a change for the band, both stylistically and in terms of their line-up. In fact, the only remaining member from the original group who performed on Barbaric Blood is frontman Thorgeir Berserk. New additions to the band include Khaoth of Khors and Hate Forest fame on drums, Astaroth Merc of Raventale fame providing lead guitars, and Athamas of Deferum Sacrum fame and an occasional live performer for Raventale providing the bass, turning BALFOR into somewhat of a Ukrainian black metal supergroup. Whilst all these musicians have typically worked with a similar strand of barbaric black metal to BALFOR’s previous output, Black Serpent Rising sees the introduction of some new sounds and ideas, such as some low, grumbling backing vocals reminiscent of viking metal and the inclusion of some clean female vocals that lift the music up and display an approach closer to the more melodic and symphonic incantations of blackened death metal. Despite these new influences, however, at its foundation, Black Serpent Rising is still very much so a black metal album, in a somewhat similar vain to its predecessor. Be that as it may, the core black metal sensibilities of this record are not as organic or bare-bones as on Barbaric Blood, instead appearing in a noticeably more clean and produced format on this new project. Overall, it should seem that the set-up to this album is rather promising, and in fact, the final product lives up to expectations I had for it.
As an opener, Serpents Of The Black Sun is a fitting mission statement for the band. The guitars have a notably more melodic edge to them this time around, and seem to sit slightly closer to the death metal side of the blackened death metal spectrum. The ever-so-slightly more death metal tinge to BALFOR’s sound is also reflected in Thorgeir’s vocals, as they retain a slightly scratchy black metal cry but still consist of the rumbling roars common in death metal. The searing solo from new guitarist Astaroth Merc is another reason to love this cut. This opener also highlights how well these new tracks progress, with many ever-evolving passages that keep the listener fully-attentive throughout this album’s 44-minute runtime. The following track, Dawn Of Savage, is the most by-the-book black metal composition on the record, and is successful for many of the same reasons as its predecessor. There really isn’t anything on either of these two tracks that wouldn’t sate the desires of your average black metal fan, as far as I can see.
Unbounded Wrath Of Venom stands out in the tracklisting for featuring the aforementioned clean female vocals. It’s also the first track to feature a distinct viking metal tinge to it, particularly during the plodding intro and its accented drum patterns. The female vocals contribute to the viking vibe as they chant a melody that would be fitting on a folk metal track. The well-incorporated female singing really elevates the track to a new level of awesome, with a ravishing guitar solo to conclude the track on a high note. The viking metal influence on this record carries on significantly to the next track, Heralds Of The Fall. The booming tom toms during the intro, paired with the crash accents and the rhythmic chanting to boot, evoke an intimidating feeling of imminent war, with the blistering black metal section that follows feeling like the soundtrack to a final charge into battle. The subtle horns worked into the mix are the cherry on top for the triumphant and theatrical sound of this song. Some rather surprising sung vocals from Thorgeir appear on the backend of this track and are used to the advantage of the song, emphasising its climax. These sung vocals also appear on the following track, Among The Fallen Ones, to much the same effect and for much the same impact. As the song ends with a reappearance from the booming toms and chanting male vocals, it feels like the musical representation of smoke rising up from the battlefield as the conflict comes to an end.
Black Serpent Rising feels like an overall improvement for BALFOR. Thorgeir is, of course, the only member whose performance on this record can be compared to that on the band’s last, but he seems to have matured significantly and come into his own a lot more. Previously, his voice was reminiscent of a few other vocalists in the genre, most notably Immortal’s Abbath, but here, it seems as if Thorgeir has really focused and controlled his tone and delivery. What’s more, the new additions in all other instrumental departments seem to have been much to the advantage of this new album. The riffs are more fleshed out, the solos are more captivating, the compositions progress far better, and this just feels like a really solid project overall that I would strongly recommend to any and all black metal fans. Whilst not a groundbreaking record, largely due to the familiar sound that a lot of these songs carry, this is a highlight of the year thus far in metal music for me, and I can easily see myself growing to love this record’s barefaced charm more as I continue to listen to it over the course of the next few months.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10