(Andy Synn reviews the brilliant new album by the Finnish black metal band Sargeist, just released by W.T.C. Productions.)
Surprise releases seem to be all the rage these days and, wouldn’t you know it, Finnish Black Metal beasts Sargeist seem to have decided that they want a piece of that action too, so they dropped their long-awaited fifth album via the WTC Bandcamp page late last night.
So I thought that, much as I did with the new Behemoth album (a record whose overall status and impact I’m still pondering), it might be fun to address the release of Unbound with an extra degree of spontaneity by basing this write-up on my early impressions of the album, going track-by-track, now that I’ve had a few chances to listen to it in its entirety.
It’s worth mentioning, before we begin, that Unbound is the creation of an (almost) entirely new incarnation of Sargeist, with only mainman Shatraug remaining from the line-up which gave us such obsidian gems as Disciples of the Heinous Path and Let The Devil In.
Thankfully, for those of you who might right now be expressing some concern about how such a major upheaval like this might have a negative impact on the band’s sound, you’ll be pleased to learn that this new manifestation of the band now features a guitarist who also plies his ungodly trade in Nightbringer, a bassist who dwells within the Saturnian Mist, and two members who provide bass and vocals for Desolate Shrine, meaning that, immediately, you can at least feel reassured that the group’s pedigree remains as elite, and as extreme, as ever.
But the big question, of course, is still… how does this translate into music?
Well, we’re about to find out.
Now that is one hell of a way to start an album. No pretentious, long-winded intro, no messing about, just a torrent of scything riffs and storming blastbeats, all topped off with some howling vocals (dipping into some gutturally deep growls in the song’s back-half) and a bloody spattering of sinister melody.
And I can even hear the bass! It’s not hugely prominent (this isn’t Beyond Creation after all) but it’s definitely there, slipping in and out of the spaces between the riffs like a sinuous, sonic serpent.
If all the tracks are THIS good, then we might just have yet another contender for Black Metal Album of the Year.
To Wander the Night’s Eternal Path
Crashing out of the speakers like a hurricane of fire and brimstone, “To Wander…” not only maintains the momentum of its predecessor, but is possibly/probably even more vicious and visceral in its execution, with Shatraug and VJS laying down a withering hail of electrifying riffage over which vocalist Profundus shrieks his lungs out like a man possessed.
It’s a serious rush, and continues to suggest that we might have something really special on our hands here.
The Bosom of Wisdom and Madness
So far all three of the album’s opening triptych of terror have been face-melting assaults of immolating intensity, and yet each of them has its own particular flavour.
In this spirit “…Bosom…” accents and accentuates its frenzied assault with major moments of grim-faced grooves and shamelessly nihilistic hooks, and this measured application of stomping riffery and primal focus really exposes the malevolent method behind the band’s metallic madness, even as the vocals continue to be as harrowing and apoplectic as ever.
Just try and resist banging your head along to this one. You’ll fail.
In what is, in my opinion at least, a very smart move, the band have chosen to take their foot off the gas ever so slightly on track number four – at least at first – introducing the song with what I can only describe as a truly murderous groove, before allowing drummer Gruft to unleash a hammering hail of blastbeats on the listener’s unsuspecting eardrums.
The tremolo’d guitars are a little higher in pitch and, dare I say it, a little more melodic in tone on this one, but the vocals are just as nasty as ever, and when the band drop back into that utterly filthy opening groove you’re going to be hard-pressed not to snap your neck right along with them.
As the longest song on the record I wasn’t too surprised to find that “Hunting Eyes” is the album’s slowest, moodiest number, nor was I surprised to find that this latest incarnation of Sargeist knows just how to handle this subtle shift in tone, as “Hunting…” finds both Shatraug and VSJ laying down some of the best riffs and bleakest melodies on the entire album, while Abysmal and Gruft keep the low-end locked down with a tight, groove-heavy performance of their own.
Definitely one of the album’s best songs, and that’s really saying something, considering the stunning quality of the material thus far.
Her Mouth Is An Open Grave
“Her Mouth…” is another lengthier cut, but benefits from not only having a brilliant name, but also a renewed sense of devastating demonic energy (just check out those opening vocals).
It’s perfectly placed to follow up from “Hunting Eyes” too, as its humongous, writhing riffs, torrential drums, and skin-stripping vocals ramp up the intensity so fast that the song is in danger of giving the unprepared listener a serious case of whiplash.
And good god, that mid-section transition around the 03:20 mark is a thing of blackened beauty, leading into the song’s spellbinding second half.
The title-track is another monstrously groovy, surprisingly melodic, slab of shamelessly infectious sonic filth whose mix of incredibly catchy riffs, slithering tremolo melodies, and blast-fuelled propulsion might as well have the words “True Black Metal” stamped on it.
In lesser hands of course it might come across as a tad derivative and, I’ll admit, that was my worry at first too, but there’s so much going on underneath the surface here (including a bunch of clever counter-melodies and some brilliant drum work, not to mention a truly ravenous vocal performance) that it makes all these familiar elements seem as new and as vital as when they were first freshly exhumed from the grave.
Blessing of the Fire-Bearer
Arguably the one song on the album which I might have suggested could have been trimmed from the track-list, “Blessing…” is still a powerful force to be reckoned with, particularly in its second half, where that massive chorus refrain grabs you by the throat (and by other, less savoury, places) and refuses to let go until it’s done with you.
My only concern is that the opening few minutes, and some of the major tremolo melodies, don’t quite have the same distinct character and deep impact as the rest of the album.
Wake of the Compassionate
Track nine, however, is a singular display of blackened brilliance, and showcases the band firing on all cylinders, mixing equal parts doom-laden malice and rage-driven extremity, whose only real weak point is the fact that it ends a little too matter-of-factly for my liking.
Grail of the Pilgrim
In many ways the twin of the album’s opener, its finale is another unrepentant blaze of pure Finnish ferocity, delivered with the calculated, callous intent and lethal focus of a band whose collective wisdom and experience only enhances their ability to deliver maximum impact and maximum intensity.
It’s a surprisingly short number for an album closer – clocking in at just over three-and-a-half-minutes in total – but not a single second of that time is wasted, and it only leaves you wanting to immediately spin the whole record again straight away.
Putting my money where my mouth is, and laying all my cards on the table here, I can say, with at least some degree of confidence, that this is one of the best Black Metal albums of the year. And you can quote me on that.
After the slightly disappointing outing that was Feeding the Crawling Shadows (an album which, I must admit, I haven’t really gone back to very much) it’s clear that the injection of new blood into the band has reinvigorated Sargeist, resulting in one of the group’s strongest efforts yet.
The production also deserves mentioning, as it’s much improved on the overly murky sound of its predecessor, providing some much-needed clarity to the instruments, while still retaining every ounce of raw energy and bitter intensity which the band put out.
This added clarity also means that, unusually for this sort of Black Metal album, the individual performances of the band’s members also stand-out as worthy of specific praise, especially the vocals of Profundus, who puts in one of the most unhinged yet impressively nuanced displays of any vocalist I’ve heard this year, while both Shatraug and VSJ litter the album with the sort of cool guitar moments that will have you going “wait for it, here it comes…” once you become a little more familiar with the album.
Would I say it’s a little bit front-loaded? Probably yes, as that run from “Psychosis Incarnate” to “Unbound” is a practically flawless example of the blackened arts in my opinion, and raises the bar a little too high for the following tracks to keep up with, but overall this is the sort of album you give to people, without hesitation, when they ask you exactly what it is which makes Black Metal such a phenomenal force.