Released only seven years after the first Burzum album, Weakling’s Dead as Dreams pioneered a wave of American black metal bands1 that was so distinct from its Scandinavian predecessors that it even earned its own subgenre tag: “US Black Metal,” or USBM. For better or for worse – and more often the former, much to the chagrin of Weakling’s detractors – Dead as Dreams changed the dynamic and shape of black metal in a way unseen since the Norwegians stopped kidding about anything at all2 back in the early nineties.
Weakling heralded a stylistic change to progressive song structures and harmonic ambiance that expanded black metal past the oft-copied Scandinavian prototype of shrieks, blast beats, and tremolo; which isn’t bad in its own right, but was certainly becoming played out by the decade’s close when there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go with that formula. The same year as the release of Dead as Dreams, Ulver abandoned metal entirely for glitched-out techno, Darkthrone hit a creative slump starting with the release of Ravishing Grimness (which alienated fans due to its mid-tempo range and higher-quality production), Burzum was releasing neofolk albums from prison, and Immortal started playing thrash-esque black metal closer to the genre’s roots in the early eighties. While not a dead genre by any stretch of the imagination – as clearly demonstrated by the continued success of Satyricon, Emperor, and Mayhem – purveyors of black metal were clearly changing gears and searching (albeit somewhat haphazardly) for new inspiration.
And then a know-nothing band that was formally together for barely a year drops an album on a (very) minor label called tUMULt. While black metal is no stranger to extreme song lengths – just look at Burzum’s Hvis lyset tar oss – Dead as Dreams was unique in utilizing key changes, radically different chord progressions, and a bevy of pedal effects that made a harsh beauty out of extreme chaos in tracks that used darkness as their source material but did not hide themselves in clouded production or muddled musicianship. The aforementioned Burzum album would stretch the same simplistic progression for the entirety of a song and was purposefully low in production quality; Dead as Dreams forsake all such obfuscation for technical – and audible – writing that alternated between triumph and crushing bleakness several times within the same song. The title track is the best example, with its tragic feedback-laden intro, pummeling tremolo chorus, and exultant middle section coalescing in a way with which the old guard flirted but never fully undertook. Each song has distinct sectors where a riff or progression may be played ad nauseum for as long as several minutes; the sheer variety of these sectors is paramount to Weakling’s success.
Dead as Dreams is not a kickback; the creators did not intend for it to be a middle finger toward their European brothers or be any statement on the place of the genre. It is much too genuine and non-ironic for that. In fact, Weakling celebrates its forefathers, as seen most clearly through the broken English song titles, which are a nod to Scandinavian bands that would write lyrics in English despite occasionally betraying their not-too-firm grasp on the language. The spelling of “Desasters in the Sun” references German black/thrash band Destruction, whose debut EP featured the song “Total Desaster.”
Thanks to Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse,3 every keyboard section in black metal utilized the same form, much in the way that The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” set the prototype for every rock song featuring a string section until Oasis’ “Wonderwall.”4 Weakling did away with that through utilizing keyboards as a facilitation of their overwhelming Wall of Sound approach. Casey Ward’s play-style compliments but does not compete with other instruments; whereas Emperor clones used keyboards as another guitar, Ward’s are comparable to another aspect of the rhythm section. The effulgent opening to “This Entire Fucking Battlefield” features Ward’s playing at her best, with an emotional – even heartwrenching – underpinning to John Gossard’s inhuman shrieks.
Speaking of Gossard, it is fortunate that Dead as Dreams were not released in its original permutation of entirely instrumental black metal. His shriek is truly a shriek, with an impassioned – even hysterical – timbre that sounds as a man who has truly surrendered himself to his demons. It does not often appear; there are large stretches of Dead as Dreams that are entirely instrumental, yet these passages make Gossard’s vocals all the more poignant upon their appearance.
Dead as Dreams occupies an uncommon space in music history through being simultaneously influential and immensely listenable in the present day. It is easy to dismiss Venom’s Black Metal as rather straightforward and uninteresting due to the multitude of transformations that its namesake genre has since taken; but the blazing, deranged fury that is Dead as Dreams has been contorted by others yet never quite realized in its full scope the same way again.5 Dead as Dreams may certainly be viewed as excessive, yet its egregious length only heightens the milieu of desperation, insanity, and acquiescence to the void.
1. Cut Their Grain and Place Fire Therein – (10:28) – ★★★★★
2. Dead as Dreams – (20:39) – ★★★★★
3. This Entire Fucking Battlefield – (14:47) – ★★★★★
4. No One Can Be Called as a Man While He’ll Die – (13:09) – ★★★★★
5. Desasters in the Sun – (17:06) – ★★★★★
1See also: Krallice, Agalloch, Wolves in the Throne Room, Twilight, Ash Borer, Liturgy, and Fen.
2Credit to Canadian web show This Exists for such an awesome line.
3… which is a fantastic album in its own right.
4… the part of which was specifically written to break that mold.
5Although some have come close – see Krallice’s Diotima and Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestial Lineage.