Dzö-nga may not be a household name, but it certainly is a weird one. Formed in 2016 by Boston musician “Cryvas,” the project takes its name from a demon which supposedly inhabits the Himalayan mountain Kangchenjunga1. Last year’s debut Five Treasures of Snow explored this idea by using ambient black metal to create songs about an “otherworldly Himalayan ascent,” while January’s Upon the Shimmered Bow EP introduced folk influences and a raw atmospheric black metal sound. Sophomore full-length The Sachem’s Tales sees Cryvas crafting a concept album about Native American folklore, aiming to combine Cascadian black metal with classical music. Joined by female vocalist Grushenka Ødegård and session drummer Aaron Maloney (formerly of Pennsylvania metalcore act This or the Apocalypse, oddly enough), has Dzö-nga given us the next Bergtatt or delivered another Bandcamp black metal record whose hype will fizzle faster than you can say “Ghost Bath”?
Fortunately things lean much closer to the former. Though Cryvas began Dzö-nga less than 18 months ago and already has two recordings released, the man obviously possesses great compositional maturity and no shortage of ideas. Throughout Tales’ 43 minutes, Cryvas skillfully employs piano, acoustic guitar, organ, strings, and the operatic vocals of Ms. Ødegård to conjure songs with ample melody and imbue them with plenty of dramatic climaxes. I hope I’m not overselling it with this, but as a point of reference imagine early Ulver with the acoustic palette of Opeth and the classical influence turned up to 11.
Intro “Midewiwin Lodge” sets the stage with the sound of rainfall and a rapidly plucked acoustic guitar, before “To the Great Salt Water” replaces that guitar with rustic piano. The piano’s tender melody continues over buzzing electric guitars and pounding double-bass, and remains twinkling as the song alternates between these blasting sections and quieter moments of Ødegård’s singing. It’s only in the song’s second half that Cryvas’ desperate Vattnet Viskar-esque rasp fully takes over and the guitars begin to form riffs that escalate with subtle transcendence. The track reaches its zenith with soaring strings before all instruments fall away and the opening piano melody returns for a soft folky finish.
Explaining the twists of one track essentially took up an entire paragraph, and I could easily do the same for most of the remaining six. Needless to say there are plenty of musical treats on Tales, with songs forging their own identity as they navigate from stormy blasting to woodsy bass-led interludes and back again. “The Wolves Fell Quiet” is perhaps the harshest and most ominous cut here, standing out for its sharp clean chords and the gorgeous flowing piano of its midsection. “Against the Northern Wind” introduces a gothic organ before delivering some terrific clean/harsh vocal harmonizing and evoking California’s Petrychor with its impossibly fast blastbeats and plucked melodies. Final proper track “A Seventh Age of Fire” breaks in with blasting beneath an acoustic melody before introducing male operatic vocals and finishing with a majestic conclusion that exudes more drama than a high schooler’s Facebook page.
It’s clear Tales is a strong album and that Cryvas has a knack for telling a story with his music. Unfortunately, too often the classical instrumentation eclipses the black metal, leaving the electric guitars doing little more than buzzing ferociously beneath the other instruments. In a way Tales feels like the perfect example of a black metal record that uses the genre as a vehicle for something else. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, more moments of actual riffing like that in “Great Salt Water” and “Wolves” would undoubtedly have made Tales stronger and more well-rounded. It also doesn’t help that Cryvas’ rasps are very loud in the mix.
Fortunately, aside from this quibble Tales is a lovely sounding record, with a bright and lush production that captures both the harshness of the metal elements and the richness of everything else. Closer “The Witching Meadow” is as good an example as any, concluding the record with uplifting acoustics that seem to mentally return listeners to the tribal leader’s bonfire after hearing his mythical stories. For those tired of this style’s done-to-death themes of pagan glory and nature-worship, Dzö-nga stand beside Nechochwen as a band offering an intriguing Native American theme along with exciting instrumentation and a healthy dose of originality. Fans of Agalloch, Ulver, and other folk/black acts are sure to love this. And as always, bonus points for the umlaut.