Review: Valkyrie – Fear

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“When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.”

Metal is in a nostalgic place right now. There seems to be a broadening desire to look back at the greatest hits of the ’70s and ’80s and show off our skills at seamless mimicry. The New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal is in full swing and may have already hit its peak, and other genres like stoner doom are practically living fossils, evolution stunted and relegated to repetition, like Tony Iommi coughing on a loop at the start of “Sweet Leaf.” Our record collections become scrapbooks for movements we were mostly never alive for, memories of musical moments we never got to experience for real. It is somewhat rarer to find a band that seems to be searching for new approaches left behind by history, never realized because nobody managed to stitch them together in quite that way, and that’s why I’m thankful for guys like Valkyrie and their new full-length record, Fear.

The sound on this record is plainly cut from some kind of old-school cloth, but wisely avoids over-reliance on the standard-bearers of metal history. You can actually catch the echoes of myriad metal-adjacent influences all throughout Fear, from guys like Yes and Rainbow, and the music manages, paradoxically, to sound several notches heavier than any of them while still not quite gaining admittance into the established throwback genres of NWOTHM or psychedelic Sabbath worship. And really, Valkyrie isn’t exactly an easy fit for either of those mostly cookie-cutter styles, either. Their work keeps its own mellow pace and warm composition, shirking both traditional metal’s urgency and doom metal’s sluggishness.

As usual, the rhythm section is really controlling the underlying mood. The bass nails down a deliberate, precise pocket groove, keeping the straightforward riffs lively with some measured flourishes. The drums are similarly flavorful and snappy, working in fills and variations throughout repeated phrases. This means the riffs and rhythms are a more approachable kind of progressive, hewing close to the basics but with some extra spice to avoid monotony. The rhythm guitars, for their part, also have a few tricks to pull out, switching out distortion for muted reverb, and steady palm-muted chords for flurries of folksy strumming (like in the midpoint break of Afraid To Live) without sacrificing their outgoing, adventurous mood.

By far, though, Fear‘s strongest element is the deft lead guitar work, an inviting tapestry of melodic hooks and harmonies. Peter Adams (formerly of Baroness) and his brother Jake have plenty of old-school inspirations but twist them expertly into fresh ideas blooming with life. With no shortage of classic prog-rock finesse and bluesy articulation, the sonic palette of this record is like a garden of flowers and ferns. The solos emerge from extended, expressive lead passages so organically they almost seem like interwoven strands of ivy on a worn stone wall. The outro of “Afraid To Live” seems to sprout new musical motifs as it jams on and on, eventually culminating in a crisp harmonized lick, singled out from the rhythm, like the hallowed spirit of Iron Maiden scrawling its signature on the end. The other long player, “Fear And Sacrifice,” hooks you with an incredible series of arpeggiated pulloffs that slide together like rivulets around smooth-worn stones in a creekbed.

It seems a little unfair, then, to say that the main weakness of this album is that it feels a touch monotonous at times. There’s so much artistry in the leads and a restrained inventiveness to the riffs, plus plenty more expressiveness in the drums and bass. The arrangements, however, are where the album loses some of its shimmer. The songs have the hypnotic power to take you on a scenic ride, showing off their lush melodic sensibilities, but they don’t often switch gears, making a lot of the compositions start to blur together. It’s also noticeable that about half of the tracks end on extended solos, leaving their best hooks behind in the first half of the song.

It’s odd that an album with such a clear surplus of ideas has a hard time making some of them stand out. The vocals are also a contributor here, being a little too conventional and not having any great choruses or spotlight moments that might give some passages more identity. Still, it’s less of a fatal flaw and more of a missed opportunity. Two tracks do bring a moody change of pace, offering a nice contrast to the rest of the record. On the excellent closer, “Exasperator,” all the instruments get to space out from each other, drifting together in nocturnal serenity until slumber overtakes them. “Brings You Down” similarly dials down the intensity, but only gets to take it slow for the first half before waking back up into the expected long soloing outro. With some more dynamic compositions like those scattered between the slabs of groovy goodness, or even ordered to rise and fall in intensity from start to finish, you’d probably have a more memorable record on first listen.

When taking the retrospective approach to art, it seems like there must be a limit on innovation. How much new material can really be squeezed out of such a dry well? But when taken as a chance to explore the few blank spots on the historical map, throwback bands can achieve a new sort of apex: simulacra, a copy with no original, a piece that must be of a certain time and place because it so perfectly fits it, but can’t be found in any records nor any memories thereof. Fear is not a perfect record, but Valkyrie really has found a way to this higher plane of retro-band nirvana. Listening to this record is like digging through your old photo album and finding snapshots from a trip you’re certain you never went on. But it makes you want to go back there anyway.

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