Author's note: Welcome to our third installment of Graves of the 80s, dedicated to exploring the best death metal, black metal and grindcore from that formative decade. This edition is focused on Tormentor's monumental 1989 demo album, Anno Domini.
Background: The Gate is Opened
When most people think of Attila Csihar, they think of his role as session vocalist on Mayhem's De Mysteriis Dom Santhanas and his subsequent place as the band's primary singer since 2004. But there's a good reason Euronymous originally wanted him on the infamous 1994 record. Back in the 1980s, Attila made his impact on the metal underground with his band Tormentor.
Formed in his native Hungary in the dying days of the Cold War, Tormentor's emergence is emblematic of the power of the extreme metal underground. Although Hungary, like Czechoslovakia and other order states, had a slightly less restrictive state apparatus than much of the Warsaw pact nations, it was still hard to access western films, books and music.
But if you were lucky, you could catch a radio signal from a nation like Austria, which Attila's brother-in-law managed to do, showing him AC/DC, Kiss, and Motörhead. From there, it was onwards and upwards into the realm of heavier and heavier music. Dayal Patterson interviewed Atilla for his book, Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, in which Atilla tells him:
"I was the kind of person looking for more and more extreme stuff, so I got into Iron Maiden, then the punk stuff like GBH and The Exploited, whatever I could find in Hungary back then."
Patterson goes on to explain how Tormentor came about and built their reputation:
"Meeting like-minded young musicians at his school, Attila and his new bandmates were soon playing regular live shows as Tormentor, drawing on the likes of Venom, Celtic Frost, Destruction, and Kreator, and making a name for themselves with a blend of covers and original material. With local audiences hungry for any live music they could get their hands on, the band soon built a strong following, their shows attracting a wide collection of individuals including punks, skinheads, metal fans, and other miscellaneous troublemakers."
After crafting the garage-based recording of The Seventh Day of Doom in 1987, the band was able to access a professional studio for their 1989 classic, Anno Domini. While I'd argue that Bathory's Under the Sign of the Black Mark was the first "pure" black metal album, Anno Domini is an essential piece of the stylistic puzzle that would come together in Norway in the early-90s.
The Music: Dark Castle, Occult Carol Sounds
When you consider most of the metal that was prominent in 1989 and Tormentor's relative isolation in Hungary, it's incredible that Anno Domini turned out the way it did. It's a testament to the vibrant tape-trading network that it managed to reach across and back over the Iron Curtain with this album.
From the outset, "Tormentor I" and "Heaven" are years ahead of their time, taking the energy of German thrash and infusing it with a raw ferocity and Attila Szigeti's unorthodox riff structure that we now take for granted in black metal. Attila's growling vocals and the off-putting chord progressions immediately separate the music from just being really odd or violent thrash metal (though "Apocalypse" comes close). Another thing you notice right away is the production quality. It still has a crude aspect, but everything is perfectly clear and audible, allowing the listener to enjoy the richness of each instrument.
Then comes one of the album's crown jewels: "Elisabeth Bathory." An early black metal masterpiece, it creates a similar mood as Bathory's "Enter the Eternal Fire" with its plodding drums by Zsolt "Belzebub" Machát, mesmerizing guitars, and haunting vocals. Additionally, it creates the exact atmosphere we associate with black metal: spooky and ominous, evoking castles surrounded by mist and shadowing figures lurking about. If you dig this but want something more brutal, check out "Beyond" as well (bring your studded gauntlets).
I'm also a big fan of "Damned Grave" and "Trance", mainly due to the ear-candy on display with the guitar lines on both songs. "Damned Grave" is another song that anticipates the song structure of countless black metal albums to come, but has a charm of its own that hasn't been replicated since. And when you listen to "Trance", pay extra-close attention to the riff that comes in around 1:05, as it presages a lot of the blue-cover melodic black metal that would emerge from Sweden in the mid-90s. Also be sure to listen to "Transylvania" and "Tormentor II", the latter containing some of the album's most vicious vocal performances.
On the whole, it's a ferocious listening experience, bearing clear signs of its influences but still standing on its own as a singular work. The band clearly worshiped Venom and Celtic Frost, but had a sound that set them totally apart. And while the Norwegian legions and important bands from countless other scenes were heavily influenced by this album, no one has ever replicated the spiritual madness captured here. In that way, it's similar to other albums that straddle the borderline between first- and second-wave black metal like Worship Him by Samael and Ritual by Master's Hammer.
Artistic Legacy: Surrounded With Never-Fading Glory
Anno Domini is a consequential album in the history of black metal. But it didn't achieve that status right away, as the head of the band's record label simply vanished with the master tapes. The band's only recourse was to take the original, unmastered recordings and self-release them on cassette tapes. This allowed the album to infect the dedicated denizens of the underground, but not in a way that was visible to the band in the pre-internet age. The band split up soon afterward, but their legacy and legend was only beginning.
The album would finally see a formal release in the 1990s via Nocturnal Art Productions, and Attila eventually found the original master tapes and had the sound further improved. By then, Attila was better known for his work with Mayhem, Keep of Kallesin, Aborym and other acts. Still, Anno Domini deserves recognition for being so far ahead of nearly everyone else in the development of black metal, and for simply being a high-quality record in its own right.
About This Series
This series is dedicated to extreme metal's early development in the 1980s, and focuses on some of the key albums from that decade. While death metal, black metal, grindcore and their various combinations and offshoots would gain notoriety, prominence, and (some) commercial success in the 1990s and beyond, there's something uniquely fascinating about the early years. It was an age of volcanic creativity in which the core essence of various styles came together, developed and then became distinct. Back in 2015, I talked about the "1985 sound" that comprised a mix of bands that contributed to extreme metal and others that would give it a recognizable shape. For the sake of simplicity, I'll be dedicating this series to the latter. I want to focus on music that brought about new forms of heavy metal expression and go beyond the inane analysis of "It broke new ground!"