Nostalgia being as selective as it is, it’s easy to be sceptical about any kind of ‘golden age’ in music; and none more so than the early to mid 90s ‘second wave of black metal’ (something of a misnomer anyway; but that’s an argument for another time*). The genre-defining monuments of the scene are now ‘classic albums’ in their own right, but they are but a few of more visible of the highlights of a vast and surprisingly varied movement (or movements) which ‘went viral’ in an age when that term had only its more appropriate medical connotations. An indication of how quickly the style was spreading throughout the world can be gauged by the quantity of black metal albums available at the beginning and end of the period bounded by Mayhem’s studio version of ‘Freezing Moon’ in 1990 (when there might have been ten albums that could comfortably be described as black metal) and the belated release in 1996 of Burzum’s Filosofem, by which time it would be possible to have a black metal collection well into the hundreds. But if this kind of music was overwhelmingly a Norwegian style in 1990-2 (i.e. before full length albums were released by the protagonists), by the time Filosofem was recorded in ’93 it had a firm hold in the European metal underground from Finland in the north, to Ireland and the UK in the west, to Greece and Italy in the Mediterranean, to Germany and eastwards, where a very distinctive local scene had developed in Poland. Which brings us to Sauron, and to The Baltic Fog.
Sauron, even by the standards of black metal bands, were outsiders in the Polish scene.
It’s probably safe to say that black metal would have developed differently if the Internet had been a factor in the early 90s; but it wasn’t, and as in Norway, where the actual bands were spread out across a wide geographical area, with the main players convening in and around Oslo, the key bands in the genesis of Polish black metal – namely Behemoth and Graveland – could hardly have been further apart; Graveland in the old Silesian capital of Wrocław and Behemoth in Gdańsk on the Baltic coast, but nonetheless the bands’ members formed a short-lived ‘black circle’ partly in emulation of the Norwegian scene, before ideological issues created a rift between the main protagonists. Meanwhile, in Radom in central Poland, Sauron had formed in 1991 from the ashes of death metal band (albeit with a Bathory influence) Malleus Maleficarum. By ’95, with Polish black metal in full swing, a reconfigured Sauron lineup had become a full-blown pagan black metal band.
Significantly, two of the band members had initially considered starting a new project called From The Pagan Forest; which from nowadays’ perspective seems an obvious nod to scene leaders Behemoth, whose releases around that time included both …From the Pagan Vastlands and And The Forests Dream Eternally; but although that influence is probable, coincidence and chance abounds in an often uncanny way in the early days of black metal and it’s as likely that there was just ‘something in the air’ that suggested these kind of names. Be that as it may, the fact is that Sauron’s 95 demo, The Baltic Fog – (about to have a very welcome limited vinyl and cassette re-release from Wheelwright Productions) absolutely captures the zeitgeist that was feeding into and emanating from Polish black metal in the mid-90s; an atmosphere of vast, gloomy forests, archaic nocturnal pagan rites, virulent anti-Christian feeling and (as was not necessarily the case in black metal elsewhere) heavy metal. Sauron’s music is rough-hewn, riff-laden and strident, less spectral and feral than Graveland or Behemoth at this date, less thin and icy than the classic Norwegian sound, but the songs are powerful and catchy and the atmosphere is unmistakable; this is classic black metal.
Sauron’s sound is their own, but the more prosaic influence of their peers is there in the song titles; again it could be coincidence, but it’s hard not to see an echo (if you can see an echo) of Graveland’s notorious 1993 demo In The Glare of Burning Churches in the title of The Baltic Fog’s brilliant opening track ‘In The Glare of Black Candles’ and both the titleThe Baltic Fog and the song ‘In The Shadow of Sventevith’ seem to evoke Behemoth’s ’95 masterpiece Sventevith – Storming Near The Baltic. But, given that both Behemoth and Graveland were, in 1994/5, harnessing the dark energy of black metal and making some of the most potent records ever to emerge from the Polish scene, these superficial similarities actually intensify the spirit of the demo.
The potency alluded to above is a key idea; what is shared by the best black metal of the 90s is not so much a sound or a series of stylistic traits as an atmosphere and attitude. The question about releases like The Baltic Fog is not whether they are good (though in terms of songwriting and performance, The Baltic Fog is indeed good), but whether they are right. And The Baltic Fog is above all right; the magic is there. And, perhaps surprisingly, that magic is less reliant on time and place than one might think. The aura emanating from a well-worn 10th generation cassette with photocopied, homemade inlay may be evocative and authentic, but the music and most of all the feel of the music survives surprisingly well in The Baltic Fog’s shiny new vinyl release.
This demo was only the beginning of the Sauron story; the band, in a somewhat different form, still exists today and their 2016 opus Wara! is an album of (comparatively) polished, heroic pagan black metal that is absolutely worthy of attention; but the howl from the ancient forests of Europe cannot come again in quite the same way.
The Baltic Fog will be re-released on Weelwright Productions on March 3rd, and is available for pre-order through here.
*Sod it; let’s do this; the style pioneered by the classic Mayhem lineup of Euronymous/Dead/Necrobutcher/Hellhammer c.1990 may be derivative of the works of (among others) Sarcofago, Bathory and Venom; but to call it a ‘second wave’ is like calling a de Havilland Comet ‘the second wave of dirigibles’. They do roughly the same thing; but if anything, Venom should be seen as the crude archetype of black metal and Mayhem the real thing; without Mayhem we wouldn’t be talking about a ‘wave’ at all.