Like a lot of people’s metallic coming-of-age stories, my experience with Satyricon began with someone’s cool older brother. That unspeakable kind of cool: camo shorts, Marlboro Reds, long hair, long intoxicated nights. I, also like many other teenage metal fans, had expressed a distaste for black metal—it seemed cheesy, old, tinny, and difficult to listen to—aloud when the brother had come back from work.
“Not Satyricon,” he said. “Everyone likes them.” The band were black metal for death-metal-only fans like myself. They were the gateway to black metal for me and a lot of my friends, and Nemesis Divina in particular showed me the door to the genre’s endless variety and appeal, from which room for the true fan there’s no real exit.
The Norwegian band’s album—their third, after the I-just-learned-English-titled Dark Medieval Times and the atmospheric The Shadowthrone—indeed has a lot of typical characteristics of black metal that its fans relish and its critics scoff at. The almost inexplicably Latin title, the ribbet-like black-metal vocal gurgle, the less-than-crystalline production value, they’re all facets of the genre that, as with a friend’s weird lazy eye or drunken mother, one has to learn to either tolerate or love in spite of oneself.
What makes Nemesis Divina worth repeated listening and fond waxing in articles like this one is the brilliant creativity and utterly transcendent musicality and mystery in spite of these conventions—or perhaps because of them. The record is a cornerstone of Norwegian Black Metal because of how complete and all-encompassing its vision and scope are. Through its lyrical content—including inspiring pastoral visions, rituals, and apocalyptic vision—its instrumental precision, and above all how much it crushes, it has become an absolute classic.
The first track’s title spells it out: this is “The Dawn of a New Age". “This is Armageddon!” vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Satyr rasps out at the beginning of the track, achieving a similar effect in his lyrical approach as Alice Cooper achieves in “Welcome to My Nightmare.” It sets the tone for the whole album: we are plunging into Satyr’s hellish vision.
The track consists mainly in Satyr quoting the scary parts of Revelation (i.e. most of it, e.g. “And his name that sat on him was Death”) punctuated by the occasional “Die!” Musically is really where the song succeeds: the racing guitars and drums hit with a force that much black metal previous to this record hadn’t. It appeals to the b.m. noobs like I was at the time, insofar as it recreates some of the most appealing aspects of death metal—the instrumental virtuosity and speed, the dark vocal sound—within the evil, ritualistic confines of black metal. The blast beats hit ferociously, the eerie clean-toned section replete with spoken words on top adequately disturbs, and it ends in a sufficiently killer mid-tempo riff.
The listener is then plunged into the giant waterfall of a blast that erupts into the clean guitar in the beginning of “Forhekset,” whose lyrics are unfortunately indecipherable to the monolingual American listener (they’re in what’s probably Norwegian). The song, in keeping with the record’s overall theme of praising the initial Norwegian paganism extant before the Christians came, ends with a folksy, metallic jig that presages the entire genre of folk metal that would soon follow.
“Mother North” is in many ways the record’s apex, with kind of pretty wordless clean choral vocals in back, the lovely use of the lyric, “pidgeonhearted,” the singer’s charming pronunciation of visions as “wisions,” and a midtempo jam halfway through. The lyrics seem to be saying some foe is coming to attack the northern country. (Christianity, perhaps? Knowing black metal, it’s always Christianity.)
I won’t lie and say this is what I whistle walking through the house. It’s not catchy, happy music. Even the epic and wonderfully titled final instrumental track, “Transcendental Requiem of Slaves,” has few hummable parts. But that’s not the point. It’s insulting to the band’s creative vision to even suggest it. That is not what Nemesis Divina tries to be. Listening to Satyricon, as with all great black metal, is a moody, attention-demanding experience, more akin to modernist classical music, and with similarly transporting results. I have only the camo-clad older brother to thank, and only him to blame. Jump down the rabbit hole. 8.5/10
 Which, though, in their defense, does have kind of an interesting explanation behind it. They share their band name with what’s considered one of the early Roman novels, or at least long prose works, which has to do with a lot of Caligula-esque sex and violence, an appropriate title for this band surely. Plus, well, Latin just makes everything sound cooler.