Obscurity can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to black metal. On one hand, being lesser-known has its benefits in the form of a devoted fanbase, not to mention the underground appeal, but it also ensures that the greater works never get the recognition they deserve. One such work is The Sad Realm of the Stars, the debut (and only) full-length album by the Norwegian Symphonic Black Metal band, Odium. Released in 1998 via Nocturnal Art Productions, the album apparently received positive praise, but not much recognition, despite its placement alongside more relatively popular bands such as Limbonic Art. Only in recent times, with the 2013 remastering and repress on CD and LP by Blood Music, has the album started to become more widely known.
Symphonic Black Metal is a tricky genre to master, what with so many different bands utilizing it at great musical cost. Too subtle, and the symphonic aspect can seem like an afterthought and pointless, but too heavy and it degrades the black metal aspect, resulting in music that's mediocre at best and outright parody at worst (you know who you are). When mixed together just right, however, it can create art both haunting and mesmerizing. Thankfully, Odium pulls off the latter, with keyboard parts that provide atmosphere without minimalism, and musicality without being overwrought. These all blend together with skilled songwriting and harsh black metal, creating a cohesive work that truly sticks with the listener long after its 40-minute span has ended.
Despite the high praise for the symphonic aspect of the album, the album's representation of the genre's source is certainly not weak, either. There's plenty of tremolo picking lines and blast beats to be had here, but the moments where the album truly shines is when it slows down its pace to channel the astral melancholy that the music evokes. Astounding music can be found throughout the album, such as the central riffs on Through the Sorrowfilled Forest, the keyboards on Thy Eternal Nightfall, and the phenomenal title track. The only great shame is that the album holds little room for experimentation. The outro of the closing track, Riding the Starwinds, holds some outstanding choral clean vocals not dissimilar to Emperor, but still well-executed in their own right; far too good to be relegated to the last minute of the album.
The Sad Realm of the Stars is a perfect example of how Symphonic Black Metal should be done. Great riffs and melodies, memorable songs, and an effectively melancholic yet blistering atmosphere make this one of the best, yet most overlooked albums to come out of Norway during the 90s. With the recent Blood Music pressing, there's some hope that this album finally gets the exposure that it deserves.