I’m sure it’s obvious to most people who visit us, and perhaps painfully obvious, that I listen to a lot of music, flitting like a hummingbird amidst the fecund and constantly flowering garden of metal in search of nectar, nightshades, and sharp thorns. And although dark new delights never seem far away, some of them are so arresting that they freeze me in my flight, locked into the embrace of what I’m hearing. That was the effect of Хиус (Heeus), the new album by Neverending Winter, which is being released today.
The album is so creative and so captivating that it caused me to reflect again on the happenstance of location as it affects the global reach of a band or an album.
Neverending Winter are located in Tomsk in Siberian Russia. They lack the visibility that a substantial label or professional PR representation might provide. Because of their remote location and low public profile, it’s unlikely they would be able to mount tours across Europe, much less North America, and that in turn will likely make it even more difficult for them to attract the backing of organizations that could help expand the global reach of their music — although I have no idea whether they even have such ambitions.
Of course, they’re not alone in this respect. The world is full of excellent underground bands that few people know about, in part because they live in communities that aren’t the best launching pads for exposure across the globe. And of course even talented underground metal bands located in big cities in the consumerist West confront dozens of other problems in reaching an audience. But I have the strong instinctive feeling that if Neverending Winter happened to be located in North America or Western Europe, their fortunes would be soaring right now.
Other issues may also hamper the band’s success in finding the kind of large audience that this album would undoubtedly attract if only more listeners could discover it and devote a bit of time to listening. For example, the band’s name and the primitivist cover art may be misleading, especially if you know that black metal is an ingredient in their music.
Those outward visual aspects of the band’s persona, coupled with their location in Siberian Russia, might suggest to some people that the music will be a variant of atmospherically cold and depressive black metal, perhaps lo-fi in its sound, or perhaps heavily laden with drifting melancholy synthesizer ambience. Yet, to my ears, it’s one of the most vibrant and dazzling albums I’ve encountered this year.
I hesitate to drop such names as Ihsahn, Enslaved, Agalloch, and Ne Obliviscaris, but at different times over the course of the album, those names popped into my head — not so much because Neverending Winter strictly conform to the sounds of any of those other artists (there is, for example, no clean singing on Хиус), but because they display a similar talent for combining progressive metal and black metal and a similar knack for creating a rich and dynamic listening experience.
There’s a wonderful, organic sense of flow as the music unfolds over the course of the album, moving through differing shades of darkness and light, and ranging from loud, barbarically aggressive attacks to soft and completely mesmerizing interludes.
There are thundering gallops and rocking rhythms in the music, with riffs that jolt and swarm. Slashing storms of tremolo chords and bursts of blasting or somersaulting percussion get the blood rushing very effectively. But you’re just as likely to encounter beautiful instrumental digressions that are meditative or buoyantly playful.
While the music often has a primal, surging energy, it’s also often quite intricate, and the technical skill of the performers is revealed to be very impressive. Wisely, the band chose to give this music a very clean and clear production, facilitating the listener’s appreciation for every grinding bass note, every flight of darting and swirling fret acrobatics, and the force of every hammering riff.
There are two more important ingredients in this fascinating musical tapestry that should be mentioned. The first is that folk music (or at least folk-ish music) also plays a role in these songs. It’s far from dominant, but it provides pleasing surprises and adds to the album’s overall dynamic. And so you’ll find a flute melody paired with a rippling guitar in the second half of “By Snowridges”, a melodic interlude that features the use of a whistle in “Neverending Winter”, and the sinuous sound of violin strings in “Sib Ir” (though I guess it might just be an interesting guitar tuning).
That final song, “Sib Ir”, also includes a lilting piano-and-acoustic-guitar duet, which isn’t folk music but is one more example of the way in which the band have made this album into a collage of musical textures. Another example is the pairing of acoustic guitar and shimmering ambient keyboards during an interlude in the title track.
The final ingredient I’ll mention is that the vocals are explosively savage. Given the dynamic and contrasting nature of this music, it wouldn’t have been surprising to hear some clean vocals tossed into the mix, but I for one am glad they didn’t. These skin-flaying, jugular-ripping howls are just fine as they are.
As their name suggests, long and frigid winters may have inspired this band, but they have found grace and beauty, as well as darkness and tumult, in their conditions. This is an album that will stay with me for years. I hope it strikes a chord with you, too. And if it does, help spread the word. Listen below (you can get it on Bandcamp now).