Altari – Kröflueldar Review

The phrase “volcanic” is often associated with violence and volatility. At the moment of eruption, like any apocalypse worth its weight, the sun is blotted out and the earth is rent by molten rock, and it’s easy to focus on the fleeing and mind-warping explosion. What is less discussed is the insidious pyroclastic flows, the quick-moving lava that, while less dramatic, are the real danger. The lava-scarred landscape of Iceland is no stranger to this, and the scorch has been adapted into its lore and culture. Altari’s debut Kröflueldar is named after a series of twenty-four events (ranging from eruptions to uplift and subsidence) that dominated the Krafla volcano in the north between 1975 and 1984. Altari is volcanic, but not in the ways you may expect.

Icelandic black metal, embodied in acts like Svartidauði, Misþyrming, and Wormlust, has taken on a life of its own, metonymy of the caustic lava and devastated landforms through unforgiving obsidian guitar tones and warped dissonance. It’s largely become a cultural icon, a treasure, and a representation of their unique and otherworldly land. While most Icelanders of the blackened persuasion greet the ears with blazing vistas of the barrenness, Altari settles into it with patient tempos and contemplative riffs, sinking fingernails deep into the scorched soil. Influences of Interpol, Blue Öyster Cult, and Killing Joke, as well as hints of Sonic Youth and Cocteau Twins, guide the exploration into sprawling tones, vintage fuzz, and rotten atmosphere. A truly unique but unwaveringly loyal brand of blackened hate, Altari offers a slow-burn crescendo of psychedelic melancholy with an understated retro fuzz.1

Perhaps Kröflueldar’s most impressive accomplishment is Altari’s rotten atmosphere to increase tenfold with each subsequent track, with impeccable songwriting for its thirty-six-minute runtime. Describing the title track and “Djáknahrollur” as Wormlust covering Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” wouldn’t be terribly far off, for instance, as the patient percussion feels more psychedelic rock than anything second-wave, while the densely fuzzy riffs and clean overlays intertwine with melody and dissonance alike alongside gruesome chants and haunting growls. However, the darkness grows like the approaching cloud of ash – as the outstretched hands of the worshipers are pelted with pumice. “Leðurblökufjandinn” sees dissonance begin to overtake in this cloud, the central melody and burning screeches seared into the brain with haunting clarity and effective repetition, when the smoke fills the lungs of the colossal beast “Sýrulúður.” Although the shortest track, it is easily the densest, the off-kilter alto of guest vocalist Gyða Margrét the only glimmer through the dead sky.

Things only get darker from there. The final three tracks, “Hin eina sanna,” “Vítisvilltur,” and “Grafarþögn” embrace the facets of Altari’s many faces. While the clarity of “Grafarþögn” and the chunky riffs of “Hin eina sanna” offer highlights, the true winner is “Vítisvilltur.” A dynamic track of pulsing riffs, ritualistic percussion, and intertwined dissonant leads that all move seamlessly from passage to passage, a single clean melodic line cuts through the ash with a ray of sunlight, a reminder of humanity that feels perfect for Kröflueldar’s climax. Admittedly, it would do better as Altari’s conclusion, as “Grafarþögn” falls short by comparison in its tamer aftermath of clean leads and psychedelic vibes that recall the opening tracks. Leaving off where it started, while certainly a reminder of how far it’s come, leaves Kröflueldar in a bit of a conundrum. While the resurgence of the psych-rock flare of its openers is not unwelcome, Altari has come so far, and I simply wish that they had dwelt upon the apocalyptic darkness a little while longer.

Kröflueldar has tormented me since I received it. In a strange turn of events, Altari embodies everything and nothing about the vaulted Icelandic black metal scene in its incredibly unique debut, as if they view the same landscape but come to very different conclusions. It dwells in the darkness, a cancerous settle – a form that I could never quite grasp but ate at me over the many, many listens I gave it. While many will see Altari as a defanged Icelandic beast, its gaze is much more lethal, as with cupped paws it grabs you by the jaw and forces you to look deeper into the volcanic abyss. Contemplative, haunting, with just enough humanity to peek through the ash, with a tangible homage to the classics and a pace worthy of melancholy and insanity alike. It embodies the pyroclastic flow: undramatic and insidious, yet lethal and devastating – always memorable.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
LabelSvart Records
Releases Worldwide: April 14th, 2023

Show 1 footnote

  1. Phrase courtesy of the invaluable Itchymenace.
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