First, there was Ofermod‘s new record, Sol Nox. A solid outing from a band with a notoriety tied directly to the quality of their releases. Though the band shares many connections to “larger” bands in the Swedish black metal scene, Ofermod is a wholly underrated gem. But, Ofermod aren’t the only ones. No, there are others. Many of you may not know them, so let me introduce you to Svartsyn; one of my favorite black metal acts of all time. And, like Ofermod, one of the most underrated. But, unlike Ofermod, Svartsyn have several releases under their belts. Since 1997, these demons have released album after album of crushing riffs, fluctuating moods, and kit-work that’d bore a hole through your chest like the blunt end of a rod of rebar. But, with seven albums to compare to, where does 2017’s In Death stack up within two decades of black metal mayhem?
During the first half of the band’s career, they were unstoppable. Their second release, …His Majesty, is one of the best black metal records ever recorded. Though no other album in their arsenal has topped it, there are others on the same level. Albums like 2003’s Destruction of Man and 2007’s Timeless Reign. Hell, even the misperceived Bloodline is up there with their best. Regardless of what founder/vocalist/songwriter/damn-near-everything-ist Ornias has to say about it. But, since 2011’s Wrath upon the Earth, Ornias hasn’t been able to capture those riffs and that passion he once possessed. With that album, Ornias dabbled in gruffier vocals and punchy riffs that felt more death than black—something that completely changed the band’s sound. He continued to experiment with this black/death hybrid on 2013’s Black Testament, but it just didn’t work. Now, he’s come full circle: back to a sound that resembles their bludgeoning sound of old.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite the same. That massive drum and guitar assault of yore is replaced with sporadic, headbanging riffs (rather than nonstop ones), mid-paced black metal tremolos, and building atmospheres that conclude in thick waves of blastbeats and machete-sharp guitars. Though this latter element exists throughout the album, it’s clearest on the first three tracks of the record. The result is that the combination of building atmospheres and concussive conclusions, along with six-to-eight-minute runtimes, makes the three songs blend together. “Seven Headed Snake,” “Dark Prophet,” and “With Death” aren’t bad, but, excepting “Dark Prophet,” they meander a lot. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of venom pouring from the instruments, but the songwriting isn’t strong enough to back it up.
It’s not until the second half of the album that things get a little more exciting. “Inside the White Mask” and closer “Exile in Death” both have captivating midsection riffs that grow heavier as they progress. The former in particular, transitions into something downright catchy. Both songs alternate back and forth between their massive riffs and standard tremolo core, but each finale climaxes into a goddamn thunderstorm. A thunderstorm made even louder by the constant machine gun fire of the guitars.
My favorite number on the album, though, is “Black Thrones of Death.” But for completely different reasons than “Inside the White Mask” and “Exile in Death.” There are no monstrous riffs or crippling assaults (well, not the same kind as anyway). Instead, the song does what the entire album has been trying to achieve since the beginning: take a mid-paced approach, build sinister atmospheres for seven-ish minutes, before propelling it forward to its crushing conclusion. “Black Thrones of Death” is a mid-paced piece that grows and grows; expertly crafted to keep one’s attention and unload everything its got on the listener.
Unfortunately, like Black Testament before it, In Death has a pace and a vibe that doesn’t mesh with me. Being a believer of the aggressiveness and originality they possessed early in their career, this is hard for me to get behind. If it wasn’t for the few tracks on the back-half of the record, I’d find it disappointing. Instead, it turns out to be a touch more engaging than its predecessor. In Death is a grower and I suspect I will enjoy it more with time. But, in the end, the band has set the bar so high that an album like In Death (with just as many standout tracks as it has forgettable ones), falls victim to the post-Wrath era.