Two years ago, the Grymm Grab Bag unearthed Vegferð tímans, the third album by Icelandic duo Dynfari. While it started off slowly, the album opened itself up to some beautiful post-rock influenced black metal that was both inspiring and beautiful, like the musical equivalent of watching the moon shimmer off of a glacier in the middle of winter. Fast-forward to 2017, and Dynfari, now a fully fleshed-out quartet, return with a concept album. The Four Doors of the Mind centers around fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss’ theory that the mind has four different doorways to deal with pain and grief, and weaves it together with the existential poetry of early 20th-century poet Jóhann Sigurjónsson. With such heavy subject matter, The Four Doors of the Mind have a careful line to balance on if it wants to be successful.
Thankfully, The Four Doors succeeds, oftentimes brilliantly. The only English found throughout the album is during the songs featuring numbered doors, with vocalist/guitarist Jóhann Örn carefully guiding the listener through the doorways of grief and coping, making each navigation through sleep (door one), forgetfulness (door two), madness (door three), and finally death (the final door) a memorable one. Whereas Vegferð tímans took almost half of the album to get its bearings, The Four Doors wastes no time in setting a morose, heavy atmosphere with sparse guitars, beautifully morose melodies, and a foreboding sense of sorrow. In fact, once “1st Door: Sleep” begins, The Four Doors lulls you into believing that Dynfari would align more with post-rockers Mogwai or Caspian.
But Dynfari are, at their very core, a black metal band. After a shimmery, elegant beginning, “1st Door: Sleep” blasts through, with Örn rasping and growling in his native tongue above tremolo-picked guitars. However, instead of black metal being the main vehicle driven, the post influences lead the way. The Katatonia-esque “Sorgarefni segi eg þer” reveals the band’s Gothic sensibilities and doubles as the only song that utilizes Örn’s clean voice. “Sorg” simultaneously calms the listener with acoustic guitars and skilled use of the flute, while setting the album up for more drama, leading to “3rd Door: Madness,” the album’s most effective number. Featuring some tortured screams among the spoken word segments, peaceful acoustic melodies interspersed with the heavier segments, and perfect pacing, “3rd Door: Madness” lives up to its namesake, offering a sobering take on mental health and how we cope.
Just as The Four Doors is a fantastic 48-minute journey from a musical perspective, it also sounds absolutely gorgeous. Both Örn and fellow guitarist Hjálmar Gylfason shine with their sound, leading the way without overpowering Jón Emil’s organic drum production or Andri Björn Birgisson’s bass work. While Vegferð tímans contained some moments of loudness and a bit of clipping, The Four Doors bears no such issue, as the entire album sounds lush and alive. I do have two nitpicks with the album, however. Final track “4th Door: Death,” at one second shy of fourteen minutes, could be pared down to half its length, and it would’ve gained more of an impact. Also, on a personal note, I miss Örn’s baritone singing voice from Vegferð tímans. It added a warmth to that album, and I admit I was hoping it would make a reappearance here.
Nitpicks aside, Dynfari built upon their strengths with The Four Doors of the Mind. In my review of Vegferð tímans, Örn hinted in the comments section that they were working on something special. I didn’t expect them to craft the spiritual descendant to Tiamat‘s wildly influential 1994 album, Wildhoney. Tall words, sure, but there’s no mistaking the upward trajectory that Dynfari have created with The Four Doors of the Mind. If you love atmospheric music with a touch of the harsh, you owe it to yourself to go on this journey. You will walk away drained but in the best way possible.