"Balance of pain" is probably the best Swedish metallic crust album ever recorded. Of course, Warcollapse win the title in the "heavy gruff crust" category, but even their endeavour into mid-paced old-school crust, "Crust as fuck existence", a genuinely great record, almost pales in comparison with "Balance of pain". It is hard to believe that it was released twenty years ago and listening to it now only confirms that it was indeed a monumental crust masterpiece and it has aged extremely well, although the production gives away its age (and by that I mean that it has much more spirit and consistence than most of modern crust records).
Counterblast have often been compared to Neurosis, more precisely to their 1992 Lp "Souls at zero". It is a sound, legitimate parallel because the Neurosis influence is obvious in Counterblast's music, but it can be a tricky one too because "Neurosis-influenced music" (is there even an adequate term for it? Post-crust? Post-hardcore? Post-metal? Post-critical thinking?) has become a genre of itself throughout the years, with its own set of references, rules and expectations, but Counterblast cannot be said to fall in that category. Well, the "Impassivity" album from 2002 might to some extent but "Balance of pain" certainly does not. So my point is that, while Counterblast were influenced by "Souls at zero" and "Enemy of the sun", I don't see them as a "Neurosis-type band". Now that this has been cleared up, let's get to it.
After the demise of the mighty G-Anx in 1991, two members, Steve and Hoccy, formed Counterblast. It is often said that late G-Anx shared meaningful similarities with early Counterblast and not without reason, especially when one considers that G-Anx recorded their last Ep, "Out of reach", after they had split up, while Counterblast were already playing (or rehearsing at least). Of course, G-Anx were never as heavy and gloomy as Counterblast would turn out to be. They relied primarily on relentless speed and hardcore intensity and their sound was essentially hardcore in texture. However, listening to late songs like "In harmony" or "The beast within" from the "Out of reach" Ep or even "Life?" from 1990's "Masterpeace" Ep, with their slow, dark synth-driven introductions, it was obvious that the band was going for a more ambient, atmospheric mood, perhaps as a means to emphasize the velocity and aggression of their fast as fuck hardcore parts. Some of these G-Anx tunes, in terms of composition alone, can be found in early Counterblast, although the sound and the textures are completely different.
The first CB record was the "Prospects" Ep in 1994 and it was much more than a mere confirmation of the direction that late G-Anx pointed to. "Prospects" is a heavy record building on the G-Anx legacy, infusing it with the atmospheric heaviness of early 90's Neurosis and an old-school apocalyptic crust vibe. Had the band only released this Ep, it would have still been the perfect link between Neurosis and Axegrinder, but compared with "Balance of pain", I tend to see "Prospects" in hindsight as a brilliant introduction to the monster that was to follow. That's subjectivity for ya. The Ep paved the way for "Balance of pain" and CB refined and expanded its best elements for the Lp. Arguably, the album format is best for dark atmospheric crust because it allows you to tell a good story (assuming you can write a good one in the first place) and create a proper soundscape and I feel CB used brilliantly all the advantages that a full album can give you in order to create something that is both completely unique (I can't think of any other crust records sounding like "Balance of pain") and yet familiarly crusty.
Counterblast had the excellent idea, from the start, to have a member (Palle) dealing only with keyboards and samplers in order to create an actually multilayered music. This allowed the band to have someone specially focusing and refining this aspect, in the studio and live, and this configuration can be found on "Prospects". For "Balance of pain", the band saw much bigger as three members of Sanctum, a local ambient/industrial/darkwave band that Palle was also part of, worked with them on the recording of the album. Thus Sanctum's singer (Lena), cello player (Marika) and engineer (Jan) took part in the creation of the Lp. Needless to say that it revealed Counterblast's intent to focus on textures and meaningful sonic background and that a lot of these elements echo throughout "Balance of pain", not unlike "Souls at zero" of course. I would argue however that Counterblast only used some of Neurosis' conceptual ideas and readapted them to fit a genuinely, albeit more sophisticated, crust sound. As I mentioned earlier, there is also a strong Axegrinder influence going, especially in the some of the heavy, synth-driven riffing, quite a few Sacrilege moments as well in the way they wrote the transitions from mid-paced to fast-paced crust and a definite Misery (the band that turns everything it touches into crust) vibe in the angry vocals and the filthy, crunchy breaks. Still, these influences are all reworked through the atmospheric, industrial, incantatory, tribal prism of "Souls at zero" so that they appear in a totally different way. Never have the interactions between the Neurosis-influenced sound and the old-school crust one worked so well: from eerie and creepy insanity-driven riffs, crushing and pummeling Scandicore parts, industrial interludes, mid-tempo stenchcore charges to absolutely epic, darkly synth-driven bouncy slower moments, "Balance of pain" is an awe-inspiring metallic monument that is both quite complex and yet very easy to relate to.
The musicianship on "Balance of pain" is absolutely perfect (the drumming is remarkable) and the songwriting is stellar, and it needed to be for the album to actually make sense as a cohesive unit and not just a set of good songs. The production is incredible, very heavy, intense and cold (like steel more than ice arguably) but still organic and gritty, you can hear how the different layers are articulated and give meaning to one another. Someone once pointed out to me that "Balance of pain" was a black-metal production (not of the thin, trebly or fuzzy kind, obviously) applied to crust music and it is actually a rather relevant comment. I am not a knowledgeable person at all when it comes to black-metal (I could never relate to either the aesthetics or the mood) but given the genre's obsession with atmosphere, it might make sense and I can hear where the argument is coming from in the way the drums are recorded and in the guitar's texture. The album was produced by Mats Siltberg who also worked on the late G-Anx Ep's and on Rövsvett records but I cannot say if there was indeed a conscious intent to give it a black-metal feel.
Lyrically, "Balance of pain" is as anguished and demented as it is angry and determined. Songs about depression, alienation and pain but also about capitalism, alcoholism as a means of social control or the ruling-class. This is probably the true balance of pain: the physical and mental effects of oppression. The Lp was a joint release between Skuld Releases, Profane Existence and Elderberry Records. Following "Balance of pain", Counterblast recorded the "Impassivity" album in 2002, a rather good work but that still lacked the intensity and inspiration of its predecessor.