Black metal, generally, is more polar than most subforms of music: it is either mighty and powerful (as in the case of bands like Satyricon and Dimmu Borgir), or it stinks. And the ratio of bad to good is astoundingly high: there are three, maybe four, essential black metal albums to date, out of a field of hundreds.
Hecate Enthroned somehow manages to straddle that line between excellence and silliness. At times, their sound is impressive and sweeping, and big enough to fill rooms; at other times, they give in to the prevalent cliches of the genre and end up sounding just like everybody else. Sadly, the latter is more common on their new EP, Upon Promethean Shores, as well as the follow-up full length album, The Slaughter of Innocence.
Shores is the better of the two discs, and it gives some hints to the potential of black metal. Some interesting sounds are crafted here, on songs such as "The Crimson Thorns," which creates a powerful mood by alternating the typical vocal style with a low, whispered sound. The whisper vocals are oddly effective; I'd like to see the band fill an entire album with this sound, because it seems so much better suited to the music than the standard screaming.
Like most black metal bands, Hecate Enthroned does their best work in the instrumental area, as on "Goetia", the opening track to Innocence. What these bands need to learn, however, is timing: "Goetia" ends abruptly and we are thrown into the blur of "Beneath a December Twilight" without a thought given to segue. Maybe their intention is to make the album sound raw through this intentional non-smoothness. But I think it's more than that: I believe it's just plain sloppiness, because the recording levels of the keyboards drastically jump around between songs as well, indicating that no thought was given to song order or construction.
There is some great stuff on Innocence, namely the surprisingly well-written "The Spell of the Winter Forest," a diverse song that actually has some conventional song structure to it. The gothic keyboard thing is handled well and helps with the mood, rather than just thumping you over the head with fake ivory. It's a bit shocking to hear a song this good on a black metal album. I can just imagine how great it would sound with a normal singer.
Okay, let's talk a little bit about the vocals, for this is my biggest sticking point with the whole genre. I understand as well as anyone that over-the-top aggression, screaming, harshness and extremeness can make a point better than anything else; but it only works that way when surrounded by some sort of contrast. If the tortured scream school of singing were used for punctuation, it would kick me out of my seat; but when it's all you hear for forty-five minutes, it loses virtually all of its effectiveness. This is one area in which Hecate Enthroned is a bit ahead of their contemporaries: the whisper vocals mentioned earlier provide that much-needed contrast. But, sadly, they're just not used enough to make the feel as powerful as it should be. It's a shame, because the musicianship on both discs is top-notch.
And furthermore, if a band is going to serve up a full hour of this kind of vocal aggression, why on earth wouldn't they provide lyrics in the liner notes so we can understand what in the hell they are saying? My secret suspicion is that most black metal bands are quietly embarrased by their lyrics...after all, how many songs do we really need about the secret dark primordial fields of blasphemous macabre ruins aflame in the graven haunted forest near the arcane cave where the mysteries of the black arts are beckoning from the satanic halls of the frozen remains of the king of the dead, and so on?
Between Shores and Innocence, there is enough material for one really, really good album. That may not sound like glowing praise, but believe me, it puts them head and shoulders above their peers.