It’s a pretty common cliché, but the first few seconds of Panphage’s Jord indeed tell the story of the album as a whole. In these tense opening moments, there is a palpable energy brewing behind a fleeting soundbite, perhaps the hushed roar of waves, followed by a wall of buzzing guitars and bellowing stomps. Ornaments originating in Swedish folk music and the raw vigor of an old school black metal clash and reveal themselves swiftly, while guttural growls launch the album on a path of continuous, neverending motion. And thus Fjällbrandt, the mastermind behind Sweden’s one-man black metal band Panphage, presents his third and final full-length record under the moniker, closing the project with his most accomplished work yet.
The promise of those introductory seconds of “Odalmarkerna” is fulfilled by about forty minutes of excellent folk-infused black metal. Panphage’s approach stays within the lines of a very clearly defined style, with blast beats and tremolos supporting a core of folk music, rather than the other way around. Despite the directness, speed, and energy in the music—Fjällbrandt’s vision of black metal is raw and often in full attack during the first six tracks—Jord never veers too far from being pleasingly arioso. “Odalmarkerna” is also marked by an impressive sense of timing and elegant shifts, from that initial buildup and release to the switch in melodies and tempo around the middle of the track. These tiny variations that appear in the midst of otherwise compositionally straightforward cuts are a trick that Fjällbrandt puts to good use throughout the record, switching gears and letting his ideas breathe for a while before slowly phasing them out of focus.
After “Odalmarkerna,” which is a standout song, things settle down in a set of unexceptional but otherwise very good songs. “Måtte dessa bygder brinna” mesmerizes with a galloping rhythm before turning into a scorcher and “Ygg (En visa om julen)” and “Den tyste åsen” offer a more traditional but sonically rich black metal approach. But in-between them stands another great tune, the monumentally epic “Skandinawjo.” A centerpiece and tour de force, it contains majestic-sounding touches of chanted and harmonized vocal lines and bits that belong in some ancient folk hymn. It’s the type of anthem that one can easily imagine as being played at a viking’s funeral. While musically speaking the closing “Osådda skall åkrarna växa (Outro)” stands out from the other pieces, slowed down and moody, it carries the same sense of grandeur and archaic importance and underlines it by employing sparse, dirge-like atmospheres and chants. A proper closer. When looking at Jord as a whole, the closest comparison that comes to mind is Enslaved’s Eld which flirted with and married folk and black metal in a similar, albeit more restrained fashion.
The musicianship on the record is solid, especially taking into account that everything is done by one man. The guitars are crunchy and the tremolos are pleasingly sparkly while the rest of the soundscape—apart from the occasional synth-lines which seem crucial while upholding the folksy melodies—folds around them, serving as an imposing backdrop for their aggressive barrage. In general, Jord is competently, if not spectacularly played, the type of album where technicalities take a step back anyway and are supported by a clearly DIY production and mastering. At times plasticky and thin sounding, in turn, they nurture a sort of rough, early Scandinavian black metal feel. Lyrically speaking, Jord’s themes are as bombastic as its music. Envisioned as “an ode to heritage and to the death and rebirth of earth,” it deals with Scandinavian mythology and folklore. The lyrics are thus imbued with a sense of pride and conflict, but never belligerence.
Looking back at Fjällbrandt’s work as Panphage, it’s clear that he’s ending his twelve years of activity with a bang, with a culmination of the work he’s presented since 2005 through demos and two full-lengths. Jord is stylistically impressive and rather unique. It’s also Fjällbrandt’s most concise and focused, yet most epic record. While the year has just started, Panphage gifted us with a bittersweet farewell gift and with what will probably rank as one of the best folk black metal albums in 2018.