Black metal has morphed into many different shapes since the term was first coined on the cover of Venom’s second album. Even the now-classic albums released by Norwegian bands in the early ’90s are referred to as the “second wave” because the changes had already begun, though those albums could justifiably be considered the ones that created the genre as most people now know it, far more than the prototypes of the ’80s. Of course, the morphing has continued with increasing speed from then straight up to through present.
The Dutch band Tarnkappe have little apparent interest in all the spinoffs and mutations that have transformed “black metal” into a genre term of such breadth that it no longer provides much specific guidance about the sound of bands who use it. Their new album Winterwaker (“Guardian of Winter” in English) is firmly rooted in the early ’90s — and it thrives in that cold black soil. Yet Winterwaker still has its own vivid and dynamic personality.
The two members of Tarnkappe come from such bands as Kjeld, Standvast, and Gheestenland. On Winterwaker they rely heavily on the traditional weapons of their trade to create music of scalding intensity — rapidly pistoning blast-beats, the ripple and buzz of tremolo-picking, and high, searing shrieks and snarls. The songs are often more mid-paced than blazing fast — but they’re nonetheless frequently boiling with fierce energy, and the electrifying effect of experiencing that is a part of what makes the album so addictive. But it’s not the only part.
For one thing, Tarnkappe do change things up, bolting into thrashing gallops, bounding into rock beats (with a punk flavor in a few places), and slowing into stalking processionals. The larynx-scarring shrieks turn to throat-bursting yells. The ripping, warlike riffs become bleak and hopeless.
The only song from the album that has appeared so far, the opening track “Bodemkruiper”, is one of the more fiery and blasting tracks on the album, yet even it reveals that Tarnkappe is concerned with melody as much as driving intensity. However, the most emotionally powerful and memorable melodies in Winterwaker don’t fully bloom until the album’s second half, using a technique that’s present throughout the album — combining high, trilling lead guitar measures with a lower, grinding riffs — but doing so in a way that emphasizes grim moods of anguish, desolation, and grief.
The title track “Winterwaker”, which is the first of the album’s final four songs, combines driving thunder with an aching melody that moves in sweeping waves that wash over the listener. It’s bleak and mournful, but in its own chilling way, beautiful. It’s probably my personal favorite on the album, but it has close competitors. “Kale Vlakten, Desolatie” becomes more warlike and even deranged, with an expression of hopelessness that sounds inconsolable, and the grief-stricken melody of “De Hal Van Het Geheugen” is a match in its intensity for the incendiary riffs and pistoning drums that are also present in the song.
By the time the long final track “Hogere Machten” has finished, your psyche is likely to be left scraped and bruised. The pacing on the song is dynamic, but there’s a very dark undercurrent in the music that becomes dissonant, disturbing, and funereal.
I suspect that “old timers” who lived through the surge of grim Scandinavian black metal in the early- to mid-’90s may get a special feeling of nostalgia from Winterwaker, though I can’t know for sure since I was listening to different (and less interesting) music at the time. What I can say is that here in 2016 the album is a powerful and memorable experience, one that mixes fire and ice in a way that holds a firm grip all the way through.
Winterwaker will be released by Hammerheart Records on December 1, 2016. For ordering options, watch these spaces:
As noted earlier, only one track from the album has been made available for listening so far — the opening song “Bodemkruiper”. You can hear it through one of the two players below.