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I love compilations of previously rare singles and E.P.s like this one, as although it's often a sign of inferior quality to a full-length album, at the very least structurally speaking, they carry a compelling sense of history, novelty and value for money in saving die-hard fans from paying extortionate amounts for out of print vinyl. Though being die-hard fans, they'll still probably go out and do so anyway, especially if it has John McClane plastered on the front.
In collecting the limited 7" vinyl and E.P. surrounding their excellent debut album 'Svartalvheim,' the oddly titled 'Det Glemte Riket' - oddly titled for bearing the same name as the two-track single it contains within - is the easy solution to completing the Ancient section of your black metal collection, taking or leaving the fairly average second album and just ignoring the rubbish that came after. Still, even though it contains nine varied, high quality tracks and a playing time that's above average for early black metal, this feels a bit lacking if compared to the more substantial E.P. collections afforded to other bands, though it's as comprehensive as you can get, even including the all-important never-before-heard offerings that are, as usual, slightly below par.
'Svartalvheim' was a decent entry to the early nineties Norwegian black metal scene, not on the same level as its progenitors from Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor and some of the others, but capturing the same frosty, dirgey sound and forging a unique concoction. As a fan of the more emotive, keyboard-based black metal bands, I'd consider it a classic, but for sounding fairly similar to many bands in Norway and elsewhere, a few of them much better, I'd have to put it down as one of those albums that's ever so slightly underrated, a bit. It probably deserves to be a little more widely heard, and people will like it a bit more than they expected. This collection is similarly excellent but flawed, primarily for containing the strong 'Trolltarr' and the near-perfect 'Det Glemte Riket' single that was later collected (again) on the brilliant 'True Kings of Norway' compilation - but in one of the less noticeable positions towards the end after the bands most metal fans had already heard of, naturally.
The original 'Det Glemte Riket' (come on, how hard would it have been to assign this collection a hasty title to distinguish it? Even the cover art's the same as 'Trolltar') features two songs, a little on the lengthy side, that present Ancient at their very best, owing far more to the guitar, bass and keyboard skills of Aphazel than the more standard growl and drums of Grimm. The keyboards work excellently in setting a gloomy atmosphere that's still somewhat lighter and less dismal than some of their contemporaries, but lead guitars are used for emphasis rather than over-the-top keyboards that would become a little annoying on later releases. These songs both feature frequent lapses into quieter sections, perhaps a little too frequent, but this at least keeps the raw guitar riffs and prominent bass from becoming too hypnotic and repetitive.
The Trolltar tracks show a little advancement in terms of both an improved production sound and greater tendency towards melodic aspects, featuring clean, Viking-style singing and shouting from Grimm in addition to his standard croak, a greater focus on treble with lead guitars and cymbals, a slower pace for track two, and even a finale in 'Fjellets Hemmelinghet' performed entirely on clean electric guitar and piano that avoids the seemingly inevitable lunge into blast beats and braves a soft outro all the way, even featuring some pleasant singing from Lise Stalheim. The only real disappointment here comes with 'Eerily Howling Winds' simply for sounding pretty much exactly like what's come before, making it clear why it was excised from the shorter CD release of the E.P.
The "new" songs recorded between 1994 and '96 aren't quite as good as the older tracks, and seem to catch the band at the beginning of their unfortunate decline. 'Paa Evig Vandring' is much like a butchered version of the older style, with an improved guitar tone that nevertheless buries the vocals and drums even further, and too stark a contrast between repetitive faster sections and duller, more minimalist breaks, only really coming together in typical Ancient fashion at the more energetic finale. 'Algol' is a keyboard solo song that will only appeal to fans of this type of gothic music, and resembles Cradle of Filth's interludes with Lecter, a little dull but melodramatic and clichéd enough to be entertaining. The cover of Black Sabbath's 'Sweet Leaf' only really disappoints at the end, Aphazel adapting the doom riffs to a black metal crunch quite well but intruding with unnecessary keyboards towards the end, and Grimm just making the whole thing sound silly by growling the familiar lyrics. It's a fair enough blending of the classic doom and black metal styles, but it's too famous a song for it to work in any kind of meaningful way.
This is a fine album for collecting a couple of solid short releases, bulked out by less impressive bonus material, but doesn't add an awful lot you won't have heard with 'Svartalvheim.' It's more worthwhile getting hold of 'True Kings of Norway' for five classic early 'n' rare releases from the second wave of Norwegian black metal, to which Ancient was a late and subsidiary addition.
2. Nattens Skjønnhet
3. Eerily Howling Winds
4. Det Glemte Riket
5. Huldra Dans
6. Paa Evig Vandring
7. Fjellets Hemmelinghet
9. Sweet Leaf (Black Sabbath cover)