One-man black metal projects are like rats nowadays; you’re never more than a few meters away from one at any given time. Okay, I may have made that up, but there does seem to be quite a surplus of them knocking about at the moment. While this abundance of choice is great for those of us who like our music bleak and wintery, with every man and his dog getting in on the act, cutting through the chaff and finding material actually worth listening to can seem like a pretty mammoth task. Headed up by sole member Fjällbrandt, Swedish black metal project Panphage has spewed out a raft of raw but quality material almost yearly since its inception in 2005, however, it was only last year that heralded Storm — the first full-length studio album under the Panphage name. This year’s follow-up, Drengskapr, is set for release on November 18th, and despite having been a fan of earlier demos, I admit that Panphage had fallen off my musical radar almost entirely for the past few years. I was eager therefore to hear what the project’s more recent material brought to the table.
Drengskapr tells the tale of Grette Asmundsson — a famed outlaw of the old Icelandic sagas — and the wistful, prosaic nature of ancient folklore bleeds through into the music heavily. Stylistically Panphage’s sound has always been stark, stripped down and fast, keeping in line with the characteristics typical of the early Scandinavian black metal scene, and for the most part, Drengskapr stays true to this formula. The introduction to opener “Grettir Àsmundarsonar” eases the listener in gently before going straight for the jugular with a Marduk-esque wall of tortured howls and tremolo-picked riffage. In a manner not dissimilar to that of fellow countrymen Dark Funeral and Watain, however, Fjällbrandt’s take on black metal ebbs and flows. It’s vitriolic for sure, but there’s more to it than plain aggression, with simple but well-written riffs complementing each other and tempo changes sounding self-assured and confident.
Handling all of the instrumental duties himself, there’s little doubt of Fjällbrandt’s prowess as a musician, and Drengskapr showcases his talents magnificently. His guitar work is uncomplicated but effective, with clever touches that stick in the memory and little nods to his black metal brethren throughout. The soaring hooks of “Landrensningen,” for example, are hauntingly reminiscent of the infectious melodies of Forefather, and the neat embellishments of “Drangey” have Taake stamped all over them. To add to the folkish character of the music, keys are also utilized, albeit sparingly. With the exception of the almost Enya-like interlude “Glamsyn,” they rarely take center stage, however, much of the record features an almost choral background drone, adding depth to each track without at any point becoming overbearing.
Production is intentionally basic but not overwhelmingly so. All of the instruments are perfectly audible and the slightly tinny tone does not detract from the music in the slightest; instead lending it a cold, frosty quality that complements Panphage’s style well. It’s difficult to find much drastically wrong with Drengskapr to be honest, although I do have a couple of minor gripes. The majority of tracks start out with the gentle sound of lapping water, possibly at the edge of some distant lake in the Scandinavian wilderness. While this is effective in its first instance, it’s overused and thus ends up becoming repetitive and tiresome. Additionally, final track “Blodshämnd” feels far longer than it needs to be. While it features plenty of good material, there’s simply not enough to warrant drawing it out to its full nine-minute running time, and this is a shame as it makes the final few minutes of the record feel a bit on the stale side.
Its faults notwithstanding, however, in Drengskapr Fjällbrandt has written a highly enjoyable record that does more than enough to make itself stand out in what is rapidly becoming something of a over-saturated talent pool. While it may not win Record o’ the Year, it’s engaging, memorable and has atmosphere by the bucketload, and is well worth a listen for any fan of the ever-expanding gray area that inhabits the zone in between the black and folk metal genres. Panphage amassed an enormous back catalog of demos before venturing into LP territory. The project’s newest offering is the product of over a decade’s worth of experience, and Drengskapr is an impressive example of hard work paying off.