Very few bands have more than one “perfect” album, let alone a run of three in a row but Gorgoroth managed this hat (no pun intended) trick within their first few years with Pentagram, Antichrist and Under the Sign of Hell. There are very few people into black metal who can deny the impact of these records, unless they’re contrarian shitheads in which case you should ignore everything that comes from the asshole beneath their nose. These records are — arguably, I guess — beyond reproach. So why, over ten years later, did Gorgoroth mastermind Infernus decide to re-record not just a handful of songs but the entire third full length?
During the ’00s, Gorgoroth was probably known more for their theatrics or the behind the scenes legal drama or that fucking interview with third vocalist Gaahl where he gave one word answers and swirled a wine glass. My personal interest in the band had fallen off, mostly due to the combination I just outlined as well as (what I felt at the time was) a lackluster performance at Milwaukee Metalfest in 2001, so I wasn’t really paying much attention outside of thinking it was horseshit that two guys who joined years after the band was formed were trying to copyright the fucking thing and kick out the founding member. Because of this I missed Quantos Possunt ad Satanitatem Trahunt, the victory lap after Infernus won the court case and the triumphant return of second vocalist, Pest. This lineup would reconvene two years later to re-record Under the Sign of Hell two years later. I would come to learn, over a decade later, that this record is fucking divisive.
Somewhere around a year and a half ago I had the itch to give Pentagram a listen, a real listen, for the first time in probably fifteen years, maybe longer. It caught me the same way it did when I first heard it in 1995, which started me on an 18 month (and running) kick on the first three records, obsessively listening like I was 16 years old again. From this I bumped into Under the Sign of Hell 2011 for the first time and was mesmerized, for reasons I’m sure you can’t wait for me to explain but we’ll get to that, consider this foreplay. I posted it on my Facebook, as I’m wont to do, and the reaction I got was (for me) very unexpected; universal scorn. The more people I spoke to, the more I found they really disliked the record but couldn’t give me any concrete reason as to why, except that they preferred the original.
Re-recording old material can yield mixed results. Sometimes you get “Return to the Eve (Studio Jam 1985)” and other times you get Stormblåst MMV. In small doses it can be cool to hear a new take on old favorites but rarely does redoing an entire album ever truly add anything to a bands legacy (the only other examples of this being done well, in my obviously excellent opinion, are Svartsyn’s The True Legend and Old Forest’s Back Into the Old Forest) and only serves to be a stopgap between releases or a sign that the artist is creatively bankrupt. So, I could understand somewhat why Under the Sign of Hell 2011 received the reaction it did. But I also knew that they were absolutely wrong.
If you listen to both versions side by side you’ll notice that the 2011 version is shorter, missing the “Exorcist” feeling “Postludium” or really any of the, for lack of a better word, “atmospheric” touches the original had. Both versions have very raw production (I remember taking the original in when Krieg did our second album as a production reference) but while the original has a somewhat more cavernous/reverb/warm(?) feel to it, 2011 is completely about audial violence. My initial reaction was that it somewhat sounded worse than the original, with more separation between instruments and a dryer, more suffocating aura to it. It sounded like shit and I loved it.
I think a lot of people cannot look at the 2011 version as its own entity without comparing it to the original, and that might be where a lot of the hesitation lies. But to listen to it on its own, to seek out its own merit, you’ll find a beast of a fucking record. Starting with the drum sound; they sound like all of the heads have been replaced with random metal pieces, just a constant clicking of machine gunfire. I know that comparison gets used a lot when discussing extreme metal drumming but the metallic on metal sounds truly weaponized, just a battery of shrapnel. The guitars and bass are caustic yet very clear, so that you’re able to follow every nuance of the songs while still retaining the (early) Gorgoroth raw power. Vocally Pest has grown in strength and projection since the 1990s and his vile yet confident delivery adds another baneful layer to an already mortiferous concoction.
So did we necessarily need two versions of this record? No, but unlike so many attempts in the past I can listen to them both and hear enough differences to justify their separate existences. Under the Sign of Hell 2011 is a nasty record of pure, no frills black metal, reenvisioning some of the greatest songs of black metal’s Second Wave as even sharper knives than before. Those of you who (unlike me) don’t want to overpay on Discogs for a copy will be pleased to know that Soulseller Records is reissuing it this October, on nice white and black marbled vinyl. While you enjoy that, I’ll continue to listen to my second hand copy and preach the justification of its existence to whoever is unfortunate enough to be in the way when I’m talking about it.
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