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Slechtvalk - At the Dawn of War

After their last two solid releases, one wondered if Slechtvalk would ever cross that invisible line that separates the good extreme metal bands and join those who are considered truly great.  While the debate will probably still rage on after the release of At the Dawn of War, one has to admit that the band has made another great stride forward and have crafted a very fine album that has at least forced me to move the band ever so close to that invisible line of greatness.  Slechtvalk has continued on with the sound that they had on their previous album, The War that Plagues the Lands, but they have incorporated many more elements to spice up that sound. For one, they’ve went for a heavier and rawer sound. They also use more soprano vocals, haunting clean male vocals, flutes, and acoustic guitars, to add more of a folky/pagan metal feel to a lot of their songs, while still keeping that furious black metal foundation. It’s seems that the band is zeroing in on creating great songs and not just worrying about blasting your brains out.  If you were a fan of Slechtvalk in the past, you undoubtedly will fall in love with this release.  And even if you didn't care for their earlier work, there's a chance this may change your mind.

The album opens with a 3-minute folky intro with acoustic guitars, flutes, and drums that reminds one of fellow label mates, Eluveitie.  While many black metal fans will have already hit the eject button, us open-minded lovers of great music are eating it up in anticipation of what lies ahead.  What follows next is the best song that I think Slechtvalk has ever recorded.  "Call to Arms" opens with haunting keys, mixed with Fionnghuala's beautiful soprano vocals, and various other sounds like horses galloping and neighing in the background.  Kinda brought back memories of the intro on Antestor's, The Return of the Black Death.  When the rest of the band kicks in, you know they mean business.  The blistering guitars and the earth-rumbling double bass get things rolling as the pace quickens and the black shrieking enters full force.  Ohtar's sorrowful clean vocals compliment Shamgar's shrieking perfectly, and like I said on my review of their new maxi-single, his clean vocals give the songs that Viking-like feel at times.  Mid song they go into some fast acoustic strumming atop the soprano vocals and clean male vocals before ripping back into the black metal fury.  This band is not about pleasing the black metal purists in any way.  They are about creating the perfect song, with the perfect atmosphere, with the most perfect combination of brutality and emotion possible.  This song is one of my early picks for best song of 2005.

The next track "Mortal Serenity" leaves no time for catching your breath.  This song is total raging insanity with searing guitars, blasting, and blackish vocals.  Of course, the band also makes sure to include their usual soprano vocals, clean male vocals, and then slow it down to an almost doomy pace towards the end.  Speaking of doomy, fans of slower paced black metal will be sure to like the song "The Spoils of Treason".  Other standout cuts include the furious "Thunder of War", "Black Raven Dead", and "Under the Moonlit Sky".  The band even includes a bonus track which is a redone version of the song "Cries of the Haunted" off of their Falconry album.  This version is much better than the original and makes me wish the band would one day re-record that album with a full band and do newer versions of the songs in this vein.  Falconry was a good album, but the new Slechtvalk is so far beyond that now.

Lyrically, the entire album focuses on war.  Knowing the band members' faith it's easy to come up with multiple meanings, including spiritual ones.  But it's basically up to the listener to decide though as the band pretty much leaves it as is.  Production is very nicely done, and packaging is top notch all the way around.  Kris Verwimp again did the artwork and did a superb job.  The CD booklet has great photos of the individual band members and lyrics.  And while I have the limited edition digipak which also includes their live DVD, Upon the Fields of Battle, I'm going to review the two discs separate as the limited edition was only like 500 in number and so most people will end up buying them separate.

All in all, I must say that I absolutely love this new Slechtvalk album.  There are a couple lulls, but this band has proven its worth and has greatly narrowed the gap between themselves and the top bands in the genre.  Fans of Dark Funeral, Antestor, and Dimmu Borgir should feel right at home here.   This is an extremely talented band that is way underrated and hopefully this release will start to change things.

Rating: 95/100

Review By: Matt Morrow

Label: Fear Dark Records

Total Songs: 11

Total Time: 56:36

Tracklisting: 1. From Out of the Mist We Came Forth, 2. Call to Arms, 3. Mortal Serenity, 4. On the Eve of Battle, 5. Besieged, 6. The Spoils of Treason, 7. Thunder of War, 8. Black Raven Dead, 9. Desertion, 10. Under a Moonlit Sky, 11. Cries of the Haunted (bonus track).

Best Songs: Tracks 2, 3, 7, 8, and 10.

Band Lineup: Shamgar - Guitar/Vocals, Ohtar - Guitar/Vocals/Flute, Fionnghuala - Soprano/Flute, Nath - Bass, Hydrith - Keyboards, Grimbold - Drums/Additional Vocals.

Band Website: http://www.slechtvalk.com