Árstíðir lífsins – Aldrlok Review

Árstíðir lífsins seem to not believe much in fanfare. Since I discovered the Icelandic/German group via their very good fourth full-length Saga á tveim tungum I: Vápn ok viðr, I never learn about their releases until AFTER they show up. The followup to Saga I never reached the Angry Metal Promo Sump, and their most recent release, the enjoyable Hermalausaz, arrived quietly at the end of last year. Now they’re back with Aldrlok (“Death [of an age]”), their sixth full-length release, which follows the band’s familiar vein of mountainous black metal adorned with gorgeous folk passages and lyrics sung in Old Norse-Icelandic. It’s a super-potent combo, and these guys have the smarts to back up their premise, so how does that translate into eighty-three minutes of music?

Compared with recent releases, Aldrlok is familiar territory. This time around, the riffs feel heavier (“Stormr, hvítundit grand gundar gjálfrs”) and the orchestrations are more elaborate (“Er faðir kulda ok myrkrs hopar fyrir endalausum vegi Ránar”), creating a strong melodic black metal feel for the album. Of course, it’s as folky as ever, in that Old Norse sort of way that Árstíðir lífsins excel at. Marsél, credited as ever as the band’s storyteller, provides deep, intoning singing, guttural narrations (to superb effect on “Nú er lengstu miskunndir dalreyðar ná hátindi”), and vicious black metal rasps, while frequent acoustic and orchestral passages break up the black metal assaults provided by Stefán (guitars and bass) and Árni (percussion and string instruments) (both of whom also provide vocals). The sound is elaborate, dense, and well done. Aldrlok is the sound of a band that knows exactly what they are doing.

This also means that the strongest and coolest element of Aldrlok is the storytelling. The album tells a tale semi-mythological fiction, taking place in Iceland around 1040, during a period of societal upheaval, and borrows material from Skaldic and Eddic poetry. Through their music, Árstíðir lífsins transport the listener back in time. The album opener, “Hvítir hjǫrvar Heimdalls aldraðra fjallgylða,” takes the listener on a journey, opening slowly with deep chants that make way for passages of solemn vocal melody that evoke a great tale about to begin. When the black metal arrives, it does so climactically, being built up to grandiosity by a band that is more than happy to take its time. From here, the song—and indeed, the album—does a great job of balancing black metal, melody, and folk. “Nauð greyprs élreka” does the best job of striking this balance. A band with a keyboardist could certainly mimic the style, but Aldrlok asks: “why do with a keyboard what you could do with your own voices?” Suitably, the close of the song, where massive black metal riffing gives way to solemn, near-reverent chanting, is one of the best moments, not only on this album but on any Árstíðir lífsins release to date.

Of course, some will be put off by the lengths of both the individual songs on Aldrlok and the length of the whole. Nine songs covering eighty-three minutes is a lot of music. I do wish the mix and production favored the metal elements more, as they tend to be muted. I’m sure it’s a stylistic choice, but it’s hard not to think that more prominence for the drumming and a touch less distortion on the guitars could net a really heavy album in the vein of a contemporary like Mistur. On the other hand, the grand length of the album contributes to its “Norse epic” feel, emulating the poetry it’s based on. The long songs that often flow into one another create the feeling of a mythology told in two parts (“Nú er lengstu miskunndir dalreyðar ná hátindi” breaks up the album expertly, and is a terrific dark folk song), and while it is a lot to take in all at once, there aren’t any actual weak spots on Aldrlok.

Árstíðir lífsins are consistently releasing interesting, well-researched, and very good black metal. I would argue that Aldrlok is their strongest yet, but it will be very familiar to you if you’re a fan of their recent work. It takes you back into the past in a way that most art struggles to do, and continues to fill a unique space in the world of metal. It demands a certain mood, but if you’re in it, this album will bring you back in time.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Ván Records
Websites: arstidirlifsins.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/arstidirlifsins
Releases Worldwide: May 31st, 2024

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