I feel quite confident when I say that Helheim might be one of the most underrated Viking metal outfits on the planet. There weren’t too many Norwegian black-metal bands in the mid ’90s pushing the Viking sound as hard as these guys. And there sure-as-hell weren’t many bands incorporating trumpet and Jew’s harp in their compositions. Helheim have pushed upon the very boundaries of their genre with each release and built what can only be described as their own microcosmic world; one fenced off by their musical output and sustained by respect for both music and heritage. After twenty years of expanding and evolving, Helheim continue their tireless crusade with their eighth release, raunijaR. You never know what to expect from each Helheim release and raunijaR is no different. With that in mind, gear up for the final assault on 2015 and allow Helheim to put their war-thirsty skills to the test.
In a way, Helheim‘s discography is a continuing concept from one release to the next; one that is ever-evolving in sound and multi-part sagas. With 2015’s raunijaR, we actually bare witness to the conclusion of a couple of these sagas. For instance, opening track “Helheim 9” represents – obviously – the ninth installment of a journey that began with the 1999 EP, Terrorveldet. raunijaR also marks the conclusion of the must-have “Åsgards Fall” quadrilogy that began with the 2010 EP, Åsgards Fall. And in a fitting sort of way, raunijaR‘s five-track, forty-minute runtime gives it that “EP” feel as it pays respect to this classic, back-catalog lineage, while concluding it in fine fashion.
Mostly clean-guitar oriented, “Helheim 9” represents the first taste of what’s to come; most notably, the powerful, clean duets of original members V’gandr (bass/vocals) and H’grimnir (guitars/vocals). Though this album has some harsh rasps throughout, these lads have honed their angelic pipes for raunijaR and have introduced yet another weapon in their creative arsenal. They pursue these cleans, duets, and Viking-choirs throughout the album and execute them in grandest form on closer “Odr.” With a tasteful similarity to Ulver, the layered vocals build and build before the song finally submits to its violin/piano outro. Knowing full-well that this focus on cleaner vocals definitely stands out in comparison to previous albums, the fast-paced title track features a “coughing” and “hacking” segment (following a rather venomous vocal delivery), as if to hint at – and playfully mock – the new direction the band plans to take vocally.
Of all the tracks I was most excited for on raunijaR, “Åsgards Fall III” and “Åsgards Fall IV” were my most anticipated. I celebrate the band’s entire catalog but every time I rediscover “Åsgards Fall I” and “II,” I’m swept right off my feet. Opening with some gorgeous acoustic guitar licks (a la Brand New Sin), “III” transitions into heavy Bathory worship in the way of massive Viking choirs and a war-like determination further emphasized by the massive drums and horns engulfing the track. “IV” takes the reins and continues where “III” left off with more vocal duets, Bathory influences, and increased grandiosity. The first half of the track begins its build from the song’s opening drum work before dying off completely at the midway point. From here the climb begins again via reverberating riffs borrowed from the gentler side of Immortal and a conclusion jam-packed with guitar solos, Viking choirs, spoken-word segments, and a shitload of atmosphere. In the end, it’s great having the concept complete but “I” and “II” get the point across more effectively.
However, for all the love I have for this album, Herbrand Larsen’s master has a bit too much of an “Enslaved quality” and the compression is much too high for something itching for fuller dynamics. Furthermore, the band has really stepped beyond their comfort zone – if they truly have one – and not everything works. For how great they are, the “Åsgards Fall” pieces and “Odr” are a touch on the long side and many of the elements don’t completely mesh (in particular, the punkish vocal approach of the verses in “III” and the misplaced guitar-wankery toward the end of “IV”). These issues aside, the band continues to convince me of their greatness after two full decades, and raunijaR is just another page in that story.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Dark Essence