THE SERPENT AND THE PENTAGRAM: The Official Chronicles of Necromantia (2023)REVIEW

With the sudden passing of Baron Blood in late 2019 clarity arrived through legions of mourning and heartily tributing fandom that a send-off for Necromantia needed to be both a grand finale for the well-respected influential Hellenic black metal duo and of course a cenotaph in memorial to an important figure to bring both avant-garde enrichment and traditional heavy metal influenced station to the early second wave. Legendary Hellenic black metal figure, early scene engineer, and band co-founder Morbid aka Magus Wampyr Daoloth aka The Magus (Γιώργος Ζαχαρόπουλος) has kept busy with proper tribute (alongside new project Yoth Iria and his own emerging solo work) since, releasing special edition reissues/remasters of their demo-era recordings with additional documentation alongside a full discography boxed set among other items. This book intends to put as much documentation of the last 32 years of Necromantia into one tome which respectfully accepts the reality that we cannot know, or speculate the interior of Baron Blood‘s mind or experiences for the last three decades and instead focuses on the plethora of personal biographizing and anecdotes pertaining to the Athens early extreme metal scene including his own philosophy in art, the occult, and religion alongside detailed notes on most every song the band ever wrote. Here we get an as complete as possible depiction written in a natural state of recollection which covers The Magus‘ experiences from the early 80’s through 2021 with some crucial contextualization from co-author Aris Shock (see also: ‘Rites of the Abyss: The Genesis and History of Greek Black Metal‘) which makes for an easy read that is quick but generally dense with interest.

Within the short praeludium of the book The Magus expresses that the always modest fanbase of Necromantia not only influenced and enchanted more people than he’d ever realized over the last thirty two years but that many surprised him in insisting their work had deeply inspired black metal as whole. Of course this was believable, fact from the point of view of a true black metal fan. From the artist perspective it seems they were only creating as inspiration struck and as opportunity presented itself, of course the who, the what, the when and how is the major content of this book. Metal Hammer Greece editor-in-chief Chronopoulos‘ section of the foreward echoes this point of black metal nobility in his brief notes suggesting that peers, the underground music sphere as a whole, unanimously respect Necromantia‘s legacy deeply. The Magus also remarks that this is the -complete- story told, the final piece to signify the march off into the abyss and that this is a resolute point of closure for the band. To add to this gesture co-author Shock perhaps drops one of the most veil-burning facts in his first paragraph of the prelude: Necromantia never played live in the three plus decades they existed, and he goes on to make the distinction that of course, as I’d suggested, we’ve regrettably no way to include insight from Baron Blood. — Just three pages into this book we’ve already gotten plenty of reason to pause and reflect on the realities of underground music as a largely not-for-profit craft, the notion of legacy in the minds of ever-active craftsmen, and in my mind it speaks to the need for constant historical documentation and reflection upon the vast realm of black metal.

“[…] I think black metal is not a kind of music that should be experienced collectively. It should be experienced by each person separately; as something you do by yourself and for yourself. That’s my opinion, of course. Black metal should have a lot of emotions and a lot of images you create in your mind. It’s music that touches your soul. That’s why I don’t really like seeking black metal shows and I don’t like to play in black metal shows either.

As I drank deeply of this window into The Magus‘ reflection upon the last three decades-aged wine of Necromantia finally uncasked it’d not only given some valuable additional perspective on the early Hellenic black metal mythos but followed through on all eras of the band as well as side projects and future work. Death is not the end for any of us but for this band this book serves a glorious yet grounded tombstone for the folks who are truly invested.

A couple things to note up front on an aesthetic level. Shock‘s horror fanzine background alongside a ton of contextual images and an inspired layout design allows for a moderately visual read wherein most of the ~220 main pages here feature some manner of contextual photography or scans of important items from the past. This allows for a strong mix of commentary with practical examples of artifacts such as the instruments they’d used for years, articles, advertisements, photographs, etc. which help to keep the read from churning by too quickly since there are some beautiful relics which develop the Necromantia (and Greek black metal) aesthetic in a most classic sense as they progress through the years. Beyond it being a very visual read I’d again found Shock‘s contextualization and The Magus‘ experiences present a precise sense of a long-form zine interview narrative, one which might dive into all of the minutiae and yet keeps it all interesting as the chronology of events continues. For additional context they’ve included many notes from other musicians, writers, and such which build precedence and flesh out this idea that Necromantia were guided by their own hand, looking to do something different in representation of their own identity and they were influential for this radical style despite not having the traditional live presence. There is a surprising amount of detail and interest available considering this was studio only act. Roughly half of the book is admittedly focused on related projects, experiences and associations with the Athens-guided scene and beyond which build this argument of exactly how many minds and souls the entity touched in three plus decades. So much is documented and included here despite the short length of the book that it feels potent, imaginatively presented, and contextualized in a stunning way which will speak to the longtime metal zine reader as much as those seeking historic context and anecdotal interest.

The opening chapter is essentially The Magus providing a short memoir of his experiences as a young man in 1980’s Greece and how he’d developed an interest in heavy rock, heavy metal, extreme metal and punk eventually landing in a crossover/thrash group Reeks of Terror. He’d eventually start a death/thrash metal quartet named Necromancy who put out a tape (‘Visions of Lunacy‘) circa 1989 and I’d found this chapter especially interesting because while this tape has been re-released and preserved we don’t have a ton of provenance for it whereas here we get some insight into the recording session, influences, and why he left that band. I mention this chapter of the book because it not only sheds some light onto that precursor act where The Magus (then known as Morbid) found his vision and voice, brought ideas into action during what was arguably the peak of underground extreme metal furor in its true independent state, the pole position for a unique avant-garde idea like Necromantia to form in the era of earnest enthusiasm. Again, the play-by-play context from Shock as he introduces the subject of each chapter while The Magus provides a stream of memories and sidenotes works pretty well overall once they begin to better hone in on the details of the band’s beginnings. Perhaps the most important early subject comes up here, also, where he discusses his emerging interest in the occult arts and the dual-bassist line-up of the band where Baron Blood used a custom-made eight stringed bass guitar which gave the band an entirely unique sound among their peers which at the time included Mortify, Septic Flesh, Zephyrous and few others.

So, without giving a play by play of the entire book I’ll do my best to point to a few highlights that’d struck me as profound or some of the more fond/inspired bits that’d illustrated a fresh perspective on Necromantia and Hellenic black metal. I’d particularly appreciated the section of the biography dealing with the origins of the band for many of the same reasons I’d enjoyed on ‘The Necromancer of Rock: The Origins of Death SS‘ where Steve Sylvester had likewise given deep context for emerging interest in heavy music within a previously barren landscape with few supportive labels while also touching upon occult art and literature and how these influences likewise defined their creative output for years to come. From that point in the book the major focus of each chapter goes through their entire discography record-by-record until side-projects, modern resurgence of the Greek black metal sphere, and other works become a relevant part of the conversation. As I read through the book I made sure to listen to each available release as they’d mention them, for the sake of considering immersion and set myself in that era and consider what else was happening at that time not only in black metal but underground metal and rock in general. To help keep things in order the chapter-per-release format reads quite well and particularly illuminates the amount of thought that went into their demo stage and early albums. This admittedly becomes less detailed as the subject veers away from Necromantia quite a bit in the second half of the book. Though I’d maybe had a few contextual questions to ask along the way the writing here fills in most all necessary details, giving complete line-ups and credits for each release alongside some variations/notes on cover art among plenty of other details such as ‘Demo 1990‘ being partly improvised.

I’d be negligent if I didn’t insert my own experiences with Greek black metal into the fray on some level, since I consider the Hellenic black metal scene equally important to the greater black metal reality in translation of the the late first and early second wave which was in some cases a more serious, artful and complete vision of black metal as a developing sub-culture of personal philosophy and spirituality beyond the 80’s which does not attempt to escape the context of heavy metal. Necromantia to me are an indirect extension of the theatre available beyond certain Venom records, something darker and more extreme beyond Hellhammer‘s bashed at fluidity with a keen mind for avant-garde rock vaunting, an embodiment of extreme metal’s defiant or “deviant” nature as a movement. If there is a direct line to “black metal as art” well, perhaps Root and a few other bands had the early monopoly on this type of performance but Necromantia was the wild outsider in their realm yet they were just as heavy as the biggest names nearby, a name to remember (and drop endlessly) at the very least for many. Just how different they were from everything else at the time is key context which felt a bit lost to the nowadays metal zeitgeist until I’d seen tributes to the band after the passing of Baron Blood and now when seeing this mentioned so often in this book. Anyhow, while I am a fan of all of their work I’d never invested much time in the band’s work beyond ‘IV: Malice‘ (2000) and I think as a result of reading this book I’ve listened to and better understood their discography beyond that point. I absolutely missed out on the great work found in their fifth and sixth full-lengths by sheer neglect. Nonetheless, as a black metal fan I will always worship ‘Scarlet Evil Witching Black‘ (1995), which I consider my favorite recording from the band and an altar to everything I love about the sub-genre’s earlier era of bold and original personalities.

Perhaps the best selling point for this book if you’ve already gotten and memorized the contents of Shock’s ‘Rites of the Abyss: The Genesis and History of Greek Black Metal‘ is that we get such a complete and fairly natural conversational walk through Necromantia‘s unique realm to the point that all bases appear particularly well-covered and nothing is too strangely mystified or left untouched. The major expansion of contextual description and setting within Greece’s greater metal scenery and the evolution of the classic Greek black metal scene that occurs herein is at the very least on par with what Dayal Patterson’s ‘Non Serviam: The Official Story of Rotting Christ‘ (2018) had presented although this book is arguably more aesthetic overall, or, visually appealing for my taste in terms of its layout including a more readable smaller font. Both books definitely have trouble focusing on what is most interesting at times, though. If you own those other books this will feel like a natural addition to your shelf and frankly reads with such strong detail that I’d gone back and re-read each of the discography focused chapters several times to bask in each album discussed while soaking up all of that they’d shared about it. As a longtime fan this is a pretty sublime combination of context and listening experience compared to a lot of lackluster or “guarded” biographies from rock/metal musicians, at no point did I stop and rethink the value of this band’s earnest legacy but instead I began to more equally value their work as a whole.

The vocals for ‘The Sound of Lucifer Storming Heaven‘ (2007) were recorded in Baron Blood‘s bathroom? — I’d certainly had my favorite moments in reading about each release, such as Diamanda Galas influencing The Magus‘ open-minded approach to the dark metal they were creating throughout their earliest recordings. The Ravenloft Dungeons & Dragons campaign book influencing the cover of ‘Crossing the Fiery Path‘ (1993) alongside Frances Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) film influencing the perspective of the lyrics are details which should’ve been obvious but it was a thrill to see enthusiasm for these things in the writing. Likewise the detail that The Magus goes into when describing his involvement in early Rotting Christ as a performer and engineer was perhaps nothing I did not already know but a perspective I hadn’t heard as much from, ‘Passage to Arcturo‘ and ‘Thy Mighty Contract‘ are two of the most important recordings that took me outside of thrash and death metal when I was a kid so, this is where I ‘geek out’ the most since he’d actually recorded and been so closely involved with these records. We also get detailed information on the complete discography for Thou Art Lord, N.A.O.S., Diabolus Rising, and Raism among others which were directly related to The Magus past and present involvement with extreme metal as a band member and solo artist. I would assume many readers will need to seek these recordings out on their Bandcamp and get the necessary context for these chapters.

Of course there is some criticism due here in terms of the read itself but they are minor. The editing here relies upon a mix of conversational feeling and some historicity-minded context which sometimes clashes between informative and casual writing. The points where they use “Lol” (as in laugh out loud) in a way which feels too closely related to the internet and not a book, and it should at least be in all-caps. A very small gripe that I only cared enough about to mention, it happens maybe four times total. Otherwise the opening chapter feels like this needs to be a “book on tape” because it needs the charisma and timbre of The Magus to illustrate these situations which sound normal and relatable today but certainly must have felt unique, life-changing back in the early 80’s. Otherwise there is no way to avoid the void here, again we only get some vague illustration of Baron Blood and perhaps at some point this is natural since he’d not been one to do interviews or be anything more than a musician. At the very least it seems they’ve left it as their very practical, private friend would have wished.

If you are a decades-long fan of Hellenic black metal and the spheres of influence Necromantia had created over the last 30+ years, as I am, most all of what The Serpent & The Pentagram presents will be valuable for both context and countless new bits of information that’ve not been written or spoken to date. The tone is appropriately casual without side-stepping the importance of these acts and in this way this book delves into the subject with reverence while reflecting the personality and mindset of The Magus to some strong degree. This seems to be the definitive object and point of reference for fans of the band and as such, the recommendation is very high since there is no room left for a superior reference at this point.

Publisher: Pagan Records
format: Hardcover Book
Release Date: March 17th, 2023
Dimensions: 177 x 235 mm
Page count: 224
Language: English (Polish Edition also available)

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