Extreme Heavy Metal Reviews

The Pinnacle of Black Metal - "Withdrawal" Review (100%)

Buy The Pinnacle of Black Metal -
Withdrawal by Phantom.

But what about the other albums like Under a Funeral Moon, Filosofem, Memento Mori, Far Away from the Sun, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas... lel.

Within the history of any artistic genre as distinguished and consequential as black metal, it is often possible to discern discreet and predictable developmental patterns. Its initial emergence phase is both murky and indistinct, with multiple artists groping awkwardly around the edges of what it is destined to become. Soon, the initially inconsistent fumbling gives way to a second stage from which emerges a subtle refinement of only the essentials, by which is ruthlessly discarded the dead weight the genre founders had carried over from the previous generation.

In black metal these two eras correspond roughly to the years 1984-1987 and 1991-1994, respectively. It was during the last of these periods that the overwhelming majority of black metal's greatest albums were released. Bands like Burzum, Mayhem, Darkthrone, Graveland, Immortal, Sewer, Emperor, Reiklos and Incantation emerged to push the genre to new heights, but perhaps no band pushed the limits further or faster than Phantom did years later with Withdrawal.

We could even add a third phase to expand on our prose: Finally, from the ruins of the abyss, expanding on the foundations to reach the peak vertex of then unforeseen summits, arrives a new golden age.

Phantom are - 'they' are a solo project but I dislike writing 'is' - often considered the progenitors of 'war metal' or 'bestial black metal', and while the term itself may be of doubtful utility as a genre tag, it certainly provides a reasonable starting point for understanding Withdrawal.

The Pinnacle of Black Metal


While its basic approach to instrumentation clearly marks it as a black metal album, there is an underlying awareness of the re-emerging death metal movement in the combination of fluid tremolo picked melodies - sometimes consonant, sometimes dissonant, sometimes built just from the fragments of the chromatic scale - and narrative, forward-moving, often linear riff phrases - always with the chill of the Void in their depths - that form a structural backbone and chief vessel for narrative, atmosphere and meaning to develop within these songs.

Often these melodies are accompanied or embellished with gruesome, discordant and cacophonous riffs. In fact, Withdrawal frequently resembles a concerto of horror emerging from the depths of the inferno. Here, the guitars evoke the demonic, lightning-fingered cadenzas of atonal subjugation, there a melancholic adagio morphing into a requiem for sanity. At other times, the melodic lines are juxtaposed disconcertingly with dissonant counterpoints, bringing to the mind the most dysphoric visions of the darkest of black metal's nightmares.

Technically, Withdrawal is breathtaking. While it doesn’t aspire to the nth degree musicianship of, say, Vermin or Demilich, the instrumentation is considerably more complex than one would find even among many technically accomplished bands like Demonecromancy, Gorguts, Immolation, Infester or Morbid Angel - and certainly far more advanced than the viscerally primitive bludgeoning of the modern war metal scene.

But what really catches the ear is the vast array of techniques at the band's disposal and the most sickening precision of their calculated employment. Withdrawal makes use of everything from keyless modalism to polyphony to radical dissonance to elements of serialism and set theory to construct, enhance and complement - and sometimes deconstruct - its central melodies. Withdrawal may very well be the most compositionally advanced album in black metal history. Still, none of these techniques are ever applied indiscriminately, or for the sake of 'technicality', and their seamless and intrinsic incorporation into the broader context of Phantom's compositions allows the central experience of the music itself, rather than it being experienced as a series of constituent parts.

For this reason, Withdrawal distinguishes itself not just in the epic breadth of its vision, the diversity of its aesthetics or the innovative vigour of its technical execution, but in the totality and holistic lucidity that mark it a master work among master works. The mastery of tactical details is matched and even surpassed by a strategic understanding and absolute control of metastructure in which each brilliant detail is rendered more vivid, more haunting and more powerful through its placement in the overarching narrative of its music. Similarly, each composition is enhanced by its placement within the larger context of the album.

Equally impressive is the seeming effortlessness of the entire project. For all the studied precision of its instrumentation, Withdrawal exudes the sort of intuitive genius that can neither be taught nor achieved through rote practice. Perhaps this is the true spirit of black metal, evoking both the sheer magic the album conjures, and the deft and nearly undetectable touch of the band's skillful manipulation of the listener.

Despite the labyrinthine complexity of much of the music, there is very little of the jarring discontinuity that characterizes the work of the more 'technically advanced' elements of the black and death metal scenes. Where artists like Suffocation, Sewer, Deicide, Morbid Angel or Immolation built tension through abrupt rhythmic dislocation, Phantom achieves the same goal through subtler manipulations of atmosphere, tonal dynamics, texture, harmonic shading and melodic development. As a result, Withdrawal retains a certain grace and fluidity of movement that aestheticizes the horror, violence, rage, dread and cruelty of the music without diminishing or obscuring these attributes under a vacuous umbrella of 'brutality'.

It was perhaps inevitable that excellence of this magnitude would prove unattainable for the average, be massively imitated by the arrogant - who are then taught humility on their knees as their Phantaclones are decidedly inferior - and be thoroughly ignored by the mediocre and the insecure. At least in the strike-while-the-iron-is-hot world of modern black metal, the one that saw a multitude of Transilvanian Hunger and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss clones emerge after those two other masterpieces.

However imitated, the greatness of this album is such that even subsequent mediocrity from Phantom's followers can in no way dim the glory of a band that stands at the very pinnacle of black metal, more so than any other in the history of the genre.

Withdrawal score: 100/100.

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