When reviewing an album, I like to start with a few “blind” listens in which I completely ignore the nice promo materials the label sends in favor just listening to the music with zero preconceptions or knowledge outside of the album title, band name, and whatever I may or may not know about their previous work. When further listening to Skym and reading everything the good folks at Hammerheart sent our way about Kjeld, I was surprised. Not in the “huh, neat” way, but in Keanu Reeves’ infamous “whoa” way.
Kjeld call their genre “Frisian black metal,” which is described as being steeped in the Scandinavian tradition. To my ears, Kjeld is heavily influenced specifically by the classic Norwegian second wave scene. I don’t like excessive name dropping, but there are traces of Taake, Darkthrone, Gorgoroth, Immortal, Ulver circa Bergtatt and Nattens Madrigal, and pre-Prometheus Emperor (minus the keyboards) coherently scattered throughout Skym, and Kjeld manages to blend all of these influences like spices into their own broth. This leads to a frigid, punishing, and viciously melodic record that’s a consistently exciting listen. The promo sheet name-checked zero bands, recommending Skym simply to fans of black metal; after numerous listens, it becomes readily apparent that this was a wise choice.
Kjeld doesn’t endeavor to be a jack of all trades, instead focusing all of their energy into creating excellent prefix-less black metal with zero gimmickry. Skym isn’t treating Transylvanian Hunger and Nattens Madrigal as Platonic forms to be emulated yet never duplicated, but rather building atop the foundation laid by those and other classics. “Stoarm” is a prime example of this, merging Immortal‘s taste for the epic side of black metal with both Ulver‘s spot-on ear for melody and Taake‘s aggressiveness, and even incorporates some death metal influences in a way comparable to Emperor‘s IX Equilibrium. While not every song hits the lofty heights of “Stoarm,” there isn’t a dud among the eleven tracks here nor even a weak riff to pick on.
Skym eschews trebly “old-school” production in favor of a meaty and modern sound that’s still natural, giving the energetic Gorgoroth-isms of “Brek En Bran” a punishing weight that serves to enhance the great riffs therein, with the obvious lack of help the band got in the studio further supplementing the enjoyment. I was surprised to learn that Skym clocks in at DR6, but it’s a classic case of “listen to the music instead of the numbers,” as an almost brickwalled master doesn’t destroy a solid mix. “Gjin Ferjouwing” is built around numerous variations on its main theme, and this approach makes for an interesting few minutes that’s long enough to allow Kjeld to do everything they want to do and short enough to never grow tiresome; the hour long runtime belies the band’s knack for editing, but it’s tough to complain when the material so often rests between great and excellent and left me wanting more each time it finished.
This brings us to what truly surprised me: Skym is Kjeld’s debut full-length. While they’ve been around since 2004 and feature members of Lugubre and other Dutch black metal bands, they’d released two whole songs on an EP in 2010 prior to now. The maturity, confidence, and raw songwriting chops that permeate Skym is stunning for a debut and instead of different musicians bringing their B-grade outtakes to a side project, Kjeld sounds like a monolith with the goal of writing high quality black metal. They succeed with aplomb, and Skym is a celebration of how exciting black metal can be when it’s not just taken back to its roots, but allowed to grow outwards from them in subtle yet meaningful directions.