Out 19th of August on Season of Mist
With the amount of clutter that surrounds this artist it is tempting to review any new release from the perspective of the hype rather than the actual output. But given the inflated sense of their own worth, amplified by their many high profile cheerleaders, addressing the fauna is vital in understanding their music. Having been broadly cast in the same strain of populist neofolk as Wardruna and Danheim that has gone viral in the last decade, what’s perhaps most remarkable about the phenomenon of the “Nordic folk” movement is not only its co-option by the metal scene, but the fact that – if we are to consider this as a genuine product of “metal” culture – it is the only output metal has produced in recent history that has reached a cultural resonance extending well into the wider populace. These artists are huge, boasting a brand recognition only a Metallica or Iron Maiden could match, soundtracking major TV series, having articles written about them in the Guardian, and packing out larger concert venues across the globe with ease.
Another key point to address is the white supremacist in the room. The far right has always had an interest in pre-Christian theology and culture, so it’s little surprise that a revival of Nordic musical traditions would peak their interest, providing more coded symbology to allow various far right actors to communicate and recognise each other in the public sphere. The artists themselves have always strongly disavowed this connection, emphasising their interests as purely cultural and historic. So it’s particularly telling that for ‘Drif’, Heilung have attempted to broaden this historical reach, referencing ancient civilisations of North Africa and the Middle East, and their influence on early European culture through channels of migration and trade.
In reality, Heilung’s audience are bearing witness to a public therapy session. These individuals have had a revelation that cultural exchange and cooperation is far older than popular wisdom would have us believe, with cultural artefacts from the near East turning up in Northern Europe during the bronze age thanks to migratory routes and patterns of trade, and have proceeded to apply this discovery to their art through messages of “togetherness” and the unity of humanity. But in this respect Heilung are nothing new. The litany of aging rockers and new age hippies undergoing a spiritual journey via fragmented pagan aesthetics and selective historical study is very long. It’s just that in this day and age Heilung have gone from exposing themselves to accusations of facilitating white supremacists to cultural appropriation.
Setting that hot potato aside for now, is ‘Drif’ worth the wax it’s pressed on? The music itself is surprisingly understated. The black metal spoken word poetry is thankfully kept to a minimum. Rhythmically this draws less on 90s rave music, keeping the pace slow and reflective. The production is spacious yet minimal, with background effects and other synthetica withdrawn to scene setting. Vocally this draws heavily on Dead Can Dance’s historical and geographical leaps, and manages to achieve an immersive soundscape effect for significant portions of the album.
The real problem here is brevity. The modesty of the actual music presented on ‘Drif’ is worthy of praise. But it is little deserving of the fanfare, discourse, or generous sense of their own significance that infects so much of their delivery. If twenty minutes were shaved off this album, and the compulsive need to showcase their connection with lost histories and spiritualism dialled back, one would have a tight, austere, laid back Nordic ambient album with genuinely moving vocal performances to spare. But Heilung are so fixated on combining historical authenticity with modernist experimentation, theses on ancient history and our connection to it, and their own inflated perception of their ability to deliver messages I suspect are a little beyond their artistic or intellectual abilities, that the raw musical core of ‘Drif’ is buried in this ancillary and toxicity baiting fodder.
Heilung are talented musicians, both in terms of raw technical ability but also as arrangers of sparse yet complex soundscapes with many moving parts. But their work is frustrated by so much neo pagan gumf that it becomes too tiresome to sift through. It’s the logical conclusion of metal’s well documented relationship with regional folk music and music history. A pursuit that has produced an impressive body of quality work. But when the balance tips too far into pure scholarship, amateur historicism swamps artistic goals. Heilung spend so much energy telling us about their message that any intuitive meaning we could garner directly from the work itself is smothered by the surrounding noise of ulterior motives.
Mystic Charm: Hell did Freeze Over
Out 26th August on Personal Records
Listening back to Mystic Charm today is to chart an entirely different course for extreme metal throughout the 1990s. There are countless old school acts lost to time, save for a few dedicated archivists preserving their work. There are a surprising number that still sound remarkably fresh today, leading one to wonder why their names do not more freely circulate in the lexicon. But even if bad luck, personal issues, or creative wells simply drying up prematurely, one can almost guarantee that one of today’s many committed nerds will excavate the legacy.
Mystic Charm are notable for combining a hazy doom metal aesthetic with early non-Nordic black metal a-la Samael, and sanctifying this marriage of drab psychedelia and violent occultism with a seamlessness that warrants some scrutiny. Here, Personal Records have pieced together a re-recording of their final EP ‘Hell did Freeze Over’ originally released in 2001, this time with their original vocalist Rini Lipman resuming her post, including the full session from their debut EP ‘Lost Empire’, only two tracks of which made it on to the original EP released back in 1993.
And herein lies the subtle art of selecting material worthy of re-release. Whilst the fact that this material could be considered hitherto unseen by the public and thus worthy of exposure, the real virtue behind this compilation is the chance to reinject some interest in this artist, and the corridors lost to time that a younger extreme metal scene was attempting to travel down in the 1990s.
Mystic Charm are notable for presenting the listener with a bundle of paradoxes. Their austere presentation sounds endlessly refreshing, yet their brand of loose, doomy, occultist metal is opulent, dramatic, extravagant, rich in ways more understated than iterations of artistry usually associated with these labels. Technically speaking this is very basic metal. Despite ladling on the doom riffs the pacing never feels depressed. The riffs are elegantly simple yet endlessly memorable. The simplest idea is given greater currency in the context of this tightly crafted, swampy gothic tinged metal. Today we might call it blackened doom metal, but their approach is far more laid back and direct than many currently operating under that particular tag.
The alternative history this music charts is one where black metal was not so rigidly (and violently) defined during its maturation in Norway. One where black metal is more an aesthetic to be applied to other older and more fully formed streams of metal, enhancing its dramatic, dark, and theatrical aspects. Mystic Charm marry Saint Vitus with Celtic Frost in a manner more explicit than Samael, using black metal’s unapologetic histrionics to sanctify the union and bring it to life. The intuitive simplicity behind this creation is admirable, yet it also provokes a sense of misdirected nostalgia at the alternative history that could have played out if the wholesome directness of Mystic Charm’s approach was given greater currency over gauche window dressing.
Reincarnated: Of Boötes Void Death Spell
Out 3rd September on Inhuman Assault
Modest obscurity meets earthy comfort on the debut album from this Thai death/doom outfit. As with anything this genre puts out the Incantation spectre looms, but Reincarnated are going for a slightly more diversified package on ‘Of Boötes Void Death Spell’, engulfing brutality meets drab emptiness, as the droning chords extend well beyond their shelf life into eerie passages of sequenced melodicism of the most tentatively foreboding variety.
The production is relatively modest, but this works in the album’s favour. The guitar tone is all consuming, with a muddy inertia and overly zealous sustain allowing full articulation of the more choppy, fast paced riffs defined by their staccato transitions contrasted against lackadaisical tremolo strumming. Drums are solid yet a little supressed in the mix. The bass drum works as more of a presence to bolster the rhythmic bounce when required, and indeed the whole kit is more notable for its atmospheric pulsing than notable drum work, with fills and patterns following the lead of the riffs for the most part. Vocals are somewhere between the guttural and the mid-range, but are presented with just the right amount of reverb to layer up the atmosphere without totally swallowing the emphasis of each stanza.
Brutality blends with a strong melodic character, as basic riffs slowly coalesce into long form expressions of depressive brutality, augmented by simple yet effective guitar leads that both carry the momentum of the music forward and signal the arrival of a new passage, usually characterised by a tempo change into the slower reaches of doom. The latter aspect is used as material to build these pieces into worthy finales, justifying the wandering mid-paced Bolt Thrower-esque opening chunks of each track.
But Reincarnated prove to be adept at both stringing out an idea across longer pieces of music, whilst keeping the material refreshingly limited, leaving the listener with less not more than they need. Doom is used more for its ambient qualities than it is melodic, as riffs are placed on the rack and stretched out, but still largely following the structure of the faster passages. They eek out spaces of tension, darkness, and void, dwelling on these moments well past their shelf life to drive home the drama. ‘Of Boötes Void Death Spell’ is a worthy addition to the death/doom cannon, notable more for quietly developing its own character as distinct from the considerable legacy of this genre whilst still explicitly situating their style within its aggressively maintained traditions. Not an easy balance to strike, but Reincarnated manage it with ease.