(In the following review, Andy Synn assesses the new album by Sweden’s Vintersorg, which is set for North American release on July 10 by Napalm Records.)
A new Vintersorg album? Already? Well that’s always good news. And what’s even better is that Orkan continues the blackened folk vibe re-established first on Solens Rotter and then carried over to Jordpuls.
To be brutally honest with you, back when Vintersorg announced his participation in Borknagar (for 2001’s Empiricism) I was becoming concerned that the line between the two bands was starting to blur – the shinier, proggier stylings of Cosmic Genesis (still one of my all-time favourite albums) and its two successors weren’t all that far removed from the sounds of Empiricism and Epic. It didn’t help that Mr V’s vocals are amongst the most instantly recognisable in metal, often dominating proceedings and serving to tie the two groups a little too tightly to one another, giving neither the necessary room to breathe.
But all that changed with the release of Solens Rotter. A three-year break between albums saw the duo of Vintersorg and Marklund redefine their priorities to produce the first in what has turned out to be a return to the more rustic, folk-ish melodies and earthen black metal atmosphere of their earlier works, musical miles away from the soaring, Pink Floydian blackened prog of Borknagar. Last year’s phenomenal Jordpuls continued the trend, actively improving on Solens Rotter in nearly every way, and now we are once more gifted with a new piece of blackened folk art in the form of Orkan.
Vintersorg himself recently revealed that Jordpuls and Orkan make up the first two parts of an eventual quartet of albums based on the four elements. We’ve already had Earth (Jordpuls) and Air (Orkan – despite its watery cover, intended to depict the whirling squall of a hurricane, more than any sort of nautical theme), so we have at least two more albums, Fire and Water, to look forward to, each of which I expect to have its own distinct take on the group’s signature sound.
With Orkan the two have delivered an experience that is more bombastic than its predecessor, a little bit wilder and transient, the songs more shapeless and shifting as befits their elemental-theme, which can be both ethereal and violent in equal measure. Indeed, the inescapably catchy vocal melodies also reflect this ideological shift, being perhaps a hair less dark than they were on Jordpuls, breathless and vibrant compared to that album’s solid, archaic vibe.
Production-wise, the album again differentiates itself somewhat from Jordpuls by opting for a wider, more distributed sound than its predecessor’s earthen solidity and patient power. The sound is more spread out, never thin, but purposefully scattered, so that on first listen the various elements don’t always seem as unified as one might expect. But that suits the concept behind the record, one that insists on the music being experienced, rather than analysed.
In many ways that’s the watch-word of this album – not better, not worse, but different. If this album is indeed part of an inter-related series of elemental-themed releases, then I fully expect each of them to be of the same stellar quality, but each with its own highly distinctive characteristics.
Existing as a two-piece means the duo are free to indulge their own flights of fancy and creativity to the fullest, and as such aren’t afraid to push the boat out when the mood takes them, for example “Istid”’s mid-song break into whistling flutes and folky ambience which transitions into a stomping riff composed in the grandest of metal traditions, or the final bars of “Ur Stjärnstoft är Vi Komna”, which cut the guitars back to a minimalistic acoustic backing and allows the swirling strings and piano to completely take-over. The shameless classical steals and noodling flutes of “Polarnatten” alone provide a perfect example of how the band straddle the line between the sublime and the ridiculous, as their inclusion is particularly brazen.
But that’s it about this album, it’s got some real balls to it, drawing from a rather self-indulgent 70’s prog-rock period without shame or indeed restraint. It’s got a very unique feel, definitely the work of a duo, rather than a full-band, with a sound that is oddly spacious and separate, yet still manages to feel quite full at the same time. It helps that the duo, here sharing the various guitar duties, aren’t afraid to drop into a big, swaggering metal riff here and there, or add a soaring solo when needed, or even a thick, twanging bass-line, all of which serve to fill out the album’s occasionally chaotic sound.
The album isn’t without its metallic moments, particularly the blackened, blasting intro to the aforementioned “Polarnatten” and the statuesque riffing and thrumming bass-lines of “Norrskenssyner”, which mix the enigmatic melody of “Cosmic Genesis” with a Metallica-esque sense of grandeur and restrained power. The almost ever-present rolling kick drums help give the album a sense of drive and energy befitting its vast, wind-driven themes, granting each song some solid power and heft.
Vintersorg himself is in fine form, his harsh black metal vocals cutting through with icy clarity, while his enviable singing voice retains all the power and identity we’ve come to expect from him. His semi-operatic style and dramatic, over-emotive delivery is given full range on songs like “Havets Nåd”, and he retains a knack for writing catchy, folksy vocal hooks whose soulful delivery seems to touch on something nameless and deep-rooted within the listener.
The keyboards are often shamelessly pushed into the foreground on this album, sharing the chaotic mind-scape of the music in full view with the rest of the album’s varied musical elements. If there’s a part of you that still holds a torch for Jethro Tull and early Genesis, but craves something that actually takes these influences somewhere else, rather than simply faithfully reproducing them (I’m looking at you here Opeth) then this could definitely be an album for you.
It’s actually quite an odd album altogether, truth be told. Wilful and a little bit capricious. It doesn’t make the easy choices in terms of consistency and coherence, but still retains a central sense of itself. In comparison to Borknagar, where everything is designed with a magician’s magic touch, flowing seamlessly from one section to the next in a shameless display of craft and artistry, here Vintersorg seem to have a far more devil-may-care attitude, throwing their disparate elements together and trusting to chance/fate to turn up something new and compelling with each song concocted.
And yet, it works. What should sound all over the place and disjointed holds together, despite expectations. Part of it is the unerring, and very clever drumming, part of it is the threads of melodic (and blackened) consistency that form the underlying fabric of the music (and provide a consistent bloodline running all the way back to Till Fjälls) and part of it is the newly defined sense of identity the band have, which transcends the ambiguous nature of the album’s themes.
Befitting its more folk-infused take on the style, it has a rougher vibe than that of Mr. V’s other band, and rightly so. The two are clearly defined, separate musical entities who have taken some quite similar influences in very different directions.
This is an unashamed, spirited, at times even messy, record whose success stands as a tribute to the underlying skills and talents of the pair involved in its writing and performance. It retains the familiar soul of their previous work, and is clearly a follow-up to last year’s phenomenal Jordpuls, but clearly comes from a different place inside the creative mind. Though it perhaps lacks some of the heart of last year’s effort, it has an identity and an energy all its own.
Sample song, officially released: “Orkan”