There are three bands from the 90's who put out some of the best, and at times underrated, to whichever you might take that, albums. No they weren't AT THE GATES, MESHUGGAH, DEATH, etc...they consisted of KATATONIA, SAMAEL, and TIAMAT. Well this review isn't the first two bands, but TIAMAT were by far the most underrated. The fact that they were part of the original wave of Swedish Death Metal bands that pretty much started the whole scene and sound but unlike groups such as ENTOMBED, DISMEMBER, and GRAVE who essentially get all the credit (and they rightfully deserve so), TIAMAT didn't get that same attention. They were in what you may call ‘the second row’ of other cult Swedish acts such as OBSCURITY, GROTESQUE, MEPHISTO, etc. With that in mind, you also have to take into account of the direction they took with each album. TIAMAT were much like the ungodly CELTIC FROST in that they constantly progressed past their genre's imitations and grew into a completely different entity. All of these factors play into TIAMAT who still to this day remain that underrated band.
To give a brief summary of the band, TIAMAT started out in 1987 under the moniker of TREBLINKA (named after a Nazi concentration camp which to this day the band refers to as "childish"...I beg to differ due to personal reasons) and after two demos and an EP they changed their name due to controversy and named themselves after a Babylonian sea goddess. Their first album "Sumerian Cry", which featured a couple TREBLINKA-era songs re-recorded if I am not mistaken, was and is one of my personal favorite Swedish Death Metal albums of that period. I take that back..."Sumerian Cry" was more of a Black Metal album with Death Metal overtones, but that's another review in and of itself. Also, where as "Sumerian Cry" was originally recorded at Sweden's Sunlight Studios (might I add the first ever Sunlight Studios album produced), "The Astral Sleep" was recorded elsewhere "The Astral Sleep" is a complete contrast where TIAMAT drops the primitives sounds and goes for the excellent mixture of Death and Doom Metal which still has yet to be touched. KATATONIA has already claimed the top sport in that genre, but TIAMAT do so where they keep the infernal teachings of their dark goddess.
"The Astral Sleep" again is straight-up Death Metal but mixed with Doom Metal overtones and a Gothic atmosphere. But with a change in musical direction comes a change within the lyrical content as well....well, not so much as the themes, but the vocabulary has widened to were you know what you're in for but it's more of a voyage into the unknown. Also we see the band members themselves change. First we have lead singer/guitarist Johnny Ellund adopt a more Tom G. Warrior grunt to his guttural vocals; before he sounded more like a more evil L.G. Petrov from ENTOMBED. Here there's not much of a rasp to his vocals as before. Hell, he even ditched his old moniker of Hellslaughter for which he used in both TREBLINKA and the first TIAMAT album. Need I mention his receding hair line? I know, petty shit like receding does not take into account for this album review, but I did mention changes. Eh? Ok, bad joke on my part.
Outside of guitarist Johnny and original bassist Jorgen Thullberg a.k.a Juck (Juck what the fuck?hehehe), original TREBLINKA guitarist and drummer off the first TIAMAT album (Stefan Lagergren a.k.a Emetic/Anders Holmberg a.k.a Najse) are replaced by guitarist Thomas Petersson and drummer Niklas Ekstrand who are much more efficient and more competent in making the music progress and change. The guitar tone is slightly different as well. It's not at all like the traditional Sunlight Studios sound where TIAMAT recorded their first album. "Sumerian Cry" was recorded a mere two months before ENTOMBED's classic "Left Hand Path" and I should have noted this in the first paragraph, but this may also be where TIAMAT became underappreciated in the Metal universe. Instead "The Astral Sleep" was recorded at Woodhouse Studio located in Dortmund, Germany (the same place where UNLEASHED recorded their debut, earlier that year). So not only are we seeing them strip away their Black Metal sound, but musicians and studios as well. This doesn't even go into the guest musicians on the album of all whom I will properly go into later on in my review.
The songs themselves are a bit of a doozy. These are much more complicated and more multi-layered than what is heard on "Sumerian Cry." The album starts off with the intro called "Neon Aeon" which is typical dark ambient keyboard which is played by guest musician Jonas Malmsten. After the intro fades away, guitars erupt with the song "Lady Temptress" which you hear vocalist/guitarist Johnny do his best "Left Hand Path" Phantasm-like scream in the very beginning of the song. The song goes through different tempos, basically speeding-up and slowing down. Some stop/start type riffs here and there. Also features a kick-ass guitar solo. The next song "Mountain of Doom" is exactly just what the title reads. Pure Doom. It starts off very melodic acoustic guitar with keyboards and goes into a very Gothic-like depressing song. Vocalist Johnny Ellund sounds like he is enduring some form of torture here. But so far what we have here is riffs and loads of them. I mean for such a huge change/progression from their first album, they still kept the riffs in which they are drinking from a river of such.
"Dead Boys Choir" opens with more acoustic guitar and follows the same suit as "Mountain Of Doom" in pulling out the Doom card. "Sumerian Cry (Part III)" comes back with a more proper Death Metal sound with the speed and aggression. "On Golden Wings (The Astral Sleep)" goes right back into Doom Metal territory and here we have a Doom song a bit more up-beat with some really rockin' riffs. I mean were as before they were very depressing, but here they are a slight bit up-tempo and keeps the song from not seeing too predictable. "Ancient Entity" is just straight-forward Death Metal and a fan favorite. Now we come to the song "The Southernmost Voyage" were it seems that TIAMAT is not going to go for what I refer to as middle-of-the-album-filler. This is where it starts to get better actually. If I were to pick one song out of the entire album that would sum this album up, it would be this. It's not pure Death. It's not even pure Doom. It's actually a very dark, acoustic track almost like a ballad. But when you hear it, you'll know what I mean. Johnny sounds like he is falling into an eternal nightmare on this (KILL! ON COMMAND!.....sorry, had to put in a VIO-LENCE reference there to see if anyone was paying attention) particular track.
"Angels Far Beyond" has an excellent usage of keyboards pushing the guitars into a very agitated state where we start hearing mid-tempo blast beats, tom rolls, and much more. The last two songs "I Am the King (Of Dreams)" and "A Winter Shadow" go straight for the jugular with pure Swedish Death Metal. No fucking around on these two. The outro "The Seal" is again more keyboards, dark and ambient like the intro, but now we get more of a harpsichord-like sound to them making everything seem as "The Astral Sleep" was indeed all a nightmare for the listener. In fact both the intro and outro sound very much like the original soundtrack to the Wes Craven classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
So what's that? Two instrumentals, three Doom tracks, one semi ballad, and the others either being straight-forward Death or a mixture of Death/Doom Metal.....:does the internet meme face: Not bad. If anything, "The Astral Sleep" is a GOOD progression for a band like TIAMAT. Their first album being a Black Metal/Death Metal hybrid, their second one being a Death Metal/Doom Metal hybrid, their third "Clouds" being an almost straight-up Doom Metal album with some Death Metal tendencies and even more of a Goth influences, and by "Wildhoney" everyone kinda knew where they were going by then. But hey, for what TIAMAT did during their first three albums is nothing short of 90's classics. Although "Sumerian Cry" is their classic, IMO, the other first two albums deserve the title as well... but for now and this review being solely focused on "The Astral Sleep", I can without a doubt say this is TIAMAT's most progressive album seeing how it takes the classic element of "Sumerian Cry" and really fucks around with the tempo changes and layering of the keyboards, acoustic guitars and just overall feel of the music. Definitely a damn good album and is totally worth owning. Get it and be on your voyage to the southernmost point!
(Online July 4, 2012)