Dark Tranquillity — Of Chaos and Eternal Night (EP -1995)

Skydancer was difficult to write about, especially in the effort to be fair to what really could be a tiresome album honestly. Of Chaos and Eternal Night had no such issue. This EP is 15 minutes of original material, three brand-new songs that are all a bit different, and all of which are better than anything on Skydancer. The first salvo in the epic melodic death metal year of 1995, OCaEN gives us a taste of the new and improved Dark Tranquillity, coming at you from Studio Fredman in Gothenburg, Sweden with some crisply recorded new tracks thanks to producer Fredrik Nordstrom, who becomes as central to Gothenburg’s metal scene over the course of 1995 as the producers at Morrissound were in Tampa.

Opening on its title track, an improvement in songwriting, performances, and production is immediately evident. The most immediate change in comparison to Skydancer is a guy who’s turning out to be an MVP of the scene in its earliest days: Mikael Staane. Having already contributed rhythm guitar, riffs, and lyrics to Skydancer, he then put in a guest appearance with In Flames on The Lunar Strain where he put in a vocal performance that far outdid the performance Friden put to record on Skydancer, (I’d attribute all of that to recording quality for the record, Friden’s time is coming) and on this record he sounds even better, tearing at the edges of words in what would become his signature style that already seems fully-formed. Over top of a blistering tremolo riff that represents the strongest the band had put on record so far, Staane opens:

This is a tale long to live but alas so short to tell

by the wind and by time, by everything that flees

There hasn’t really been a point in Mikael Staane’s career as a vocalist that he hasn’t kicked ass and killed it, but thanks partially to the clear recording of his voice courtesy of Studio Fredman we get a crystal clear image of his youthful vigor. Speaking of vigor, go take a quick peek at the lyric sheet. There are 309 words in “Of Chaos and Eternal” night in a song that spans 312 seconds. Staane’s delivery was defined early on in part by how much he needed to actually say, leading to him tearing through phrases before giving an elongated rasp at the end of a line. Honestly, as concerns lyrics, I can’t say I usually “get” what Dark Tranquillity are talking about, but one thing they are good at is putting together words that sound good and pleasing in sequence on an aesthetic level. We’ll talk about this especially when we hit “Final Resistance” in 2002, but here’s an example:

In feverish visions of agonizing light

Pulsating rhythms unpure

So pound the drum and strike the chords of chaos

Of Chaos and Eternal Night

When he says that it sounds great. Do you have any idea what that means? I sure don’t. The song makes reference to “the hoofed agitator in your creed” which seems like a pretty clear invocation of the idea of Satan, but I never got anything more solid to follow. The primary thing is phrases like “the hoofed agitator in your creed” and “In feverish rhythms of agonizing light/pulsating rhythms unpure” look really good on paper and sound absolutely incredible when intoned through the harsh imp-demon voice of the young Mikael Staane, who having taken over the microphone also took over the vast majority of lyrical duties for the rest of his career. Put a pin in that because we’re gonna be talking about “nonsense lyrics that sound good” for the next 25 years with this group.

The vocals are higher pitched as a result, and coincidentally so are the guitars. OCaEN is the brightest record we’ve thus far covered in this disc-by-disc melodic death metal history, being recorded entirely in standard tuning. To be honest, as someone who grew up simply breathing and eating thrash metal, I’ve kinda come to hate standard tuning. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the key of E minor, but ask me at the right time and I would ban standard tuning by law. Thankfully these riffs are really good.

Not only does the opening title track open on the sort of solid hook that Skydancer felt reluctant to dole out, but it’s also actually willing to return to that hook in a prompt amount of time without making 2 minutes and 30 seconds feel like an exhausting journey across the cosmos. That’s all the more surprising given that the frenetic pace of Skydancer is still very much a feature here. Said opening hook almost feels like they never play it the same way twice, a tremolo picked melodic riff, with the second guitar floating into and out of various harmonizations that dance around the panoramic spectrum. After the song loops back to this hook, they introduce a variation on the riff as well before dropping back into the verse. It’s tricks like these that can allow a band to employ a fairly straightforward ABAB structure without feeling as though it has the verse-chorus flow of a pop song. After a second loop through the established riffs, they drop into a low, shuffling minor riff that morphs into a baroque dual-lead guitar section with the same sort of dancing harmonizations I described before until another slow riff in G-minor that invokes melodic phrasing from earlier in the song and finally concludes on the big intro hook. For 5 minutes it comes off as fairly epic and progressive if only because the band refuses to stay in one place for particularly long, but for the comfort of the listener they return to earlier ideas with enough frequency to make this journey feel exciting rather than alienating.

“With The Flaming Shades Of Fall” is my favorite track on the EP. It’s basically a doom metal song with some really lush midrange guitar harmonies. As the group builds around a repetitive, rhythmic riff, bassist Martin Henriksson once again steals the show with a great bass tone and instead of reinforcing the low end per usual, he points out to all of us dolts that everybody else in the band is holding the rhythm down and so he doesn’t have to. Bassists playing in contemporary melodic metal bands: take notes here. You don’t need to play every song as brazenly outside of traditional structure as Henriksson, but the fact of the matter is that his playing elevates what could be a slow, stale track by interacting with the harmonized guitars, switching between harmonizing himself and counterpointing. Not only that, but I’m fairly certain he used a five-string bass at least on this song, as once he’s done exploring the top of the neck he walks all the way back down until resolving to a massive low B.

The track is also a lyrical standout. This is a rare occasion where, perhaps only because the title gives it away and makes it brutally obvious, I can say with authority: this is a track about looking at nature. It should not be understated how Not Metal it is to write about the weather and the seasons from a given perspective. It shows a depth of sensitivity that a previous generation of metal musicians likely would’ve thought unbecoming of themselves. Dark Tranquillity’s parody of death metal rolls on, and it rolls on with some lovely imagery:

Colours burst in wild explosions;

Fiery, flaming shades of fall

All in accord with my pounding heart

Behold the autumnweaver

In bronze and yellow dying

Unfold into dreams

Uh-ah, in hordes of a thousand and one

The bleeding

Unwearing their masks to the last notes of summer

Their flutes and horns in nightly swarming

The last original track on the EP “Away, Delight, Away” turns on this folky Iron Maiden open-high-string bouncing lead that works its way simplistically up and down the minor scale in a manner that nonetheless feels appropriately “final.” Not a bad song, but I’m lacking for things to say about it other than that we get another creative use of bass from Henriksson, whose chorus pedal brings us into something of a bridge. There’re some decent ideas here, but it seems to fall prey to the same issue as Skydancer where since every song is its own kind of “epic” then all of those epics end up feeling similar. This song serves no function that the title track does not.

The EP closes on a remix of “Alone” from Skydancer that if nothing else really tells you how poor the production was on Skydancer. They mixed a new vocal track by Staane on top of the existing instrumental tracks, and it feels like every guitar riff is coming to you from the top of a distant, distant mountain, and not in a good way. If nothing else it points out what a massive improvement the group made when they chose Studio Fredman, their home for their next few recordings. It’s night and day: the bass has bass. The guitars have midrange, but much more importantly they basically don’t have fucking reverb drenched all over them, and the drums have the same improvement. If you produce metal recordings, compare Skydancer and this EP, the difference between “acceptable” and “actually good.”

Conclusion: Of Chaos and Eternal Night is basically three tracks of material that would’ve fit right in on the band’s upcoming Gallery album from later the same year. Bright, angry, baroque, and just a tiny bit abstract. Ultimately I’d not say you’re missing out on any classic DT songs by skipping this EP, but it shows, if nothing else, the quickly improving quality of productions by Fredrik Nordstrom.

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