Reviewed By Andrew McKaysmith
Having had literally no background on the band prior to the review, I have decided to launch into listening to Heljarkviða without any background on the artist, the individual members, or any clear picture on the concept or theme of the album. So, what's going on with the latest from Árstíðir Lífsins?
Haunting, eerie, majestic. Let's start with these three adjectives, as each could be used to describe the string section that opens the forebodingly titled "Heljarkviða I: Á helvegi", which is one of the two 'songs' on Heljarkviða. Using google translate, the song's title loosely translates into 'Grave anxiety' or 'The belly of hell', either way it's an appropriate description for the aural journey that has commenced.
The opening stanza works well as a grand introduction, however given its length I was prepared for the next 20 minutes or so of "Heljarkviða I: Á helvegi" to be enveloped by one passage after another of brooding 'atmospheric' orchestral and acoustic movements that would eventually bore me to tears, and I'd be obliged to write a review about how progressive and uh... intelligent the album is. And it is still a progressive and intelligent album, however a 'metal' release with nary a G#m chord tremolo picked in anger Heljarkviða is most certainly not.
What's so impressive about this album is how the band combines sweeping orchestral string sections, choral arrangements of deep Scandinavian voices, sparsely picked acoustic interludes with the jewel in the crown: De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas style black metal. It's that latter point that deserves the most praise, believe it or not. This is not black metal that almost apologises for its brusqueness... this is the upright, get-outa-my-way, testosterone fuelled black metal that shoots first, and couldn't care less about asking questions later.
I am partial to mid-dynasty Therion, and without suggesting for a moment the bands sound similar, this is the closet comparison to a band occupying main stage that I can muster. I am sure there are plenty of similar artists buried in the underground, however for a better known musical landmark with similar characteristics, Therion is close. It's the manner in which both bands execute the blend of traditional orchestral strings and choral arrangements into their particular take on metal that warrants attention.
The second of the two 'songs' Heljarkviða II: Helgrindr brotnar (could be translated as 'Brother of Hell' but I could be mistaken...) is more immediate than its predecessor, kicking into the black metal movement with nary more than a moment of choral chanting, which itself sounds a lot like Tibetan throat singing. It is this track that I suggest is more likely to find a place among the Burzum, Mayhem, and early Behemoth in the more blackened soul's record collection. The vocal is more prominent here, there is the suggestion of a back and forth exchange between the black metal screech of the male vocal and a stern female vocal that could even be the goddess Freyja herself invoking a command.
Heljarkviða is a superbly performed, recorded, and executed album. It's rather a surprise to receive the opportunity to review an album of such depth and even more of a surprise to hear so many potentially contradictory elements working so well together. A very premature call, and I recognise that Árstíðir Lífsins may not even neatly fit into the genre however it will take a lot to usurp Heljarkviða as the black metal release of the year.