For better or worse, black metal has evolved. The halcyon days of low fidelity recordings and four-track demos are but bittersweet memories fading on the horizon. Perhaps Satan’s smoldering grasp on the metal scene loosened in recent years, spawning new and experimental visions that only ostensibly wave the black metal banner. While we can agree that the infrequencies of church burnings and murderous music beefs are an overall net positive, the quotidian outcropping of ambient and spacy black metal has understandably polarized the community. Of the numerous new classifications of extreme music, one largely popular crossover genre is blackened death, and twenty-nine year old veterans Necrophobic have returned to grace our wretched ears with another sinister project, The Mark of the Necrogram. Is this mark permanent, or will it wash away into black metal obscurity?
There are no two-minute ambient introductions on this album; the quintet waste no time in bringing forth their melodic brand of blackened death with the opening titular track. The twin guitars of axemen Ramstedt and Bergebäck spar, cascading up and down scales before joining in distorted unison overtop driving percussion. This passage feels like a rallying cry, like a director scoring the accompaniment for a platoon of demons to embark for war. Setting the scene even more are the sneering, seething vocals of the satanic svengali Anders Strokirk, beckoning the horde with orders of riff-laden war. “The Mark of the Necrogram” is an example of good melodic metal songwriting: the intensity of the instrumentation and narrative never waver, and they’re varied and diverse enough to keep the listener’s interest for the over forty-minute runtime.
Production-wise, the album sounds nearly impeccable. The lead and rhythm guitars are engineered very well, and the backing percussion and bass assist in making The Mark of the Necrogram a devastatingly heavy record. Many of the songs ebb with tremendous creativity, bursting with ear-piercing electric squeals, megaton riffs, and even singalong passages. Cuts like “Tsar Bomba” show off Necrophobic’s ability to craft a fiendish chorus that’s so catchy it would make fellow countrymen Amon Amarth jealous they didn’t write it first. While the musicianship never wavers in the mix, returning frontman Strokirk’s performance occasionally feels muddled and distant. His malevolent growls and shouts are unimpeachably ferocious, but at times, it sounds like the studio engineer recorded his vocals in a long, echoing hallway. But, the impressive sonic quality of The Mark of the Necrogram sets the album apart from its Swe-death contemporaries, and other bands from the Stockholm scene should listen closely and take notes.
For a group entering their thirtieth year with numerous lineup changes, expectations for a new album should be kept reasonably low; however, Necrophobic prove that their brand of blistering blackened death metal warrants them a place among the genre’s echelon of titans. Minor production quibbles aside, The Mark of the Necrogram is an unmissable entry in this already-exciting year of grade-A metal.