(This is Andy Synn‘s review of the new album by the Norwegian black metal band Kampfar, which will be released on May 3rd by Indie Recordings.)
Metal is, perhaps more than any other genre I can think of, a style of music built around its own mythology.
The bands and artists whom we love (or loathe) become our heroes, and our villains, our gods, and our demons, often all at the same time, while certain places – the fetid swamps of Florida, the frozen mountains of Norway, the steel and smoke of Northern England – become invested with near-mythic significance of their own, giving birth to their own legends and lore and traditions.
Black Metal in particular is rich in its own particular brand of folklore and fairy tale – much of it drenched in the blood and sweat of its progenitors – to the point where it sometimes seems like the music plays second fiddle to the myths surrounding it.
But not with Kampfar. And not on Ofidians Manifest.
To say that Kampfar are the only band right now whose reverence for their roots does not outweigh their need for artistic growth would obviously be an exaggeration.
But amongst the “bigger” names in Black Metal very few other artists – perhaps Taake would be one, Enslaved would be another – seem willing, or able, to push their sound forwards in a way that continually stretches the boundaries of what “true” Norwegian Black Metal could, or should, be.
Sweeping and cinematic in scope, yet possessing a raging heart of pure fire and fury, songs like rampant, riff-packed opener “Syndefall” and the menacing prowl of “Ophidian” are simultaneously a purposeful rejection of such reductive terms as “Old School” or “Second Wave”, etc, while also representing a willingness to embrace both the old and the new in equal measure, whatever it takes for the band to realise their own particular vision for what Black Metal was, is, and will be.
In some ways Ofidians Manifest reminds me of what Behemoth tried (and failed) to do on their most recent album, to step outside of the box which, for better or worse, had been built up around them, in order to define a new, but not totally unrecognisable, identity for themselves.
But Kampfar succeed where their Polish brethren failed because these changes – the increasingly epic scale of the songs, the more frequent use of Dolk’s distinctive, semi-clean style of singing, the subtle splashes of piano and injections of swaggering groove – all feel more like the product of a natural evolution and an expanding creative vision rather than the result of some sort of ruthlessly calculated commercial decision.
Even the addition of two guest vocalists – with Agnete Kjølsrud adding a truly creepy vocal counterpoint to “Dominans”, while Marianne Maria Moen helps raise majestic closer “Det Sorte” to even greater heights with her ethereal, dreamlike delivery – feels like a totally organic development as well as a vital part of the overall story of Ofidians Manifest.
And while it is, unfortunately, not entirely perfect – the attempt to recapture some of the folk-ish wonder of the band’s early years on “Eremitt” falls painfully flat, undercutting what would otherwise be a damn fine song – it’s hard to deny that titanic tracks like the seething “Natt” and the bold, bombastic “Skamløs!” possess both an energy and hunger which would put many younger bands to shame.
Arguably the band’s most grandiose artistic statement yet, Ofidians Manifest is proof that true Black Metal never dies, it simply sheds its skin and keeps on rowing.