Vanhelga are a Swedish band, the brainchild of Jacob Ottosson (aka “145188”), who until recently has been the band’s vocalist and sole instrumentalist. With Vanhelga’s most recent EP, Sommar, he is joined for the first time by Johan Gabrielson (“1853”), a former member of the late, lamented Lifelover, as a vocalist and lyricist. To be honest, that Lifelover connection was what finally drew me into Vanhelga’s music, although the band have previously released two full-length albums and five shorter works.
Although Vanhelga themselves characterize Sommar as an EP (which explains the “Short But Sweet” title of this review), it’s almost 32 minutes long and includes seven songs. Other bands have used the “full-length album” label for shorter collections of music. But whatever the right characterization, there’s no denying that Sommar is a significant achievement.
Trying to describe, much less summarize, the music is difficult. It’s an unusual combination of styles, including (but not limited to) black metal, post-rock, post-punk, and gothic. Its overall atmosphere is melancholy and at times even depressive, with textures of urban angst and desolation — and occasional eruptions of fierce anger. The mainly mid-paced song structures are relatively simple and relatively conventional, with the component parts looping back on themselves in a way that cements the infectious but tormented melodies in the listener’s mind. But that’s not to suggest that the music itself is utterly stripped down or simple, and it’s certainly not to suggest that it ever ventures into any kind of comfortable territory.
Although the EP is loaded with seductive, ringing guitar melodies, many of which will still be fighting for dominance in your mind long after the last listen, the sound is usually shrouded in distortion, producing a dense, buzzing sound most of the time, and those distinctive melodic measures are regularly swamped by waves of cauterizing noise. A multitude of guitar effects and riffing/picking styles are employed, from writhing tremolo chords to reverberating arpeggios to hard-rocking heavy metal riffs to the shriek and groan of feedback. There are even a few blues-rock progressions thrown into the mix.
Here and there, at perfectly chosen moments, within songs such as “Aftermath”, “Vid skymningens gräns”, and the closer “Döda vita drömmar”, echoing, ethereal keyboard notes contribute to the melodies in a way that makes them both more beautiful and more haunting.
There’s nothing fancy about the drumming. It’s there mainly to keep time and make the tempo changes more emphatic, yet there’s still something about those booming beats, those muffled whumps, those clattering progressions, and the almost constant scratchy whisper of cymbals, that seizes the attention. Like everything else used in the well-conceived, carefully executed layering of this music, it seems vital to the experience.
The changing, often multi-textured hue of the songs is reflected in the vocals as well. Between Ottosson and Gabrielson, you’ll hear high, corrosive black metal shrieks, demonic laughter, wide-ranging clean vocals that move from near whispers to strident yells, sombre chanting, and distorted spoken words. Even in that closing track “Döda vita drömmar”, which makes the most extensive use of chiming post-rock riffs, the vocals keep you off-balance, lending a hallucinatory quality to a song that might otherwise be (almost) “accessible”.
Though all of the songs are kindred spirits, returning time and again to their home ground of melancholia after even the most lilting tremolo runs or the most hard-rocking digressions, each of them has its own face, its own character. The first time through the album, I found myself eagerly anticipating the next song after each one ended, with growing confidence that each would be a memorable trip. On subsequent listens, knowing what would lie in store, I was even more eager. If there’s a weak spot on the album, it’s the instrumental title track. That’s not to say it’s a weak song standing alone — it includes some of the heaviest, most head-nodding riffs on the EP — it suffers only by comparison to what surrounds it.
I suppose it could be the power of subconscious suggestion at work, what with the participation of 1853 on this EP, but the band that came to mind first as I listened to Sommar was Lifelover. I don’t want to push the comparison too hard because there are clear differences, but I have little doubt that fans of Lifelover will be attracted to Sommar like flies to honey — and it will taste damned sweet to many other listeners as well.
Sommar was released on November 4 by the Art of Propaganda label. Late last week Against Magazine began streaming Sommar in its entirety, which enables us to bring you the music here. Hope you enjoy it as much as I have. If you insist on a guide to a taste-test, I found “Another Side (Of Me)” to be the catchiest (and most upbeat) track and “Levande begravd i påtvingad fångenskap” perhaps the most multi-textured representation of all that Vanhelga do on the EP. But my strongest recommendation would be to start with “Aftermath” . . . and just let it go, straight through to the end.
(Below the player you’ll also find Johan Gabrielson’s lyrics to “Vid skymningens gräns” and Google Translate’s rendition of them in English. I’m looking forward to publication of all the lyrics, with official translations of them.)
“Vid skymningens gräns”
För att ens kunna andas
och stilla mitt inre illamående
åtminstone ett tag
sluter jag ögonen för en stund –
föreställer mig hur Stockholm
med dess äckliga förorter
och tycker mig nästan se
varenda stad falla samman
i panik, obehag och eldhav
– äntligen kan jag tänka klart
fri från fängelset av påhittat tvång
Ingen mer betong, när vi tillsammans
dansar över bränd jord
Ni är nu ni alla de mina,
renade av eld
befriade, oskuldsfulla på nytt
bevarade i det renade intet
bortglömda för alltid
To even be able to breathe
still, my inner nausea
at least for a while
I close my eyes for a moment –
imagine how Stockholm
with its smarmy suburbs
and think I almost see
every city falling apart
in panic, discomfort and braziers
– Finally I can think clearly
free from the prison of the fictitious force
No more concrete, when we together
dancing across the scorched earth
You are now you are all mine,
purified by fire
freed, innocent again
preserved in the purified nothing