Majestic. Masterful. Malevolent.
Passionate. Progressive. Powerful.
No, those aren’t the taglines to this year’s latest Oscar-baiting epic, they’re the words that immediately came to mind whilst enjoying my first listen to Iskald’s fourth album Nedom Og Nord.
Now Black Metal, for all its evocative imagery and striking musical palette, can sometimes be a difficult genre to talk about… at least in a fresh way.
That’s not because it’s become completely swamped by cliché (like all genres, there are those who go beyond it, and those who sink beneath it…) but because there’s a particular vocabulary so closely tied to how we talk about the genre.
“Chilling”, “Frostbitten”, “Grim”… all words that evoke the cold, frozen heart of the genre, and all words which crop up (in various permutations) throughout any discussion of it and its myriad forms, from its most basic, to its most esoteric.
And there’s a feeling that Iskald know this, because this time around they’ve pulled out all the stops to make this album truly definitive.
On their fourth full-length, the band (specifically, the duo of Simon Larsen and Aage André Krekling) have chosen to pare back the thrashier elements of their sound somewhat, in favour of a more grandiose and willfully complex approach, allowing them more room to breathe and flex their creative muscles, without suppressing their impressive technical talents, focussing their primal passion in new and exciting ways.
The predatory introduction to “A Fading Horizon” builds the tension to a fever pitch, before it erupts in a howling cacophony of whirlwind riffs and hailstorm drums, moving and coiling with eerie grace and precision in a seemingly endless torrent of sinister melodic guitar work and sinuous, twisting tempos.
At 7 minutes in length the track has ample time to spread its wings (despite being the shortest song on the album), and uses every second to the fullest, layering intricate note patterns and wrenching screams over a core of endlessly shifting, effortlessly impressive drums and artistically refined aggression.
Within its first 30 seconds “Underworldly” moves from savage intensity to dominating power to flowing melodic nuance, in a perfect example of the band’s kaleidoscopic creativity. At no point does it feel rushed or unbalanced, it simply flows with the sort of enigmatic fluidity we’ve come to expect (and demand) from Iskald, switching smoothly from acerbic blast beats and skin-shredding technical riffage to moments of soothing ambience, all beneath a shroud of glorious darkness.
The sweepingly majestic “Iskald” (which a certain someone was lucky enough to hear live for the first time at Inferno Festival last year) stands proudly as perhaps the defining song of the band’s career, drifting from its soaring beginnings into bleaker, more haunted territory as it progresses, driven onwards by the elemental force of Krekling’s phenomenal drums.
There’s a dreamlike undercurrent to the track unlike anything they’ve done before, a strange and vibrant aurora which refines and redefines the limits of their sound even as they push themselves to new extremes of rich harmony and ravenous intensity, culminating in an unexpectedly tender, touchingly beautiful acoustic outro.
Despite the thrashier undertones of their previous albums being reined in, the album is still swollen with a vicious array of seething riffs, a testament to the furious fingers and maniacal mindset of guitarist/vocalist Simon Larsen – it’s in no way less aggressive, or less ferocious… it’s just aggressive in a different way.
The superfluously heavy and densely packed “The Silence” demonstrates this quite aptly, rarely easing back from its furious, hammering pace, even as the swarming multitudes of saw-toothed riffs and stygian tremolo runs dance a maddening, convoluted gyre. Yet there are moments of subtlety hidden here and there – hints of delicate harmony which flitter through the gloom, as anguished guitars gleam and lithe bass lines paint their own ethereal patterns.
The brooding opening of “Nidingsdåd” offers up a welcome counterpoint to its predecessor’s extraordinary severity, insinuating bleak, oppressive melodies into a glacial, mid-paced stomp. Yet soon – following an unexpected interlude of phantom calm – it explodes into life as a series of charnel riffs, spiralling lead parts, and bristling, feral aggression, building towards a truly monumental conclusion.
The album ends with its title track, almost 10 minutes of shifting tempos and scything riffs, gleaming melodic hooks, and potent drumming power. Every gigantic guitar line, every precise percussive beat, is another step along an unforgettable journey, epic in scope and vision, ambitious in style and execution, taking in all aspects and elements of the band’s sound to date – from viper-like thrash and punishing rhythmic force, to scathing blizzards of icy tremolo and moments of sublime melodic grace – twisted together into one masterpiece of progressive, immersive, black metal majesty.
Somewhere between the razor-edged riffage of Old Man’s Child and the potent progressive power of Enslaved, the dynamic duo who make up the core of Iskald have carved themselves a niche and a sound distinct from any other – jaggedly heavy and malevolently melodic, expressive, introverted, and enviably inventive, with an artistic ambition which seems to push them ever onwards towards new heights.
Nedom og Nord doesn’t represent a drastic change in direction for the band. But it is perhaps their finest hour, a towering edifice built on the foundations of the past, refining their sound and expanding their vision, enfolding the familiar whilst also embracing the new, acknowledging no limits and accepting nothing less than lethal perfection.