Holy shit, Black Messiah. This is one of those little bands that I found in the mid-00’s while first delving into the metal underground that, though kinda cool in their unorthodox approach, I inevitably forgot about in the wash of better bands. Yet I instantly remembered these Germans once I saw their seventh album Walls of Vanaheim in the promo bay, their blend of epic folk metal, pagan black metal and power metal rushing back in a wave of nostalgia and phantom headaches triggered by memories of awful production. I snagged it without hesitation for old times’ sake, and sure enough, this was the same Black Messiah I had listened to casually in my teenage years, warts and all. Oh, except this time they bloated the damned thing to seventy two minutes, and nearly half of the tracks are spoken word interludes. Fuck.
For the uninitiated, Black Messiah is a messy sounding conglomeration of influences from several other bands; think the emotive, folky melodies of Ensiferum minus the melodeath influence, with the added pagan folk stylings of older Wolfchant and the violin antics of Elvenking. While the band’s past performances felt a bit sloppy and out of sync, Black Messiah sounds more unified and professional than they have before, even if the musicianship is a bit stiff. In keeping with the band’s prior material, Walls of Vanaheim bears all the subtlety of a viking horde raiding a cheese factory, and the end result, though vulgar, is admittedly charming. The band is absolutely at their peak when cross-breeding styles: do you want big, dramatic power metal leads to interrupt your speedy black metal number (“Die Burde des Njord”)? Probably not, but Black Messiah does it just because they can, and this utter abandonment of genre conventions makes for a sporadically fun listen.
The “sporadically” caveat stems from the fact that, man, these guys just don’t know how to consistently write solid tunes. The first half of Walls of Vanaheim flows relatively smoothly despite its listen-once-then-skip interludes, its longer tracks exploring interesting tangents that make for a relatively engaging and breezy listen. But once the title track arrives, the song structures become the auditory equivalent of a mead-infused turd circling the drain. The aforementioned title track, “Mit Blitz Und Donner,” and “A Feast for Unity” possess circular song structures that beat the life out of any good ideas they possess, endlessly looping back in on themselves as if attempting in vain to justify their overlong, cyclical existence. “Kvasir” doesn’t fair much better with its laughable Amon Amarth knock-off riffs, and the Equilibrium-inspired closer “Farewell” has little to offer aside from a seemingly ceaseless symphonic crescendo that confuses “epic” for “fucking chaotic.” While I typically begin listens of WoV in good spirits, its back-half misfires so consistently that I typically finish it in a sour mood.
What really kills my opinion of this record, however, is its production. Black Messiah albums have always sported shoddy production, but this one is especially offensive, more so when coupled with WoV’s ludicrous run time. The mix is so mindnumbingly homogeneous that by the album’s mid-point the interludes reveal themselves as a blessing in disguise, offering sweet relief from the brain scrambling inflicted by the incessant loudness of everything. There’s absolutely no bass presence, either, but at least the solid lead melodies (of both the guitar and violin variety) offer temporary distraction from the abysmal sound engineering. The lead guitar performances possess an identifiable personality, leaning heavily on vibrato to accentuate the emotive melodies, while the violin provides a charming folk atmosphere that’s utilized in surprisingly restrained doses.
Walls of Vanaheim is a record that’s difficult to hate yet impossible for me to love; it’s ultimately Black Messiah being Black Messiah as I knew them a decade ago, just with an unhealthy case of bloat. They’re an enthusiastic group with a novel formula that can write catchy folk-power melodies with the best of them, but their scattershot songwriting chops and persistently awful production make for an experience that barely musters a cautious recommendation from yours truly. If you decide to check out this behemoth slab of cheese, just be sure to pick around the moldy bits.