PHOBIA – Slaughterhouse Tapes (2021)REVIEW

If we attempt to present the first four years of Norwegian death metal history as an insular microcosm, a movement, or anything less than an introverted underground reaction to the worldwide death metal infection of the mid-to-late 80’s we distort the reality of the often very young and do-it-yourself enthusiasm for this brand of dark music as it actually was. Though we’re often presented with Norwegian death metal classics as precursors to the same artist’s penchant for black metal in the early 90’s the actual skeletons they’ve left behind in terms of late 80’s death metal demo tapes aren’t so vastly different in their inherent influences or forms than those of Finnish and Swedish origin around the same time. The bands we do remember were undoubtedly competitive and often growing in ambition the closer we get to 1990; From the moldering hits of ‘Severed Survival’-infused scrumming via Amputation and Mortem toward the long-brewing dissociative yet technical rhythmic work from Cadaver and Darkthrone, it is easy to imagine where Norsk death metal might’ve gone if there was any certain allegiance prodding forth the severely underrated demo rush that came circa 1991. Keep in mind that between 1985 and 1991 we are talking about thirty or forty self-released death metal recordings which have largely been remastered, reissued or given total revision within nostalgic revivals yet, there still persists a few unloved treasures in the mist. Green Carnation‘s ‘Hallucinations of Despair‘ is perhaps my obsession alone, but, for most the longest awaited collection of Norwegian death metal unearth is this proper retrospective of Phobia‘s very brief run of ambitious demo/rehearsal recordings between 1990-1991. I do not dive into this ‘Slaughterhouse Tapes‘ compilation for the sake of archival interest alone but, for the additional glimpse into what was becoming distinctly “Norwegian death metal” in sound before the sub-genre was bullied out of the hands of many impressive teenagers via the intense allure of black metal.

If you’ve clicked furiously upon this Phobia collection as a rabid and enthusiastic fan of Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjørnson‘s work in perpetually evolving black metal act Enslaved I will say that you’ll recognize some of the techniques and technology used on the earliest recordings from that band but, this album has more in common with early Molested, Gorement, and even early Alchemist (Australia) if we account for the wild lead guitar whipping on songs like “Feverish Convulsions” while likewise accepting that everyone has always loved Autopsy and Chris Reifert‘s drumming was a high standard many Scandinavian kids (in this case, Theatre of Tragedy‘s Hein Frode Hansen) built upon back in the day. This doesn’t necessarily account for exactly how “progressive” some of these elements were for 1991 specifically the keyboard work we can attribute to the already fearless mind for atmospheric details via Bjørnson who was perhaps 13-14 years old at the time. You’ll understand my reasoning for the ‘Hallucinations of Despair’ demo mention earlier once these elements have revealed themselves, likely through turning the record up a fair deal.

Because the ‘Feverish Convulsions’ (1991) demo tape was their sole “professional” recording it rightfully serves as the major point of interest on this compilation with “Fog of Uncertainty” leading the experience with a percussive, snapping guitar tone that is soon dual-harmonizing and almost leaning into the death/doom metal we’d find on Gorement‘s ‘Human Relic’ demo at roughly the same raw recording quality and satisfyingly deep, putrid and guttural vocals. There is enough personality in that first song to sell me on this CD, especially when it picks up for its last few seconds and trades off between the guitars, small touches we’d similarly find years later in records from bands like Atrocity (Germany). The main event is “The Last Settlement of Ragnarok”, a ‘Lost Paradise’-infused epic with an incredible otherworldly and ethereal organ layer that introduces the piece alongside its leading guitar riffs. The menacing atmosphere of this demo only grows as it progresses. You have to appreciate the pacing and construction of these songs as more than just “fun” kid shit at the time, these are thickly atmospheric death metal pieces left stillborn, and as a result they feel perfectly angered by their slumber in this cthonic, frozen demo state. Because of the prevalent use of keyboards, Phobia‘s crafty juxtaposition of doom influenced movement and whips of thrashing death the thickly morbid atmosphere of ‘Feverish Convulsions’ sells this one for my own taste.

As for the rest of the compilation ‘The Last Settlement of Ragnarok’ rehearsal tape has solid enough sound though we proceed towards increasingly raw recordings from this point. The notation I’ve found online includes the stunningly surreal “Frame of Mind” as part of this rehearsal but its first appearance on track five appears to be an extra from the ‘Feverish Convulsions’ sessions, or a recording of that exact quality to my ear. Otherwise, these rehearsal tracks aren’t going to be for everyone though the ear can adjust to demo quality sound if you’ll allow it time. Consider that the primitive rehearsal track from December 1990 (“When the Jews Return to Zion”) was recorded around the time ‘Hallucinating Anxiety’ released, and the rehearsal track from January 1991 (“Frame of Mind”, the second version) came nearby the release of ‘Soulside Journey’. Not that these are necessarily related events or a direct influence upon the band but the band would change quite drastically in the few months leading up to the couple of demos (each recorded at the Gamle Slaktehuset) that lead off this compilation. Some of the leads are absolute wreckage (see: “Feverish Convulsions [Rehearsal]”) here and there but that’d be the archival value kicking in as we see these ideas in process and turned out live long after we hear the final result. From my point of view this type of archival compilation eventually become the most essential releases as they allow truly obsessed and academic folks to possess the histories of extreme metal the world over, one case study at a time. But hey, beyond that, holy shit this one kicks off with a five song rush that screams hidden gem all day long. A high recommendation, particularly for the CD version and its sharp artwork.

High recommendation. (78/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Slaughterhouse Tapes
LABEL(S):Nuclear War Now! Productions
RELEASE DATE:June 14th, 2021 [CD]
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Death Metal

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