In what I would consider a shocking turn of events, black metal is bigger now than it's ever been. Sure, there isn't the same mystique as during the second wave in the 90's, nor do the bands draw as much attention by virtue of demolishing the standards and norms of both music and culture, but it's undeniable that black metal is bigger today than it was in its heyday. Emperor just headlined the Wacken festival in front of 80,000 fans, Behemoth is one of the most critically acclaimed bands in all of metal, and bands like Deafheaven have even made black metal popular among indie fans, to the point of appearing on Pitchfork and even NPR. Yes, this is a good time to be a black metal fan, because for the first time ever, black metal can actually claim to be popular.
Of course, none of that should factor into how the music is digested, and I can say without hesitation that it has not been an issue for me at all. If anything, black metal's new hipster credibility has made me stop questioning my issues with the music entirely, preferring to spend as little time thinking about how it is growing in popularity as possible.
The title track opens the record with several minutes of discordant ringing notes and spoken (gargled?) word vocals, before finally ripping open into an eleven minute beast of a track. The nagging feeling I get as the track progresses is that it is highly reminiscent of a black metal version of Opeth. Saying that is about as high a compliment as I can pay to black metal, given my history with the genre. The track doesn't bog down in the clichéd tremolo riffing and screeched howls, instead showing more finesse with layered background vocals and a heavier-than-lead stop-start riff that underscores the vocals as they shriek the title. There's a lot more going on here than I usually hear in black metal, and it's a refreshing take on the genre.
As that song fades out with an Opeth-ian solo, it leads into “Lloigor”, which immediately brings to mind that band's “The Drapery Falls”. If we're talking about influences for an extreme metal band to borrow, Opeth is as good as choice as can be made. Dark Fortress makes good on the promise of the comparison, turning these familiar musical ideas into black metal that is far more engaging and compelling than 90% of what gets labeled as such.
There are moments where the black metal playbook is abandoned altogether, like the straight rock beat that sits under the pulsing riff that opens “Betrayal And Vengeance”, which is easily one of the best moments on the record. It still has the frosty fury of the rest of the album, but it slips in an easily digestible morsel, which makes the rest of the track more subversive by comparison. It's amazing what a couple of real riffs can do to elevate the usual droning chords.
The biggest problem the record faces is that it's too long for its own good. Taken individually, the tracks are solid blasts of black metal rage, but with the whole thing clocking in at well over an hour, it's far too much of this kind of music for me to handle. There is a lot Dark Fortress does right here, to the point where I'm likely to say “Venereal Dawn” is the most likeable black metal record I've ever heard, but even that can't outweigh the fact that there isn't enough immediate gratification to warrant the investment the running time requires.
Black metal fans will undoubtedly love “Venereal Dawn” (except for the ones who think anything that doesn't sound like it was recorded in a shoebox isn't good enough), and I respect it immensely, but it's just a little bit too much for me. It's certainly a good record, but it proves too much of a good thing really can be just as bad as not enough.