Cirkeln – A Song to Sorrow Review

Some things enter human culture and just don’t leave. What could be a better example than the epic fantasy spearheaded (in the West) by J.R.R Tolkien, spawning countless other artworks and fuelling many an obsession to this day. Similarly, the rise of solo projects within black metal is seemingly indefatigable. Cirkeln combines these two strands—the mainstream and the counter-culture—through a discography inspired by genre heavyweights of each. Tolkien and Moorcock on the one hand, Celtic Frost and Bathory on the other. LP number two, A Song to Sorrow purports to take a more introspective approach than its predecessor, Kingdoms that No One Remembers, apparently using the fantasy theme as a metaphor to take the listener through “sole member Våndarr’s struggle with his own sanity.” I like metaphors, and I like black metal. For each to be good, however, rather than merely serviceable, they need to be creative. Does A Song to Sorrow succeed?

Cirkeln wear their influences proudly on their sleeve. There is an aura of trve Scandinavian black metal in Våndarr’s cavernous snarls and the trebly guitar tone (“Natassja”); an air of heavy metal in the galloping and bombastic tempos (“Hills of Sorcery”); and a feeling of medieval adventure in the sprinklings of (dungeon) synth. When all three coalesce—as on “The March,” “Vaults Behind Vaults,” and “Var Blåser Vinden”—this makes for some epic moments. When kept more discrete, the music’s power wanes. Herein lies A Song to Sorrow‘s undoing, for the character it promises is not always prominent enough, too often overshadowed by less noteworthy material, or lacking the punchiness it displays elsewhere.

The album teases a brilliant personality that isn’t consistently expressed. Opener “The March” is undoubtedly the best track, masterfully setting the scene with whistling wind, and working its early panpipe melody into a surging main refrain. If the songs were all like this, the record would score highly. “Var Blåser Vinden”‘s syrupy synth, and “Vaults Behind Vaults”‘s melancholic tremolos are also effectively immersive. The panoply of dungeon synth and battleground samples on “Thine Winter Realms Enthroned,” go some way towards building a weighty and exciting atmosphere where the clashes of swords can be heard. Yet, the music that accompanies it doesn’t do the epic portent justice, and the song builds to nothing, ending the album anticlimactically. Here and elsewhere the music becomes bromidic. Even with a wolf howl thrown in (“Natassja,”) or soaring climax (“Hills of Sorcery,”) too much lacks a distinctive edge. It’s frustrating, as the high points—”The March,” and passionate conclusion of “Vaults Behind Vaults”—are really high.

Mixed as it may be, what I cannot fault is the performance. Våndarr’s ardent enthusiasm is palpable through his punchy vocal delivery. While I’m not sold on his shouty cleans (“Vandraren”), they’re an evident commitment to the concept. The guitars, drums, and synths are skillful, and would reach greatness if turned to more distinctive compositions. The production is both cavernous and rich, which helps construct that aura of mysticism. At a relatively trim 44 minutes, A Song to Sorrow runs its course swiftly without any identifiable filler, marking a step up from Kingdoms That No One Remembers‘ hour-long wanderings. As a result, the highlights occur with just enough frequency for the record to be enjoyable, and avoid tedium.

Yet A Song to Sorrow does fall short of its predecessor in one aspect, and that is impressiveness. The peaks are less astounding, the immersion and the grandeur stripped back. I can’t help but also compare it to Stormkeep‘s recent output, whose irresistible fun and energy Cirkeln‘s does not match. It’s a fine piece of neoclassical black metal, but I can’t shake the feeling that it pales in comparison with its potential.


Rating: Mixed
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: True Cult Records
Websites: cirkeln.bandcamp.com | www.facebook.com/cirkelnband
Releases Worldwide: March 25th, 2022

 

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