As a firmly established style of music, black metal is easily recognizable to most extreme music fans. Its second-wave incarnation, led by bands like Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum and Immortal has set the template for what black metal is supposed to sound like. But there are also a number of crucial acts that set the stage for the second wave just before it crashed. Before the music could be summed up in a series of bullet points (buzzsaw guitars, screeching vocals, lots of reverb), these bands took bold creative risks that allowed this music to exist.
Inspired by bands like Bathory, Celtic Frost and Sarcofago, a few bands emerged in the late 80s that gave us some of the cherished stylistic hallmarks of this dark and insane music. This includes Rotting Christ, Blasphemy and Master’s Hammer, but Switzerland’s Samael must be considered as well. And while some of Samael’s later works would prove to be masterpieces in their own right, 1991’s Worship Him is one of black metal’s defining statements. As we wrote in 2014:
Whereas the Scandinavian version of black metal was highly imitable by the late ’90s—not just by the Scandinavians either—Samael’s Worship Him was singular. Then and now. As such, it’s nearly as forgotten as the heart of darkness, the abyss of abysses. Well, no longer!
Singular is definitely the operative word here. Worship Him is a dynamic record, featuring several different tempos and moods, but with a consistent air of darkness and mystery throughout. Another feature is the consistent use of flanger effects that give the guitar a sound almost unheard of in black metal since (though you can hear it in some Gorgoroth and Immortal songs as well). Here is how I would order the songs, from awesome to awesomest:
This is basically an ambient transition track. Nothing wrong with that! But as usual, it’s not really fair to judge it alongside the other songs.
“Rite of Cthulhu”
A guitar-based version of the above.
“Knowledge of the Ancient Kingdom”
The songs on Worship Him can be roughly divided into “fast rippers” and “slow dirges.” While slow, plodding tempos have their place in black metal, I’d say they represent the weaker songs on this album. “Knowledge of the Ancient Kingdom” fits well when listening to the album from back-to-front, but would be the last song I’d choose to listen to on its own.
“Into the Pentagram”
I feel almost the same way about this song, though the riffwork here is much more interesting.
“Messenger of the Light”
Sometimes to build a cohesive work of heavy metal art, it’s good to have some short songs to break the listen up a bit and add to the greater atmosphere of the album. The spooky “Messenger of the Light” is a good example of this, from the song’s tempo to its lyrics: “Beyond the Styx and Acheron / Beyond the kingdom of Hades / I am the envoy of the son of the dawn.”
My rule of leaving instrumental tracks out of the running changes of course when the song is longer and meant to stand on it’s own. It’s a true testament to the band’s creative abilities that they could write an instrumental track that’s more than four minutes long and keep the listener’s attention. A thrilling end to a thrilling album.
Of all the album’s slower moments, the title track is certainly the best. The riff is so simple, and yet creates a rich atmosphere of candles, chants, blood and spirits than endless sweep picking could never accomplish. And it’s fitting, since the song’s lyrics read like a prayer to the dark one himself: “He is life, He is death / He is virtue, He is vire / He is the flame of reason / He is the verbe of our thoughts / He is the justice of our trials / He is the gallows of the infidels.”
The last three songs on this list are basically a trio of perfect black metal songs. “Morbid Metal” has everything I’d want in a black metal song: great guitars, tempos that keep you engaged, and howling vocals that sound like ghosts shrieking in the night. Gotta love those tom rolls on the drums tho too, amirite!?
“Sleep of Death”
With some notes of creepy ambience and a roll of the drums, “Sleep of Death” starts the album off in glorious fashion. The song strikes you at once as deeply influential on the black metal sound we know today, but also very unique in that no imitators have really matched it. Funny, I think Fenriz from Darkthrone once bemoaned the fact that more bands didn’t try to rip off Samael! If anyone wanted to, I’d suggest they start with Vorphalack’s almost gleeful grunt: “POWer, POWer, POweeer!!!”
“The Black Face”
For someone who places black metal as his favorite sub-genre, “The Black Face” is the ultimate win: perfect vocals, perfect riffs (including some fantastic use of palm-muting), perfect drums…there’s even cowbell!!! Everything we associate with black metal’s atmosphere is captured in one of it’s earliest examples. Upon listening, you can’t help but conjure epic battle scenes, flames at a great ritual, or the end of the world as we know it…which is fitting since that seems to be what the song is about:
“The earth will shake
The earth will burn
The skies will rumble
The moon will turn”
So for those of you looking to catch up on black metal classics that came before 1992, go ahead and spin Fallen Angel of Doom, Ritual and Anno Domini, but be sure to make some time for this essential serving of darkness as well.