Review: HulderVerses in Oath

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Sounds for the tail-end of winter.

I had not hitherto been hip to the Hulder hype; 2021’s debut LP Godslastering: Hymns of a Forlorn Peasantry came and went without making much of a splash in this here bowl and thus left my particular puddle largely unperturbed, no doubt partly due to the unfortunate choice of distributor. Those ties were soon severed, yet despite coming via Toilet darlings 20 Buck Spin, follow-up EP The Eternal Fanfare stayed off my radar as well.

Having now caught up on Hulder’s output and what was said about it, I agree with the many rave reviews attesting her a great talent for capturing the sound of classic ’90s black metal, but I struggle to make out the individual note and the freshness she supposedly lends this pastiche. Certainly, neither effort feels all too beholden to the sonic minimalism of the era that inspired them, so they can be considered an update to the formula in that regard. In terms of the music itself though, I found it hard to identify what, if anything, was different from the originals. Will Verses in Oath make me see the (un)light?

Continuing a trend begun on The Eternal Fanfare, the new full-length features a sound that looks more to the wider palette of the mid- to late ’90s rather than the treble-heavy harshness of the earlier second wave, which seemed to be what Godslastering was shooting for. The lower register of the guitars makes for a sound that almost feels suited for death metal, and the vocals—here returning to full form after feeling a bit weak on the EP—seem to follow suit with increased gruffness. Of course, the result remains firmly in the realm of black metal, yet together with the third element of the sound, I occasionally felt reminded of an album that slightly preceded the big black metal revolution.

That third element is the synths, no less integral here than in the preceding material, albeit now also favoring the low end a bit more, keeping in line with the rest—blending in, as it were, because they now stand on their own less frequently and serve to underpin the overarching compositions more consistently. Together with their changed sound, this underlines the album’s turn away from the pastoral lightness that Godslastering projected in its overall presentation and its folk and ambient elements.

Verses in Oath instead dabbles more in dark, dank dungeons underneath mighty castles. The resulting vibe brings to mind Satyricon or mid-era Dimmu Borgir, but in conjunction with the overall more deathlike sound, the first connection I made was to Darkthrone‘s Soulside Journey, where the sparse uses of synths were always welcome splotches of just the kind of foreboding atmosphere I happen to be an absolute sucker for. Hearing more of it here is a delight, especially since it sounds a lot less goofy than it did in 1991. Again, that’s not to say that the material could ever be mistaken for death metal, but it’s safe to say that this mood is my favorite aspect of the album.

So much for the sound. What of the songs? After an uneventful intro, “Boughs Ablaze” forcefully sets the stage, showcasing everything I described above before fading out with some acoustic guitar. This nicely leads into the slower start of “Hearken the End,” which is the longest on the record but knows how to fill its duration with interesting tempo changes, great synth lines, and again, a finale featuring classical guitar. The title track is another more straightforward banger, and then we hit a bit of an odd lull with two back-to-back interludes. While “An Offering” presents itself, in name, as a thematic counterpart to intro track “An Elegy” and proves quite engaging, the purpose of “Lamentation,” a scratchy and warbly minute-long sample of operatic singing, eludes me.

The second half is content to focus on what worked so far, and here’s where things start to blur. “Cast Into the Well of Remembrance” resembles “Hearken the End” in structure, while “Vessel of Suffering” feels pretty indistinct from tracks 2 and 4. “Enchanted Steel” manages to make its presence felt more emphatically by stretching the upper end of the album’s brutality scale a bit; it’s the shortest track and plows through its 3 and a half minutes more recklessly than any other. “Veil of Penitence” ends the album unceremoniously, without really presenting anything new or resembling a climax.

So where does that leave us? Sonically, I love it, much more so than previous efforts. Those synths are great, and the glum atmosphere is on point. Musically, I could still take it or leave it. As with everything before, I’m missing some highlights, memorability, and individuality. The album achieves what it seems Hulder was going for, but I kinda wish she’d set her sights a little higher. That said, far worse imitators abound, so if you’ve got a hankering for that particular ’90s atmosphere, this is among your best bets. Even the staunchest black metal defenders would be hard pressed to call it anything but trve.

3/5 Stygian Vessels Spewing Forth the Flames ov Hell

Verses in Oath will be out on February 9 via 20 Buck Spin. Pre-order here.

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