As stars have come old Finland has always had a certain affection towards raw, blasphemous black metal, from its early days until today. Ban...

Notes on: Thy Serpent

As stars have come old

Finland has always had a certain affection towards raw, blasphemous black metal, from its early days until today. Bands like Archgoat, Barathrum, Beherit and Impaled Nazarene were central protagonists during the second wave in the 90's, and a generation of new bands of the same origins has surfaced the last couple of decades, making their branch of the genre an equivalent of the drunkard uncle that crushes and ruins the Christmas family dinner. Of course, artists from there are also capable of delicate, beautiful music (all the symphonic black metal, melodic death metal, symphonic metal and rock, with bands of global caliber) and is one of the areas with the richest heavy metal culture on the planet.

Outside Kvlt record store in Helsinki,
during a visit of the author in 2018.

In this swirl of new and old music, there's always bands that get more attention than others. Thy Serpent was formed by Sami Tenetz in 1992, originally as an one-man project, and he managed to release two pretty primitive demos in 1994 and 1995 before turning it into a full band. Tenetz would later on be responsible for the initiation of Spikefarm Records, a Spinefarm sublabel with more focus on extreme metal and he was also the founder of the record store Kvlt in Helsinki, by now one of the most prolific hotspots for underground metal. Thy Serpent's debut album Forests of Witchery came out in 1996, a record that would receive huge appraisal by people in the scene for its musicianship and uniqueness.

While black metal characteristics are abundant, Tenetz himself coined the term "dark metal" for his band because of its literal definition: metal music with dark lyrics. Considering that only bands with themes around Satanism were supposed to play black metal, and none of the Thy Serpent members were real Satanists, he would not call the band black metal for this reason despite its strong anti-religious ideology. This example is a nice window to understand how the climate was back then and during the early days, especially for people who haven't lived it. Of course, Thy Serpent is anyway not the typical black metal band in terms of sound, but there's absolutely no way one would characterize them as something else because of how close to that they are, yet the artist's notions can also be regarded.

Frozen Memory & Into Everlasting Fire

Front of the 2002 compilation release by White Wolf Productions, showing both original demo covers.

During the first steps of the band, Tenetz composed and recorded everything on his own and the first demo, Frozen Memory, came out in 1994. It is exactly what you would imagine from the time and the conditions of this release: battered production and noisy sound, which kind of cleared out but at the same time, was worse with the second demo, Into Everlasting Fire. One can tell that the musical skills had not be developed yet, however there are some hints of greatness in the keyboards and a couple of riffs in "Unknown", or in "The Forest of Blåkulla", as well as the very first, clean guitar introduction of Frozen Memory. A clear developing keyboard proficiency can be heard behind the noise, with songs that would later be completely be re-recorded for Thy Serpent's second big release in 1997, Lords of Twilight. You may as well go to that album directly if you don't want to experience the mayhem of early black metal DIY aesthetics, but I know such recordings are for the fans of the genre and band, bread and butter, and I like them too. I am not sure if he took the title of his second demo from the Immolation song "Into Everlasting Fire", but there's no other connection there. From these two efforts, it is quite clear how Thy Serpent would fall into the black metal category musically and aesthetically, but as Tenetz stated in a 2000 interview: "you can play stereotype sounding black metal without being a black metal band.". 

Forests of Witchery

The first thing to point out is the vibrant photo cover, reminiscent of nature romanticism, with intense green color. Thy Serpent would continue with their future covers in this manner, each time dealing with a different natural element, and they would not use any words, logos or other editing for their artworks other than the colors themselves. I have always enjoyed textless covers like these, especially when they would originate in a time period when it was not yet that much of a trend at all in black metal, like in 1996. 

And by now, Thy Serpent is a full band and not an one-man project anymore. Agathon (known also from Gloomy Grim, where he is still active today), the drummer from thrash metal outfit Airdash, who were active for a few years in the mid-80's during the global thrash metal explosion, joins the band, as well as members that would later be included in Soulgrind, and shortly in other Finnish projects too. The record is released through Spinefarm Records of course, who up to that pointed had already put out major releases from bands like Dark Tranquility, Funebre, Sentenced, and the Beherit debut Drawing Down the Moon. The same year, among others, Spinefarm releases the classic album Elegy by Amorphis, and Gates of Ishtar's A Bloodred Path

In its core, the band has not taken a turn to a hugely different direction on Forests of Witchery, compared to the demos. However, it has evolved massively in terms of technique and development of ideas. The production is now more professional and it provides an absolutely perfect sound with excellent audio on every instrument, an ideal example on how spacious they can be, and how they can co-exist in a recording while being perfectly audible. One can listen to Forests of Witchery and enjoy the work on the bass the first day, then move on to the excellent drumming the second day, and only on the third day start listening to the most prevailing melodies in the album.

Make no mistake though, that that's the most vital part of Forests of Witchery. Riff after riff, guitar line after guitar line, they are all perfectly written and perfectly executed, with amazing accompanying keyboards and an almost flawless delivery throughout its 48 minute duration. Thy Serpent's sound is finally glorified for what it is, strongly inclined towards middle / slow paced epic melodies, borrowing elements from symphonic black, gothic and doom metal, often driven only by the piano and drums, thankfully with almost no clean vocal choruses that would ruin this woeful atmosphere. 

Rather pleasant to listen through, it's full of top-notch compositions and doesn't have a single weak track, as it stands out from the rest of the bands of that time with an easily recognizable sound. Listen and be thrilled with tracks like the introductory "Flowers of Witchery Abloom", or "A Traveler of Unknown Plains", or the beautiful acoustic work on the epic longest piece "Like A Funereal Veil of Melancholy". I love the riffs on the faster track "Of Darkness and Light", and the slightly viking / pagan metal direction it takes in the middle that could remind of less raw Kampfar. Some of the melodic parts in Forests of Witchery also brought in mind, a slightly cleaner version of Swedish melodic black metal structures, in the likes of Vinterland or Sacramentum.

Good work has been done on the lyrics as well (Antti Litmanen from Babylon Whores lent his talent for that), and the closing instrumental track "Wine From Tears" is a nice atmospheric piece that slightly reminds of what would later be called dungeon synth, but I'm not sure if they had that in mind when they composed it. It's possible that the Russian doom / gothic metal band Wine From Tears may have taken their name from this track, but this is just an assumption. What's important is how exceptional Forests of Witchery is, making me feel that it should have a much stronger echo the last twenty five years than what it has, but still all the people who are aware of Thy Serpent totally see the worth.

Lords of Twilight

One year later, Thy Serpent releases Lords of Twilight, which is listed as the band's second full length album. However, I don't really consider this their second, which in my opinion is actually the work that came after that, because all the songs on Lords of Twilight are actually old songs, that can be found in the first two demos. However, since they have been completely re-recorded, and that move makes a lot of sense when you finally have a proper studio and a full band to replay your songs, it is acceptable to consider the record as kind of a new work. A lot of warm light has been shone in these tracks, and their intrinsic beauty has been uncovered.

I already had a couple of tracks from the first demos that I liked a lot, as mentioned above, and they are all here. If you take the production of Forests of Witchery and the early tracks, you get Lords of Twilight and that's the whole story here, but the difference that is made is huge, as one can now effortlessly enjoy all the great ideas Thy Serpent had from their first days. Yet, there are a couple of tracks that are not found in the demos, I think they are still old compositions and not actually new material that was created after Forests of Witchery.

When the noisy sound is replaced with a clean but organic production, the beautiful parts of Thy Serpent's early tracks stand out. It's a completely different experience that gives justice to these works, which now have more interludes used in the album, a strong point of Lords of Twilight that is combined with some harsher riffing that was going on in these early compositions of the band, like for example in "In Blackened Dreams". As much as I was into "Unknown" before, the recording on here shows how masterful the track is and how well Thy Serpent could compose atmospheric / melodic black metal.

To make this a fuller release, the use of more instrumentals than before makes this almost fit the category of semi-ambient sections of black metal albums at the time, that could have later influenced the modern dungeon synth scene. The two "Ode to The Witches" parts, "Prometheus Unbound" and "As Mists Descends from the Hills", as well as "Epic Torment", make up of five out of the nine pieces in Lords of Twilight, which consists of just three older songs and these instrumentals. Definitely an almost dungeon synth album of that period!

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The same year, a short split was released between Nightwish, Children of Bodom and Thy Serpent, but it was more of a promotional mini-release for Nightwish's upcoming album Angels Fall, which featured their track "The Carpenter", also the title of the split. Children of Bodom would also share "Red Light in My Eyes, Pt. 2" from their upcoming work Something Wild, and "Only Dust Moves..." by Thy Serpent is the third track, taken from Forests of Witchery. While the release itself does not have much to listen to, it's interesting that Spinefarm put the band along the much more famous two other names, hinting their momentum at the time and why I also think they could have, somehow, become a bigger name in the metal scene.

Christcrusher

The album's title is much more aggressive than the music actually is, and it's something one would expect from Marduk of that time to put out, but it indicates how the band put its emphasis on the anti-religious element more strongly with Christcrusher. It's also all comprised of new material, and is either the second or the third full work of the band, depending on how strictly you take these three releases and concludes the early period of the band as well as the biggest amount of their discography and their activities during that decade.

Honestly, it is the album I have heard the least from Thy Serpent, not because it's a bad album but because I am completely covered from the first two of that time when it comes to this artist. Maybe I was put off by this lame title, or the equally lame lyrics of the self-titled track, but other than that the band hasn't taken but a minor directional turn in their music. Only adding a bit more aggressive riffing here and there, compositional prowess is still present and underlies the record, which has clear enough sound and a bunch of melodies to appeal to extreme metal fans and not only. 

That doesn't mean that Christcrusher isn't the most aggressive Thy Serpent album. It has some slight death metal touches as well, the black metal parts are more refined, and it isn't filled with overpowering melodic parts like Forests of Witchery. A big let down is the lyrical part of the record for me, especially compared to the work before it, but the songs themselves are not so disappointing, at least some of them. By that time, it was the first batch of new material Thy Serpent had written since 1994-1995. 

I like the album. If I left it playing in the background, without looking at its textual part, I would probably like it. But these certain things make a difficult case to take seriously even if the music itself isn't much of a big problem. It was clear that the band could still compose fine music, I mean the self-titled track is fuelled and heavy, but then you start to understand the singer...

I found common patterns with the writing of the Norwegian Myrkskog and their album Deathmachine, released two years later in 2000. "Chambers of the Starwatcher" is an amazing piece, I prefer the baritone singing of the opening of "So Free Are the Wolves' much more than washed out clean vocals other melodic black metal bands do, and another one worth spinning is "Thou Bade Nothingness".

Death EP


In 2000, they put out what would be the final Thy Serpent release for a good while, a 4-track EP simply named Death, a word that would be repeated quite a lot in this release. Suddenly, a logo appears in what seems to be a cover not released to natural phenomena anymore, a white cold statue in a pitch black background that would fit in Shining's Within Deep Dark Chambers booklets. There is also a slight shift in the line up: new members Teemu Laitinen (TOC) on drums, and Tomi Ulgrén on guitars, who at the time played in Rapture (with the excellent debut Futile, in 1999) and Raven (pre-Shape of Despair), while he would later on become the guitarist of Impaled Nazarene, until today.

And what is this, a first time use of a Thy Serpent logo on the album artwork, unlike what was the norm for the three previous releases, and one point I liked the most about this project. However, there's impressive guitar work kicking in from the first seconds of the first track "Deathbearer", reassuring one more time how underrated this band ended up to be. The melodic structures, keyboards, and use of vocals, now suggests something even less black metal and more of Thy Serpent's own vision of dark metal, which in my opinion fits well as a concluding release of that time. 

It's impossible to overcome Forests of Witchery. But Death, once again might put off some listeners not to spend the time needed on this EP, which is just wonderful. "Wounds of Death" has some solid growls and epic guitar lines, the ominous "Sleep In Oblivion" is just stunning, and a gothic metal song "Parasites" finishes of this mini-release. It makes me think that Death seems skippable but it's a big pity if people miss out on some quite compelling material from Thy Serpent here. Seriously, why aren't they big?

The return: Impaled by a Thousand Swords


Nothing came around for the next 19 years. We've seen bigger comebacks, but new material from Thy Serpent after all this time had a lot of fans excited about what's next. The band put out a single named "Impaled by a Thousand Swords", which was also released as a split album with Ash Pool, a totally unexpected collaboration that makes me think I'm missing the context on how it came to be. Even the song seems like Thy Serpent are now a Finnish version of Ash Pool, as it is harsh, monotonous and down-tuned, with hardly any of the previous melodic presence, and much more grim keyboards. A slight epic side arises as the song progresses, the instruments manage to be audible despite the production, but I would say it's the track closest to pure black metal since the beginning of the band. I don't know if it was an one-time event or if Thy Serpent are preparing something new, but it's now been three years since that time and we are on hold (I hope you didn't believe my previous comment, Ash Pool is still much rawer).

This Finnish band doesn't have huge discography, but it has moments that are absolutely flawless. We're talking about musicians with pure talent and vision, with excellent compositional skills and what was maybe lacking, was time to focus on the band, or promotion, but Thy Serpent should now be a classic name. I might be mistaken on how big their fanbase is but their early material should not go unnoticed, and a new release would be strongly welcome. Among the numerous famous names from Finland, Thy Serpent maybe got lost in the shuffle. The one thing sure is, once you get into them, you're in for discovering some true musical diamonds. 

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