Beats and yelling from: SkyThala, Ofdrykkja, Förgjord

SkyThala: Boreal Despair
Out 18th November on I, Voidhanger Records

Let’s be right about this, ‘Boreal Despair’, the debut full length from SkyThala, is a Weird album. The capitalisation is deliberate, because SkyThala’s quirks are entirely deliberate. This is a premeditated attempt to turn black metal conventions on their head, frustrating our expectations in the process. But there’s an odd bombast to the idiosyncratic way in which this outfit throw out the garden variety script. They do this not through a convoluted exercise in dissonance or a collision of unconventional instrumentation. Timbre wise ‘Boreal Despair’ holds few surprises as far as black metal is concerned, tinny drums, trebly guitars, light synths, piercing howls of despair.

It is rather through their odd mix of key, phrasing, and pacing that SkyThala manage to subvert the traditional black metal framework. But the barrage of the Weird is not constant. The album toys with solid segments of rather conventional Nordic style black metal, as if to lull the listener into a false sense of security – or to make them feel at ease in their musical prejudices – before delivering an outrageously jaunty major key lick, a neoclassical guitar interlude, or an extended pageant of horns and brass that breaks down the enraged momentum of the music’s extreme metal DNA.

Over time this develops into a tense push and pull between sinister triumphalism and exhilarating yet undeniably eerie black metal. But more importantly, ‘Boreal Despair’ is totally at ease with itself. The music itself is likely to pose as odder for those actually well versed in black metal convention. This is purely a function of our own pre-programmed conceptions of what this genre should sound like in the particular textural permutation than SkyThala are working within, which is ultimately just a set of arbitrary musical conventions based on the culminative build up of historical progression.

This album does not exist simply to smash stylistic boundaries, nor for any overtly avant-garde end. Rather, it starts from its own premise, one totally distinct from the white noise of extreme metal’s well documented genre politics. If absorbed free of the fanfare of comparative listening it becomes clear that SkyThala are completely embroiled in their own Weird sound world, one that does occasionally overlap with our own, but then only coincidentally. What follows is a tense, unpredictable, yet oddly fluid and cohesive experience of ambiguous, unfolding tonal depictions that flow and fold into new and utterly novel forms with clear referents of departure and unity with the contemporary picture that surrounds it. 

Ofdrykkja: After the Storm
Out 25th November on AOP Records

“Anyway, I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow.”

Whitnail’s descanting on Russian literature could easily be transposed onto contemporary Swedish depressive metal. But whilst the laboured melancholia seeping through these albums may be all too predictable, the response it provokes in its more attuned audience is not reliably one of loathing.

Having started life as a bizarre post punk, emo, depressive rock outfit in the early 2010s, Ofdrykkja have been gradually flirting with neofolk and loose ambience ever since. Their latest offering ‘After the Storm’ is therefore a light, breezy, sparse offering of gentle acoustic guitars, rich vocalisations, and light percussion. This shedding of harsh textures is welcome, and seems to suit where this project always intended to end up since day one.

The instrumentation across this album is explicitly minimalist, with the guitars covered in soft reverb, allowing each note to reverberate into ambience, providing a welcome backdrop of soothing, open spaces. Vocals are therefore left to make up the lead instrumentation, positioning themselves as either lyrical and melodious or pivoting on simple yet effective chanting and humming, and reliably delivered in layered ensemble form, further evoking images of sombre reflections around the campfire.

A rich yet understated backing of strings spreads its wings as the album progresses, as does a more directly rockist percussion by the time ‘The Cleansing’ rolls around toward the back end of ‘After the Storm’. What sounds like cellos and violas gradually work their way into the foreground, delivering plaintive folk melodies that serve to carry the music’s latent spiritualism to the foreground. All is fluid and linear, as each line and passage smoothly flows into one another with a degree of understated efficiency that serves the music’s meditative purposes well. A spell which is only mildly broken by the laboured, depressive poetry of the closing number ‘Beyond the Belt of Orion’, which considerably overstays its welcome.

The fragility and subtlety of these pieces also allows Ofdrykkja a certain degree of wiggle room when it comes to sentimentalisations that would not be afforded to more elaborate efforts. Despite its minor shortcomings, no one could accuse this album of over indulgence. Instead, the gentle lamentations that permeate across this pleasingly brief album present as entirely sincere and without pretension. The austere aesthetic gives the music a degree of purity bordering on naivety that makes for a refreshing break for any weary metalhead steeped in new releases choking on their own bombast.

Förgjord: Ruumissaarna Pt. 1
Out 25th November on Werewolf

Mainstays in obscurantist black metal, Finland’s Förgjord embark on the first entry in a trilogy entitled ‘Ruumissaarna’, roughly translated as ‘sermon of the deceased’. The first of which is a solid continuation of their lo-fi yet melodically driven black metal, indulging in fraught dramatic stakes, galloping speed thrills, cacophonous crescendos reaching for a sense of the epic, and of drab lamentations.

It’s as if Förgjord are reaching for a more symphonic iteration of black metal, yet are insistent on encasing this in their four-track bunker of trebly guitars, supressed metronomic drums, and vocal static. The effect is curious. It is surprisingly rare to come across this degree of nuance within black metal of such an explicitly DIY colouring. The riffs traverse styles with ease, untroubled in their explorations of a variety of themes and mood colourings. There is even a sprinkling of keyboard accompaniment at certain points, albeit kept obscure and harsh enough to smoothly integrate into the album’s marked aesthetic.

‘Ruumissaarna Pt. 1’ is in part a message to the world that out and proud lo-fi black metal is far from creatively bankrupt. Förgjord have really taken the time to develop a riff philosophy across these tracks, one as reflective and subtle as it is exhilarating and life affirming. Their style is no doubt a highly traditional one, offering rich layers of tremolo picked riffs working out elongated threnodies pivoting on suspended cadences. These are subsequently collided against a supressed rhythm section offering an atonal barrage or staccato punk riffs, serving as a perfect contrast between grounded realism and fantastical yearning.  

Förgjord have also expended considerable effort in pacing out this album to deliver a plethora of effective contrasts and continuities. Despite the downbeat thematic material, the tone is surprisingly triumphalist. This is contrasted with elements of danger and chaos deployed to supplement the explicitly mournful aspects of this music. Each theme is well balanced against its antagonist, resulting in a colourful interplay of competing emotive outputs. It is also impossible to ignore rhythm as an important factor here, as drums offer a diverse array of ideas to churn the music into constant, active motion, from loose swing patterns to energetic fills, stop-start exchanges with the guitars and bouncy punk beats to offset the usual cacophony of blast-beats.

Despite everything, ‘Ruumissaarna Pt. 1’ comes across as a rather playful and, dare we say it, fun album to listen to. It is endlessly refreshing to see some honestly creative ideas that are nevertheless contained within an explicitly purist setting; novelty free of its crutches. It is rife with activity, motion, themes, and ideas, all the while remaining encased within a decidedly cold, sorrowful exoskeleton of crisp, cold black metal.

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