Entombed - Clandestine (1991)
The 1991 sophomore album from Swedish death metal godfathers Entombed is a release that I’ve been looking forward to dissecting for some time now & much of my excitement is due to the fact that the development & subsequent success of the local Swedish scene was something that practically took place in front of my young teenage eyes. In the early 1990’s, my life almost entirely revolved around the underground tape trading scene &, as a result, I feel very well equipped to tackle this record within the context of what was going on around it. Things were happening so quickly & it would only be a period of four years that would see Sweden’s earliest forays with the death metal sound being transformed into a globally recognized sound that was being copied by hundreds (if not thousands) of bands globally.
For anyone that hasn’t already read Daniel Ekeroth’s excellent historical book “Swedish Death Metal” (& I highly recommend that you do), it’s probably worth noting that whilst Entombed are generally regarded as the originators of the Swedish death metal scene, that’s not entirely accurate. The true root of the scene was arguably fellow Stockholmers Morbid; a blackened death metal outfit whose reputation is mainly built on their association with their legendary front man Dead. Morbid’s 1987 demo tape “December Moon” would achieve somewhat of a cult status in underground metal circles however many people probably aren’t aware that it also featured future Entombed members Ulf Cederlund (guitar) & LG Petrov (drums), possibly because they took on the silly pseudonyms of Napolean Puke & Drutten (Swedish for “one who tumbles down”) respectively. Morbid would eventually peter out following Dead’s defection to Norway to join Mayhem with Cederlund & Petrov staying onboard for 1988’s “The Last Supper” demo before leaving to join Nihilist (i.e. the famous precursor to Entombed) a short time later.
Nihilist was formed in 1987 by drummer Nicke Andersson, guitarist Alex Hellid & bassist Leif Cuzner with the “Premature Autopsy” demo tape being released the following year. 1989 would see it followed up with the “Only Shreds Remain” cassette with Cuzner exiting the fold shortly afterwards, but not before he had achieved a significant milestone in death metal history for it was Cuzner that had invented the infamous guitar tone that that the Swedish death metal community would make its signature for many decades afterwards. This had been accidently achieved by maxing out all of the nobs on a Boss HM-s Heavy Metal pedal which I’m sure every guitarist that owned one must have tried at some stage (me included). Clearly none had looked at it as a legitimate possibility before though. Interestingly, Leif would be replaced by Jonny Hedlund for 1989’s “Drowned” demo before Andersson decided to disband Nihilist altogether as a way of easily removing Hedlund from the group. Hedlund would subsequently form Unleashed while the other band members would adopt the Entombed moniker & record the “But Life Goes On” demo before the year was out.
“But Life Goes On” would see Entombed signing a recording contract with English death metal & grindcore label Earache Records who had risen from relative obscurity to become the leader in their field over the previous couple of years. After unearthing the UK grindcore scene through albums from Unseen Terror, Napalm Death, Carcass & O.L.D. in 1987/88, label head Digby Pearson had then cottoned on to the steadily growing death metal obsession that was simmering away in the underground tape trading community. 1989 would see him releasing a string of important records from bands like Morbid Angel, Terrorizer, Bolt Thrower, Carcass & Godflesh; all of which would have a significant impact on the global extreme metal scene & would see fans flocking to every subsequent Earache release as if their very lives depended on it. The death metal bubble was expanding ever further & it was this environment that would see the Swedish death metal scene exploding onto the scene in 1990.
Entombed’s “Left Hand Path” album is certainly known as the most significant point in that story. It really did pave the way for other Swedish bands to follow in Entombed’s foot-steps with many taking on similar attributes to give Stockholm its signature death metal sound. Many of these attributes would become attached to the work of producer Tomas Skogsberg & his Sunlight Studios in Stockholm with Grotesque’s “Incantation”, Carnage’s “Dark Recollections” & Tiamat’s “Sumerian Cry” releases all being products of Sunlight recordings at around that time. Things would further escalate for the Swedes in 1991 with Tiamat’s second album “The Astral Sleep” seeing the light of day along with a whole slew of debut releases from exciting new bands such as Unleashed, Grace, At The Gates, Carbonized, Megaslaughter, Sorcery, Therion, Authorize, Edge Of Sanity &, most notably, Dismember who were born from the ashes of Carnage & were close associates of Entombed. Dismember’s “Like An Ever Flowing Stream” album would gain them worldwide acclaim & would kick off a running argument in the death metal community as to whose debut was the best example of the Swedish sound for decades to come. It was in this creative environment that Entombed would not only need to continue making quality death metal but would also need to find another gear if they were going to hold on to their title as the premier Swedish death metal exponent.
Unfortunately for Entombed, drummer & band leader Nicke Andersson & front man LG Petrov were not seeing eye to eye at the time which culminated in Petrov being fired at an inopportune moment. Earache were keen to get some new material into the market to capitalize on the buzz around the Swedish scene though so Andersson employed Nirvana 2002 vocalist Orvar Säfström for the recording of the “Crawl” E.P. in April 1991. The union would prove to be short-lived however with the release receiving only a luke-warm reception & by the time band re-entered Sunlight Studios for the recording of “Clandestine” later in the year with Carbonized bassist Lars Rosenberg, Andersson had decided to take on the microphone duties himself.
It’s worth mentioning that my initial experience with Entombed was through a late-night metal radio program in 1990. “Left Hand Path” was somewhat of a favourite with the DJs who ran the show that I recorded each week so I was aware of the band quite early in the piece. I have to say that, while I generally enjoyed what I was hearing, Entombed’s debut never connected with me in the way that it seemed to with the rest of the death metal audience &, for this reason, it was one of the few Earache releases that I didn’t hurry out to buy. Instead, I would pick it up through tape trading & give it a few spins before moving on to sounds that were more in line with my taste at the time. The same can be said for Dismember’s debut actually. I put this down to my ears being far more interested in the more polished & proficient US strain of death metal being championed by bands like Morbid Angel, Death, Obituary & Deicide & the dirtier, punkier feel of the Swedish model didn’t interest me quite as much. When “Crawl” was released I gave it a passing glance but it also didn’t get past the cursory few spins.
“Clandestine” would be released in November 1991 & would make an immediate impact on the death metal market. The buzz around the record & the attractive cover art of Dan Seagrave would see me reconsidering my position with the band & it would become the first Entombed record that I’d purchase on release. Interestingly, my initial listens would prove that I’d timed my run very well too as this was a different beast to the ugly, stinking one that had assaulted our ear drums only the previous year. There is much more polish & precision about the production job on “Clandestine” with Skogsberg having achieved a more glossy & accessible sound by refining & improving the signature Entombed guitar tone & adding additional weight to the rhythm section. Although your ears immediately associate the guitar tone with the Sunlight Studios sound, playing “Left Hand Path” & “Clandestine” back to back shows a remarkable difference between the two. The “Clandestine” tone is noticeably cleaner & has much more definition. There’s less of a bottom end push & a greater dynamic range has been achieved through a stronger mid-range component as opposed to the noisier “Left Hand Path” sound which possessed more high end. The two sounds are equally powerful however I definitely prefer the fuller “Clandestine” one which seems to have more purity of sound. It engulfs the listener in a wall of distorted fuzz which I’m not all that comfortable to remove myself from.
Skogsberg had also employed a number of other production improvements too though. The drum sound on “Clandestine” is nothing short of phenomenal & is arguably the major selling point for the record. Andersson’s toms possess enormous depth & the whole kit is beautifully balanced while Rosenberg’s bass guitar sound is full & powerful & combines beautifully with the guitars & drums during the crunch moments to really accentuate the enormous heaviness of Entombed’s sound. Andersson’s vocals have received a lot of attention in the mixing phase too with individual phrases having been layered over the top of each other & coming from different positions in the stereo spectrum which is very effective indeed. As is the use of keyboards & movie samples to add additional atmosphere to the mix; an attribute that this record possesses in spades. To summarize, Skogsberg has dusted off a bit of the dirt from Entombed’s exterior, sanded off some of the rough edges, polished it up & given it a new coat of paint which has given “Clandestine” a lot more nuance. It not only sounds more polished than the other early Swedish albums of the time but It enabled Entombed to start competing with the Americans for overall professionalism & accessibility. I’d suggest that it really does depend on personal preference as to which model you’ll prefer but there’s very little doubt as to the one that floats my boat more & I think the production is one of the key factors in what makes “Clandestine” such a great & important death metal record.
A lot is made of the musical direction Entombed chose to take with “Clandestine”. Particularly from detractors who favour the debut. But in truth, the differences are much more subtle than we saw with the band’s subsequent leap into death ‘n’ roll territory with 1993’s “Wolverine Blues” album. In hindsight, I think it’s fair to say that we could see the early signs of that transformation here if you look closely enough. That cleaner production, the more accessible & melodic song-writing, the added groove in some of the riffs & the increased use of more controlled tempos were all elements that Entombed would draw on significantly in the coming years. But in saying that, there is really very little doubt that “Clandestine” is still a death metal record in the classic sense of the term. It’s just that some people see it as a dilution of “Left Hand Path” while others view it as an expansion on the foundations it had built. The punky back bone is still clearly visible with numerous examples of d-beat drum patterns being utilized across the tracklisting although there’s less of a reliance on it this time which can only be a positive for someone like myself that isn’t terribly interested in hardcore. Instead, Entombed have gone for a lot more variety in tempo & atmosphere which makes for a much more interesting listen in my opinion. I particularly dig the increase in doomier breakdowns with Autopsy having clearly been a big influence on the band. Some of those sections are crushingly heavy & are dripping with blood-soaked death metal pedigree. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the slower tempos work better with the signature Entombed guitar tone as the crunch is unbelievable. That’s not to say that the faster material has lost any of its potency though & I think it’s the two extreme ends of the spectrum that give Entombed the most bang for buck as far as tempo goes. Just check out the re-recorded version of the old Nihilist track “Severe Burns” for an example of just how much this band kills when they let the shackles fall to the ground & put the pedal to the metal.
“Left Hand Path” was relatively simple as far as song-writing & structure went but “Clandestine” sees Entombed lifting their game significantly in this regard with a noticeable increase in compositional complexity enabling the band to reach new heights of professionalism. Unlike the debut which was more of a collaborative affair, Anderrson was responsible for writing the entire album this time & I believe that this is significant. Nicke has often been quoted as saying that he had a strong fascination with US technical death metal masters Atheist at the time &, although you won’t hear anything particularly technical here, you can see the influence in the more expansive composition. He & Skogsberg really threw the sink at the arrangements with a whole range of frills & finer details being explored, particularly in the drumming. The album was already a total riff-fest but this extra attention to detail has really helped to maximise the impact of the transitions. The riffs themselves are generally still quite simple when viewed in isolation however they’re much more measured & deliberate in their attack & this is further highlighted by the quality of the production & performances. Even at their most brutal though, Entombed seem to have captured the perfect balance between melody & savagery here. The melodies are better constructed &, as a result, are more memorable. There are even some examples of riffs included that strongly indicate that the early Swedish melodic death metal bands like At The Gates may have borrowed a fair bit from “Clandestine”.
The vocal performance has always been a talking point when discussing this record & it seems to have been quite a divisive topic for many metal fans. There are certainly those that can’t stand Nicke Andersson’s more erratic delivery. Possibly because, despite the fact that he achieves a suitable amount of aggression, what he delivers isn’t technically a death growl. To my ears, Nicke meanders somewhere near the border of hardcore punk & death metal without ever really committing to either side. It’s interesting that Earache decided to try to fool people into believing that former Carnage bassist Johnny Dordevic was behind the microphone by showing him in the band photograph included on the album sleeve. It was true that Johnny had been performing live with the band but he wasn’t responsible for the vocals on the album. Perhaps this is an indication that Earache could see that the vocal delivery might not go down all that well with some fans & they wanted to shield Nicke a little bit? I dunno but I actually love Andersson’s vocal contribution to tell you the truth. I don’t think the difference between his & Petrov’s tones is as striking as many people seem to want to make out & I actually didn’t realise it wasn’t Petrov until I read it in a magazine some time after release. There’s a lot more variety in Nicke’s approach & he definitely brings a fresh vibe & accessibility to the table that saw Entombed becoming somewhat of a gateway band for potential new death metal fans at the time. I honestly have no idea why people get stuck into him as the vocals on a track like “Crawl” are miles better than the E.P. version with Säfström’s effort sounding weak & thin in comparison over the murkier production.
The value that Entombed placed on execution & technique seems to have increased dramatically since “Left Hand Path” too as this is a much tighter band than we’d heard previously with a substantially stronger focus being given to precision. The transitions have been expertly engineered to crush the cranium of anyone in the vicinity & the breakdowns show a true understanding of the death metal atmosphere at its most empowering & disgusting. Check out album highlight “Sinners Bleed” for example, with its “Raining Blood” style drum beat signaling the coming of something truly ominous. Entombed’s prime objective was no longer to out-violence the violent. It was to create an oozing atmosphere of pure death, in much the same way as their heroes Autopsy, only with a little more polish, class & finesse. The lead guitar work has been improved since the debut which was probably helped by the more musical platform they had to work over. They’re still not all that technically proficient but they overcome that by employing a stronger song-writing aesthetic in their composition & through the clever use of filtering in their tone. Rosenberg’s bass work is rock solid & plays a big part in driving the band’s sound to its heaviest possible extreme but it’s Andersson’s drumming that’s the real star here. This really is his record to be honest & his performance is nothing short of sensational! He brings Entombed so much of their energy & magic & it’s a credit to his technique that so many of his best moments go by without much fanfare due to his skillful compositional skills & pin-point execution. I’m certain that it was he that brought many of the interesting production additions to the table too. Some of which were a little risky like the outro section of “Crawl” which fades in gradually over the main track only isn’t exactly in key or in time, despite ultimately proving to be really effective.
So, given everything that you’ve just read, why isn’t “Clandestine” is no-brainer for full marks. Well in truth, it’s more of a decision based on taste than on quality. The remnants of Entombed’s hardcore-influenced roots still pop up just enough to prevent me from reaching complete musical euphoria which isn’t a major criticism as I still regard it as the pinnacle of the Swedish death metal sound & a good couple of steps up from its older sibling or Dismember’s debut for that matter. Where “Left Hand Path” had defined the Swedish death metal sound, “Clandestine” showed the world what it was possible to do with it. It’s a genuine classic that all death metal fans should own.
For fans of: Dismember, Grave & Carnage
This is my favourite Entombed album. In fact, I'd have to say that out of all the albums in this style (i.e. Swedish death metal), Clandestine is probably the one I enjoy the most. Their debut Left Hand Path was a good album that unleashed (excuse the pun) "that sound" to the world. But while the album was hugely influential (Dismember, Grave and Unleashed would all use the same sound within 12 months), it tended to lack variety and by the end, the tracks started to merge together. Clandestine contains a similar sound to the debut, although the production has more clarity in general. But more importantly, this classic release is a fair bit more consistent than Left Hand Path, with a whole bunch of cracking tracks throughout.
First and foremost, Sinners Bleed is one of my very favourite tracks by any band. When that riff kicks in just after the minute mark, Entombed are at their absolute peak! Living Dead, Blessed Be, Stranger Aeons and Chaos Breed are all fantastic, but then there isn't any filler material on this album. Once again, Dan Seagrave's cover artwork is superb, shrouding the album with menace and mystery before you even press play. I can't blame Entombed for going off and doing something a bit different after this album, as there were so many imitators coming out of the woodwork. But unfortunately, they'd never reach these heights again.