Unholy – ‘The Second Ring Of Power’ CD/DVD Special Edition

With ‘the second ring of power’ Peaceville complete their series of reissues for Unholy and, typically, they have saved the best of their bonus material for last. While the other reissues have featured bonus tracks and beautifully reworked artwork, this special edition features a full ‘bootleg’ DVD which, whilst rough in quality, offers fans the chance to witness the power of Unholy in the live environment.

Let us not, however, get ahead of ourselves. ‘The second ring of power’ was released in 1994, just a year after the band’s crushing, black-metal influenced debut. It would be a long four years before the band would release anything again as the poor response to the album and the pressure of a failing tour led to Unholy going on hiatus for two years. That the album should garner poor reviews seems remarkable now as you sit absorbed in the complex and intelligent arrangements of the band’s music, but it must also be remembered that at the time Unholy were daring to experiment largely in the unknown. Their extreme style, informed by black metal and the icy doom of Thergothon, was already undergoing rapid changes and whilst ‘the second ring of power’  is, without a doubt, an extreme release, the addition of hypnotic rhythms, eastern influences and female vocals all raised eyebrows of an audience expecting something heavier and more straightforward. It is a shame because the album is a classic, a milestone that still casts a shadow over progressive-minded black metal and doom and which is available once more to astound a whole new generation of metal fans who have come to embrace the avant-garde and unexpected.

Opening with the title track, Unholy waste no time on laying down a firm line. The crushing drums are at the forefront of the production with the keyboards not far behind. The guitars are buried in the mix, an icy, buzzing drone that adds to the unsettling air and all this serves to create a forbidding atmosphere rendered all the more impenetrable by the black metal vocals, all strangled utterances and harsh sibilants that betray a genuine sense of despair and loss. Yet for all that it is extreme, the keyboards sweeten even the bitterest gall and there is a melody at the heart of the track that makes it as unforgettable as it is uncompromising. As the track progresses, a drone appears which is offset by the remarkable bass work of Pasi Aijo and the beautiful, twisted violin of Ismo Toivonen before being trampled underfoot by the final calamitous rush to the end of the song. With a funereal pace and tortured vocals, ‘Languish for bliss’ is even more devastating than the opening track. Slow, brutal and yet somehow regal with the huge swathes of synth frequently overpowering the guitar, it is a cross between Emperor at their most potent and Thergothon’s utter devastation. ‘Lady Babylon’ is where things take a really unique turn with female vocals added to the mix and the drums providing a lysergic backing to the track. It’s a sombre, intense, slow-burning affair that sounds amazing and which really opened up new vistas for the band to explore as artists.

‘Neverending day’is as deathly slow and forbidding as a pall of black smoke hanging low in the sky, with deathly screams and morbid clean tones piercing the murk . The guitars churn and plough the ground into furrows whilst the bodies of the dead lay out on display for all to see. It is as intense and unnerving as anything the band had attempted before but with the added weight of a Swans-esque approach to riffs, each one a repetitive hammer blow that scythes into the consciousness, growing and developing in stature until the track has become a monolithic slab of hatred and despair. ‘Dreamside’ as befits its name, slowly fades into our consciousness rather than launch itself in our general direction, although once the introduction has been dealt with the vocals unleashed are as monumental and raw as ever. This however proves to be only one of the many sections of the track and as the song progresses unholy meander through different moods and colours, light and shade to create a mesmerising whole that is by turns savagely compelling and beautifully absorbing. A single bass line heralds the arrival of the ‘procession of black doom’, a suitably unpleasant treatise on the darkest recesses of the human mind that nevertheless fails to attain the poisoned atmosphere of ‘covetous glance’ which deals with the cavorting passion that lurks buried in the hearts of all. ‘Air’ is the final track to feature vocals and it proves to be as subtle as its forebear is horrific, with a gentle melody offsetting the gloom found elsewhere. It turns heavier, but it still offers more light than previous tracks with melody raised above sonic devastation to craft a track that feels like the closing music to a film.  The album’s final track is ‘serious personality disturbance and deep anxiety’ – an apt name for a piece of music that slices away at the nerves until they are raw and shaking. It is arguable as to how often you may wish to listen to this seemingly improvised and grating track that recalls nothing so much as the Velvet Underground at their most dense and oppressive, but it is still the perfect ending to a deeply unnerving album.

To return to where we started, the incentive for buying this reissue (assuming you’re lucky enough to own a copy of the original album… if not, then buy this now without a second’s hesitation) is a live DVD capturing Unholy in 1994. Featuring eight tracks, six come from ‘the second ring of power’ whilst ‘gray blow’ and ‘time has gone’ are taken from ‘from the shadows’. As the liner notes state, the DVD is a thank you to the fans who have stuck by the band and a fitting reminder of the band’s mesmerising live power. However, it must be emphasised that the term ‘bootleg’ is not used ill-advisedly. Whilst the camera quality is not bad (there were clearly several cameras present capturing the night on and off the stage) it is grainy (as you might expect a low-budget filming of a 1994 concert to be) and the sound is also far from perfect although it does capture the live sound of the band with rather better clarity than you might fear. That is not to say that it is a bad DVD – far from it, it is a characteristically generous gesture from the band and label which will please fans no end… just don’t expect digital perfection, rather think of it as on a par with the DVD provided on the special edition of Paradise Lost’s ‘gothic’ and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect. What the DVD does capture, however, and in absolute clarity, is the amazing command Unholy have of their audience and the front row of fanatics are clearly held in rapture throughout the show, whilst being able to see the band at such an important juncture in their career is spellbinding for anyone who finds their albums to be essential listening.

Overall then, this is the perfect final chapter in the reissues of Unholy’s work. With the mouth-watering promise of a return to action officially announced on the sixth of November this year, it would seem that Unholy’s impressive story is far from over and in the meantime this is an essential addition to any doom fan’s collection.

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