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Samael's career comes full circle with their surprising return to categorical heavy metal extremism on 2009's Above -- the ever-metamorphosing Swiss quartet's eighth studio album in a nearly two-decade-long career. Much of that career's second half had seen Samael experimenting with electronic and industrial sounds spiced with gothic tendencies, so even after their cautious flirtation with incremental doses of metal and analog textures on 2007's Solar Soul LP, Above's wholehearted plunge into frenzied black metal is still likely to come as an absolute shock to most of their older fans. Come to think of it, not even Samael's earliest records thrashed as violently and insistently as this remorselessly hell-bound set which, like a tribute to early Bathory, explodes into action with the furious opening tandem of "Under One Flag" and "Virtual War," then rarely lets up in intensity 'til it's all said and done some 40 minutes later, via the similarly frantic triple threat of "Dark Side," "Dog's Snake," and "On the Top of It All." Were it not for the occasional introduction of slower tempos, keyboard backdrops, and industrial accents into less inexorable tracks like "Polygames," "Black Hole" (complete with synth solo), and "In There," there's a good chance that many of those older fans would be eating their words like so much humble pie. Along with a few additional anomalies such as "Earth Country" and "Illumination," where piercing harmonic squeals recall Samael's erstwhile labelmates from Century Media's golden years, Rotting Christ, these more emotionally versatile tracks are indeed the closest Samael has come to resurrecting the unique formula -- let's call it industrial black metal backed by choired synths from outer space -- of their 1996 creative breakthrough, Passage. If anything, Above sounds like the album Samael might have recorded between Passage and its immediate predecessor, 1994's Ceremony of Opposites, but it's not an indication of the group's long-term direction moving forward. Instead, it turns out that Above was originally intended for release as a side project under that name, so despite the great deal of fun its back-to-basics approach represented, smart money says that Samael will be pushing the boundaries of their sound again on their next trip into the studio.

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