Way back in 2011 I was pleasantly surprised by a little known Ukrainian blackened death act called Balfor. So much so that I wrote a Things You Might Have Missed for their sophomore outing Barbaric Blood. Their highly effective fusion of Immortal-riffs and In Flames guitar virtuosity really got to me and though it wasn’t very original, it left me looking forward to hearing more from them. It took over five years for them to resurface and they do so with a radically different line up with only founder Thorgeir Berserk returning, but Black Serpent Rising is finally here. The band now features members of better known Ukrainian acts like Khors and Raventale, and though the core sound is essentially the same, they’ve lessened the rawness and broadened the scope of the music into something much more grandiose and epic, incorporating clean singing, female vocals and a host of influences from Viking and battle metal. The result is impressive and definitely more original, with attention-grabbing moments and impressive musicianship throughout. Maybe long layoffs and massive line up shuffles aren’t always the kiss of death after all.
Opener “Serpents of the Black Sun” wastes no time establishing the band’s bona fides, attacking first with battle-ready Amon Amarth riffing before dropping cold trem-assaults recalling the glory days of Dissection. Thorgeir’s vocals sit in the sweet spot between blackened rasp and a deathly roar and they’re a treat. So is the surprisingly beautiful solo-work from new axe, Astaroth (Raventale), the melodicism of which adds a layer of class and grandeur to the proceedings. “Unbounded Wrath of Venom” has a big, epic feel throughout and effectively incorporates female chanting akin to the better Eluveitie material, while “Heralds of the Fall” mixes a Dimmu Borgir-esque sense of pomp and drama with forlorn harmonies akin to Insomnium and rounds the whole thing out with some unexpectedly impactful clean singing. This singing reappears in “Among the Fallen Ones,” also to good effect.
What jumps out is how well the songs shift and evolve, moving through multiple moods and influences without feeling slapdash or disjointed. Not every song attempts to straddle so many genres, with “Dawn of Savage” being a pretty normal and in-your-face black metal tune, but they all impress with professionalism and interesting musical choices. There are no off moments and at a tight 44 minutes, the album blasts by quickly. The mix is quite good, sounding much richer than the DR6 would suggest.
Sole remaining member Thorgeir is a solid vocalist and though he isn’t as raw here as on Barbaric Blood he still sounds plenty forceful. He also sounds less like Abbath than in the past, which moves the band away from charges of Immortal worship. The key ingredient here is the guitar-work, which is excellent. Astaroth and Thorgeir churn out impressive riffs and stunning solos at an impressive rate and their playing makes the material classy, but much of it has a Alpha-male, battle-metal energy that gets the blood pumping despite the melodic elements. The band is clearly talented and at times the material reminds me of the better Khors releases (go check out Return to Abandoned, dammit!).
I’d pretty much written off Balfor after the long silence, but Black Serpent Rising is proof that the rumors of their death were greatly exaggerated. If you like your blackened death with polish and class, this is your one-stop shopping experience. An impressive next step, and hopefully we don’t need to wait quite so long for the next one. Come for the serpent, stay for the music!