Review: Vahrzaw – In the Shallows of a Starlit Lake

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Objects in the rear view mirror.

Vahrzaw’s In the Shallows is, by the Australian trio’s own admission, heavily indebted to ’90s black metal. They explicitly cite Emperor, Satyricon, and several of their contemporaries as influences. As a kind of “best of” of that scene, the album competently strikes a balance between all-out grim, cold rage and quieter moments where the synths take center stage, an acoustic guitar pops up, or spoken word passages lay on an ominous atmosphere. Pretty much every staple of both the more straightforward acts like Gorgoroth and the aformentioned acts’ more atmospheric and synth-driven styles are present throughout.

The ends of this spectrum are perhaps best exemplified by the brutal rager “Six Verses” on one side and the title track’s more measured and complex composition on the other, although that doesn’t mean that the latter is free of blast beats or that the former doesn’t prominently feature the synths. Harsh mountainsides and gloomy forests filled with an eerie light exist side by side all throughout the record and are presented with a production that’s adequately raw (“recorded and somewhat mixed at Phlegming Studio,” the liner notes say), yet doesn’t obscure any of the details.

As with any record that so explicitly pledges allegiance to the past, the question of originality looms over the listening experience. Is there anything that Shallows does differently or—gasp!—better than the older boys it looks up to?

I think the big benefit that Vahrzaw have is that of hindsight. Surveying the era with a wider lense than the bands back then could or were willing to, they’re able to skip trial-and-error phases, focus on what works, and stitch together an almost all-encompassing image of the scene that offers a wider variety than any one of the original acts. However, the album remains at that level, rarely setting out to offer anything beyond that familiar image, never transforming the elements into something new. To be fair, it very expressly does not want to do that, and the way in which it pays tribute shows that Vahrzaw know their stuff and have the chops to pull it off. Were this a debut record, I’d be very impressed, and very impatient to see how the band inject their own flavour into the mix in the future.

Alas, as you may know (or remember from previous posts), this is not Vahrzaw’s debut. Far from it—the band are celebrating their 30th year of existence with this release. For this occasion, they’ve decided to return to their black metal roots that reach back to—wouldn’t you know it—the early ’90s. I haven’t heard the band’s earliest stuff, but looking at the histories of their role models, it’s easy to see that almost all of them pissed off a bunch of people at some point by straying away from “pure” black metal (and seeing the way Vahrzaw phrase it—”Minimal fuss. Maximum speed. What it should have always been.“—they may well have been among those people). It’s therefore not hard to imagine that there are old school fans out there rejoicing about where the band returned to, but I think it’s worth noting where they returned from.

Vahrzaw’s 2021 outing is an altogether different beast from Shallows. The mix of black and death metal that the band had been honing over the course of several records reached something quite close to perfection here. The approach is comparable at a base level; the album takes elements from a range of styles and deftly combines them. However, while constituent parts are still readily identifiable, the band is sampling from a much larger pool here, taking in the full breadth of each subgenre’s bandwidth. Plodding OSDM flows into blast beats and tremolos, a dissonant section is broken up by a flamboyant guitar solo, melodeath lives in harmony with blackened thrash (of which, by the way, “Vultures” is an absolute masterclass). The album takes that extra step and congeals its influences into something with its own identity, and the result is so explosive and engaging that I’m not even mad at the wind-up and cooldown phases that bookend the experience.

In the face of the sheer excellence of Trembling Voices, I can’t help but see Shallows as a regression, and wonder what it might mean for Vahrzaw’s future. While I’m fairly certain that it’s a one-off anniversary experiment, there’s also the chance that they feel like they’ve done all they can with their previous style and won’t return to it. Or maybe they’ll reach some kind of happy medium—if anyone is able to combine these disparate albums into one, it’s probably them.

As for my rating, I’m at a bit of a loss now. I suppose I could conclude that both albums are good in very different ways, but that would be a bit too easy, wouldn’t it? No, I have to be more exact, so I’ll propose that in a world where the predecessor did not exist, Shallows would earn a solid 3. Since that’s not what reality looks like, we arrive at

2 out ov 5 Flaming Toilets plus one that only exists if you subscribe to Multiverse theory

In the Shallows of a Starlit Lake is out now via Bitter Loss Records.

The Trembling Voices of Conquered Men can be found on Transcending Obscurity.

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