Vassafor – To the Death
The black death warmachine leaves few survivors.
Thundering forth from the underbelly of the world, Vassafor built up a name for themselves in the gritty tunnel networks of demo trading and black death obscurity with their origins dating back to the tumultuous year of 1994 in extreme metal. While they would only have a few demos between that time and the year of their studio debut in 2012, they’d made a name for themselves and had lasted long enough to become one of the first practitioners of a murky style of extremity that had been gaining popularity in the wake of bands like Incantation, Portal, Grave Miasma, Impetuous Ritual, and Profanatica. While they had many similarities with those bands and their numerous offspring however were quite a bit more eclectic in many ways, coming from a background more inundated in black metal. Obsidian Codex did show some of their true potential hidden behind its incredibly reverb-heavy, echoing, and at times annoyingly distant production but after a shorter wait of 5 years, Malediction arrived. Displaying a more condensed sound, it took the abstract murk of their debut and cut out much of the fat while still keeping that colossal chasm-filling sound albeit in a refreshingly direct and militant manner. A thankfully even shorter wait later and To The Death continues this trend, upping the song and album length yet showcasing New Zealand’s most monstrous finding a newfound clarity in this barbed-wire clad statement to dreadful savagery.
While the band’s image, cover art, and musical style might scream cryptic and esoteric, in reality this is actually the most straightforward thing Vassafor has released to date. There are two main features of this album. The first is that aside from a short two-minute interlude, every track here is pretty long whether it’s 6 minutes or 17 and unsurprisingly there’s a lot crammed into each one. The second is that there are enough riffs in some of these songs to fill out entire discographies of lesser bands. You can put on almost any song, fast forward to almost anywhere, and lose yourself in a tornado of riffing that draws from all across the spectrums of death and black metal. While it is very complex, it’s not necessarily abstract or obtuse—you basically get a fuck ton of riffs arranged one after the other and they all are to put it simply, pretty damn heavy. It’s a very satisfying album, the equivalent of a big hearty rare stake with mashed potatoes, gravy, and pepper. There’s no real weird gimmick or sudden gotcha curveballs; Vassafor’s main sticking point is that they know their way around the riff like Lemmy does with groupies and even better, they can make it compelling for song lengths stretching past the 10 minute mark. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that’s basically it. Review done. Unfortunately this is a Toilet ov Hell review so rather than getting high and passing out as this album blares in my room I have to write a bit more.
Vassafor’s sound, though far from stereotypically progressive beyond having a lot of moving parts and really long songs, is far more diverse than you’d expect. Their sound has always liberally borrowed from and recontextualized ideas from a very wide array of sources, whether it’s war metal’s stampeding barbarity, the now familiar lo-fi malevolence of second wave Norwegian black metal, the doomy semi-heavy metal influenced swampiness of Greek black metal, and so on. Darkthrone, Mayhem, Mortuary Drape, Necromantia, Morbid Angel, Beherit, Blasphemy—their gritty and demo-style production might obscure a lot of things to an untrained ear but they proudly bear the grim signs of reverence towards a varied heritage of classic extremity. In spite of that, it never really becomes a mere tribute to those bands. Their riffing utilizes a lot of lengthier phrases frequently laced or overlaid with shimmering melodies, using a modern tendency to emphasize hypnotic tremolo action but carefully interspersing that with moments of more sharply defined riffing. The end result is like a seismometer reading of some great deep-sea tectonic rumbling, maintaining a steady sense of lava-like flow but peaking and spiking at moments while modulating it with more slow-burn ambience and climbing tension. Epic in scope but grounded in the trenches-tough riffing from the primordial soup of the genre, Vassafor makes it clear you can have big and brainy ideas and still deliver them with the same pure id-mongering evocative nature that made many of us fall in love with metal in our youths without any sense of conflict between these two parts. It’s rooted in a lot of familiar elements but its far-ranging stretching riffs and winding structures give it a sense of insidious, deliberate planning that reinterprets and recontextualizes “old school” ideas in a decidedly contemporary form. You could argue this is “progressive” not so much in terms of raw technicality or experimentation but moreso of how they’ve found a distinct way to get a lot more mileage out of established ideas with a voice that is distinctly their own.
Speaking of structures, this album borders on a Suffocation or even Liers in Wait level of HOLY FUCK I LOST COUNT OF THE AMOUNT OF RIFFS AT LIKE 500 OR SOMETHING. Every song here is essentially made of multiple strings of riffs tied together forming very wide, expansive structures with the absurd amount you would normally expect from bands like the two previously listed ones. While this is considerably less high tech, the type of craftsmanship on a conceptual level isn’t alien either. Many “cavernous” and “ritualistic” bands do tend to be fairly repetitive whether it’s in the sense of repeating established sections or using samey-sounding riffs. Vassafor would fall into the latter at first but rather than using semi-repetition to simply build up mood, a lot of their songcraft is focused around a sense of growing variation communicated through gradually warping a few core ideas. They use the cavernous tendency for riffs to blur into one another but vary them with enough changes in melody, phrasing, tempo, and general technique that they inhabit a gray zone between the uncharted and the familiar. Some of this is more subdued and implicit in how it communicates these ideas, others more immediately enthralling or vivid, shifting between lengthier tremolo phrasing and sudden bursts of unexpectedly flashy soloing among others and creating a winding series of pathways through a pitch-black maze. The songs at heart don’t feel too hard to follow beyond the impressive attention span, taking the familiar and dragging it into shadowy domains playing all kinds of nasty tricks on a fervent imagination. In this way, they create atmosphere not just through solid knowledge of techniques but also molding them into a constantly developing theater of moods and themes that paints a vivid, monstrous picture from the most depraved and degrading parts of the human experience.
Like a fire in the wilderness swelling into a destructive conflagration, Vassafor has achieved a peak level of riffing intensity and architectural grandeur eclipsing all prior work. Over two decades worth of ceaseless toiling in the depths below have refined their formula to exist beyond a need for obscurity and obtuseness, discarding the murk and vagueness of their past for an unparalleled sense of steely-eyed violence. While some of the raw mysticism might be gone, the trade-off in exchange for unmatched destructive firepower and master-crafted songcraft reveals and fulfills the promise of their prior material. Vassafor pulls no punches, plays no tricks, and hides no secrets beyond a wormhole of all-enveloping, hungrily consuming horror ever-expanding. Its main audience will be for fans of the grimier, uglier, doomier realm of black metal as well as the forms of death metal frequently intersecting with that domain but its morbid majesty isn’t without appeal to fans of the second wave’s various descendants either. This has become not only my favourite Vassafor album but one of my current top 15 for the black metal genre and it’s a refreshing bridge between the old school and the new reality black metal finds itself in. Hail and annihilate.
You can purchase and listen to the album on Vassafor’s official bandcamp.
4.5 out of 5 chasmic toilets.