Månegarm // Legions of the North
Rating: 3.0/5.0 — Enjoyable, but not elite
Label: Napalm Records
Websites: manegarmsweden.com | facebook.com/manegarmsweden
Release Date(s): EU: 2013.06.26 | US: 07.02.2013
In the late ’90s and early ’00s (aughts, as I call ’em), there was a swath of Scandinavian bands forming something of a scene around the sound of folk influenced black metal. Chief among these were Thyrfing, Moonsorrow, and Månegarm. While Moonsorrow changed their sound with time and went on to have widespread respect, the Swedish bands (Månegarm and Thyrfing) both labored in relative obscurity. Why Månegarm never quite pushed their way onto the international stage is mysterious for me, because they’ve always been a band producing unique, interesting, and enjoyable music. In any case, Legions of the North marks the band’s first record since 2009’s Nattväsen which was released on the struggling (and now defunct) Regain Records. While Nattväsen was excellent, my major complaint was simply that it was largely a repetition of 2007’s Vargstenen. After 4 years, signing with Napalm Records, getting a new drummer and losing violinist Janne Liljeqvist, can Månegarm present a fresh face and fill their little niche in folk metal?
Legions of the North is definitely a well-polished and fun record that vacillates between two distinct styles: second wave black metal and love of Bathory. Opener “Legions of the North” shows off the black metal stylings immediately after the obligatory intro track “Arise” finishes. The blasty drums and tinny guitar tone, with only barely audible bass, bring back the 1990s for anyone familiar with them. But what has always separated Månegarm from the pack was their use of violin and clean vocals. Despite the departure of their long time violinist (and owner of a mean fro) Janne Liljeqvist, both of these things make their appearance in “Legions of the North.” This style of driving melodic black metal—that almost borders on Amon Amarth style melodeath riffing—with epic clean vocals defines tracks like “Tor Hjälpe,” “Sons of War,” “Fallen,” and “Forged in Fire.”
The riffs are often in harmonic minor, giving Månegarm a very specifically Scandinavian folk music vibe that penetrates even their ‘rawest’ material. But Månegarm isn’t raw. Legions of the North is well produced, and characterizing it as a nod to raw or atmospheric black metal would be misleading. Instead, this material is more reminiscent of modern metal with all its drawbacks and icky compression. That said, Legions of the North is well-mastered (if still far too compressed), and has none of the aggressive over-mastering that stains Vargstenen to this day. In terms of a real throwback in sound, the band’s biggest influence seems to be Bathory‘s Nordland I and II. While the production is light years better than those records, the mid-paced Bathory worship parts of Månegarm‘s sound and the Viking choirs are most closely rooted in these classic albums.
The big change that longtime fans will notice is that Legions of the North is entirely in English. One of Månegarm‘s defining features has always been Swedish texts, and I’m curious as to why the changed. It’s not necessarily a drawback, as many in the world market refuse to listen to bands who aren’t singing in English, but it’s striking. And while Nattväsen was a much darker album than its predecessor, Legions of the North is practically folk dance-able at times, certainly the feel reaches back to Månegarm‘s earliest sound.
While Legions of the North isn’t exactly the band breaking a ton of new ground—they don’t stray any further afield from their mold than the acoustic finale “Raadh”—the record is chock full of good tracks like “Hordes of Hel,” “Sons of War,” “Fallen,” and “Forged in Fire.” But Liljeqvist’s unique presence goes missing in his style, even if violins are still included on the album, and the writing doesn’t have the same kind of spark that the last couple of records had. Legions of the North isn’t disappointing, per se, but it doesn’t quite live up to the genius output that these Swedes managed in the last decade.
Still, I’m seriously glad to see Månegarm with a new record in 2013. I suspect that with a long-lasting relationship with one of the best labels for letting bands just do their thing, Månegarm can continue to put out excellent metal. And I strongly suggest, for the reader who’s never heard the band before, to head back and check out the band’s earlier material.