December Roundup: The Post-Viking Thrash Edition
The latest, and for some, greatest, from Hjelvik, Solstafir, Cult of Fire and Sodom.
Hjelvik – Welcome to Hel
In 2018, Erlend Hjelvik decided to step down from his podium in Kvelertak. The band hired Ivar Nikolaisen (of The Good, The Bad & The Zugly, who’ve made a couple of appearances on these pages) to take his place, pruned their influences and released an album which, though fairly good, was not quite as outrageously fun, memorable or effective as their previous three. My eyes then turned towards Hjelvik, in great anticipation of what he would come up with. Welcome to Hel answers that question with great familiarity, but not necessarily the kind of familiarity one might have expected of it.
To fulfill his vision and songwriting, Hjelvik summoned Rob Steinway from Skelator, Kevin Foley of Abbath and Alexis Liu, briefly Foley’s mate in Benighted. The language has mostly turned to English and the previously flirted with Nordic mythology the main source of lyrical inspiration. The concept is sound, the band skilled and several songs betray Hjelvik’s past without ever settling for a mere rehash. “Helgrinda” is based on a very typical Kvelertak beat & riff, but the lead guitar in its heroic melodicism reaches for Faeroan shires. The group’s sound is easily recognizable, consistent and easily characterized as their own. Outwardly everything is perfectly well, but the songwriting itself does leave something to be desired.
Besides Erlend’s recognizable bark, Hjelvik’s strongest characteristic is the constant guitar melodies very strongly reminiscent of Týr. So much so that “a more rocking Týr, stripped of their progness and with flashes of Kvelertak” sums up Hjelvik a little too thoroughly. It makes for good beer drinking music, better this than the average folk metal songs about beer, vodka & (Tila) tequila, but there’s nothing particularly gripping on Welcome to Hel. A working, but not thrilling, vision from a man who probably nabbed a deal with NB as much for his past as for his current musical output. Kvelertak made three great records with Erlend, but neither has yet managed to convince on their own. The guest spot in “Necromance” is cool though.
2.5 / 5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Solstafir – Endless Twilight of Codependent Love
Over the years Sólstafir has carved themselves a unique sound. A sound so recognizable it has come to dominate them, over even their songwriting. A sound so recognizable you’d be fooled to think they’re constantly playing it much safer than they are, because it’s not always easy to pick out the differences from what sounds uniquely like themselves, just as their previous release (at almost any given time) did. In this way they are not entirely different from Motörhead, known for making the same album over and over again, despite their dabbling in acoustic ballads, cello dirges, proto-industrial and doom metal. But it’s not wrong to call either a prisoner of their own sound, so encompassed their discographies are in them, that even the songs which didn’t follow them were eventually swallowed by them.
This rings truer than ever before on Endless Twilight of Codependent Love. Its opener “Akkeri” features both blast beats and guitar harmonies, though executed in the same sluggish manner Sólstafir drags most of their material through, “Drýsill” is a tribute to ’80s heavy metal, right down to its name taken from an Icelandic representative of the style and yet it comes off as a gloomy, lingering, one-riff song even after its original form as an organ-led dirge was abandoned, the tuning raised and a tapping riff added as an additional hook.
Endless Twilight… is one of the most consistent albums Sólstafir has ever put out, but they struggle to make a strength out of it. Instead, much of the album blurs together, despite these moments that should set the songs apart from each other and nothing rises to work as an anchor, a song that would not necessarily be the best from the album, but that would act as something to draw listeners into the album’s world. Svartir Sandar had “Fjara”, a ballad that stood stylistically apart from the rest, Ottá had its title track and the banjo riff, even Berdreyminn had “Ísafold” and “Bláfjall”, the drumming which highlighted the differences between the old and the new drummer’s styles and the electronic influences, and the bass solo of the former pushed them apart from the rest of the album and the catalog. Endless Twilight… has many of these moments, although fewer on the latter half, but none of them does what they ought to, none of them rise above, none of them really grip.
Perhaps it is that Sólstafir does write different songs, from different sources of inspiration, but all of them defer to the same sound and unlike, say, Leprous, the Icelanders have never managed to use their various parts to create an actually different album. The songs are different, but the album remains the same. And despite the fact that I enjoy Endless Twilight… greatly every time I put it on, I don’t even want to think about it in the time between. Though on some level I like it, on another I find it the least interesting thing Sólstafir has recorded, and cannot help but wonder if I only enjoy it because I enjoy their sound and not because of itself.
2/5 Flaming toilets ov Hell
Cult of Fire – Moksha
Moksha is the second half of the double album, the first of which, Nirvana, made an appearance here some time ago. The distinction between the two is largely thematic, but not entirely without musical differences as well. Though the production is as clear and smooth here as it was on Nirvana, the latter took the post-black influence Cult of Fire had to a degree always carried with them further than before, with some of the prettiest material they’ve released. While Moksha isn’t as aggressive as the untitled EP that preceded the two either, its riffing is based less purely on long chains of tremolo-picked melodies, and the fingers remain more active on the fretboard. Both use keyboards mainly as a tool to create a thicker atmosphere, mostly relegated to the background, but even when Moksha briefly places them in the fore of the mix, they still remain as long chords, whereas Nirvana sometimes gave them an opening to carry the lead melody. Moksha also still makes some use of the the Indian influences and instruments found on their sophomore and could serve as a follow-up to that album, whereas Nirvana could be seen taking the ideas introduced on Life, Sex and Death EP further. Of the two, Moksha is the one I haven’t been coming back to so much, but despite its less gripping nature, it might be the one that withstands the test of time better.
3.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Sodom – Genesis XIX
It’s been a long time since Sodom was founded in a small industrial town. Since then, they’ve written their names in (thrash) metal history, released a handful of unquestionable classics, a few underrated gems and a couple of weaker albums as well. Their mid-to-late ’90s phase is much better than usually given credit for, though Get What You Deserve and ‘Til Death Do Us Unite suffer from terrible cover art, the powerful Code Red took hold of the flame again, and the following M-16 is not heralded as a modern classic for nothing.
Following this streak though, they did release a couple of duds, though in a manner different to the lackluster early ’90s output. The mid-tempo Sodom of M-16 had also become very melodic, and found itself unable to strike true. It’s an outright crime how good In War and Pieces‘ cover art is, against the poor music it contains. But then again, Epitome of Torture did show that it was not necessarily the increased love of melody that had stripped Sodom of their strength, and it continues to make occasional rounds in my player, whereas its forceful, dry and blunt follow-up, Decision Day, hailed as a half-way return to their older sound hasn’t appeared on it once since the initial excitement.
Tom Angelripper seems to have though along the same lines, and drawn his own conclusions, leading into the unceremonious firing of every other member in the band, raising no small amount of bad blood. He hired the former Desaster/Asphyx skinsman Stefan Hüskens Dü and a young Yorck Segatz on guitars, while deciding to refashion the band into a quartet featuring on second guitar the returning Frank Blackfire from their classic days. And what can I say, the resulting EP, Partisan, featured the best Sodom material in years, paling none in comparison to their classics. While the following year’s Out of the Frontline Trench couldn’t compete with its predecessor it was no slouch either, and even though they wouldn’t play a single song from either release when I saw them (remember live shows?), which worried me a bit, often being a mark of an undesired attitude towards the new and/or upcoming material, I remained hopeful. Then Hüskens was forced to step down due to work and scheduling difficulties and the band introduced Toni Merkel, known to Blackfire from his solo album half a decade back, as their drummer.
I remained cautiously excited but when the first single “Sodom & Gomorrah” turned out to flirt with their pre-Blackfire era, I might have let out a little happy tinkle. Of course, someone capable of keeping things in his head for more than 4.68 minutes might have recalled that Out of the Frontline Trench had already opened with a shorter version of Genesis XIX‘s title track, and so remembered that by no means would the entire album be filled with cuts of its ilk. But though not a return to the MÄHINÄNGS of the first wave, and as I would be among the first to tell you, not without its flaws, Genesis XIX does stand proud among Sodom’s finest albums.
At 54 minutes, a little trimming wouldn’t have hurt Genesis XIX, though there’s surprisingly little room for it, and perhaps more surprisingly, though there are two 7+ minute songs on the album, neither of these are songs that actually call for it. Good proof, I should say, that the optimal album length is partially a myth perpetuated by convention, vinyl huffers and lackluster arranging skills. I’d go so far as to underline both as some of the albums highlighting moments, the title track running on instantly gripping Persecution Mania-styled riffs, followed by a calmer break before a shredding solo and a tense doom section, while “The Harpooner” grows from a tenser still doom riff and constantly raises the pace. Songs like these also underline the lack of necessity for predominantly slow songs, and though “Occult Perpetrator’s” mid-tempo stomp is kind of welcome towards the end of the record, I find it unnecessary and plodding. Likewise, “Euthanasia”, undoubtedly written to be a crowd pleaser in the live set, is little more than a tepid, half-baked piece of white bread for a snack, and not even the American kind that has more fucking sugar than flour, but an actual bread, disguised by its fast pace.
Other highlights include the particularly vitriolic one-two punch of “Nicht Mehr Mein Land” and “Glock ‘n’ Roll”—how delightful to run into an album with a strong midriff, wouldn’t you agree—and the closing duo of “Indoctrination’s” metalpunk and the adrenaline-fueled thrash of “Friendly Fire”. The sharp and heavy guitars, pierced by Angelripper’s distorted bass and screams would make for a perfect sound too, if it wasn’t for the drums (just a tad too clean), which gives them an occasional plastic-ish ping. But take out “Occult Perpetrator” and “Euthanasia”, preferably the intro, “Blind Superstition” too, it’s apparently a riff they used to toy around with in soundchecks back in the ’80s, but never made anything with. It’s not a great riff, and it’s all there is for about a minute, but sink it into the mid-section of a decent song and have it forfeit its place on Genesis XIX, and you would have had a bit more compact, a leaner and meaner album with the makings of the next obligatory EP in your back pocket.
3.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell