Norse mythology is an expansive, rich, and very metal topic. It’s no surprise that folks from all walks of the metal world have adapted its themes and stories as a part of their artistic visions. I would argue that black metal adopted this best, especially when the band itself hails from the North. Enter Árstíðir lífsins. Since 2008, these Icelanders have been creating black metal that tell the historic and mythical tales of their homeland in their native language. Their latest output, Saga á tveim tungum I: Vápn ok viðr is part one of a story about the rise and reign of King Óláfr Helgi Haraldsson, who ruled Norway in the eleventh century. To put it another way, this is seriously promising.
And oh, does it deliver on that promise, mostly thanks to two key ingredients. First and foremost is the storytelling. One of the first things to catch my eye about Árstíðir lífsins—besides the name, of course—was that Marcél, rather than being credited solely as a vocalist, is firstly the “Storyteller” in the album credits. Sure enough, throughout Vápn ok viðr, narration and spoken word storytelling is a common companion. Whether or not you understand Icelandic, there’s emotion and passion being communicated clearly. Even better, the music, and especially the pacing, ebbs and flows with the story, making room to accommodate Marcél’s grim storytelling, and the album is better off for this variety.
The second metric for success is, of course, the music itself. The black metal that Árstíðir lífsins plays is filled with atmosphere and rich with emotion, but never abandons the riffing, general anger, and feeling that makes black metal what it is. Vocal duties are shared among all three band members, varying from snarling rasps to haunting choir sections, in addition to the aforementioned narration. Stefán’s guitar and bass work is strong, giving each song a unique identity, and forging a strong emotional backdrop for the story as it progresses. Árni’s drumming is sublime, and the fact that he plays stringed instruments, rather than simply using a keyboard, is a breath of fresh air, and this authenticity really helps Árstíðir lífsins stand out from their contemporaries. Songs like opener “Fornjóts synir ljótir at Haddingja lands lynláðum” lean closer to typical black metal fare, with blast beats, icy riffing, and furious vocals taking center stage. Others, like the follow-up track, “Sundvǫrpuðir ok áraþytr,” are entirely lore-based, mimicking the effect of sharing an ancient story beside a campfire. The best songs here, though, are the ones that combine these two elements together. You see, “Líf á milli hveinandi bloðkerta,” for example, isn’t a song—it’s an adventure of awesome proportions.
I don’t have any major issues with Vápn ok viðr, but I do have several small issues that ultimately weigh down its scoring. As far as seventy-minute black metal albums go, this is a very enjoyable one… but it’s still a seventy-minute black metal album. A song like “Stǫng óð gylld fyr gǫngum ræfi,” eleven minutes long and right in the middle, can’t help but be forgettable. The production is also very thick, especially around the guitars, which swallow the bass whole. This is a real shame, because the few times I can hear bass notes, they sound great. I could also wish the harsh vocals were just a bit more emotional at times. Ultimately, however, these are minor issues in the face of the exemplary songwriting and clear passion, and Vápn ok viðr is a very strong album.
As closer “Haldi oss frá eldi, eilífr skapa deilir” winds down, it’s easy to lose yourself in its gradual descent from the chaos that marks its zenith. As shrieks give way to chants, and chants give way to narration; as pounding drums give way to cymbals, and cymbals to nothing; as electric guitars fade into cello, and the cello at last falls quiet, you close your eyes. When you do, you’ll hear a distant campfire and the slow plucking of an acoustic guitar. You’ll hear the final passages of tonight’s story. Then, the narration concludes, the guitar fades away, and the wind picks up. It’s the sound of a story well-told, a history well-preserved, and of time well-spent.