We all have those times where we look back and say to ourselves “what was I thinking?” That’s kind of how I feel about reviewing Dzö-nga‘s second album, The Sachem’s Tales, back in 2017. Today, a folky atmospheric black metal album with classical influences seems so far out of my wheelhouse that it’s not even in the same hemisphere. Yet, I did enjoy my share of Agalloch and Cascadian black metal back in the day, and as such, I was able to appreciate Tales as an inspired and engrossing piece of woodsy black metal with intriguing Native American themes. Led by vocalist and guitarist Cryvas, this Boston project has now returned with another opus, this time based on H.W. Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” Dzö-nga seems to have built up a little more hype over the years and while third album Thunder in the Mountains isn’t perfect, I think most fans of this style will walk away satisfied nonetheless.
The biggest difference between this and Tales is how much more Dzö-nga sound like an actual band. Tales, for all its lush layers of strings, acoustic guitars, and buzzing chords still came across largely like a solo project that was aided into existence by session members. In contrast, Thunder sounds fuller and more confident, the sound of a band coming into their own. Nowhere is this more evident than early standout “Heart of Coal,” which gallops along on big riffs and flute accompaniment in a way that sounds like a groovier version of Panopticon‘s Kentucky. On Tales, the blast beats were fast as fuck but the drumming was otherwise not particularly noteworthy; here, the drums (which, best as I can tell, were performed by Cryvas himself) turn in a much more dynamic and interesting performance. Likewise, closer “The Death of Minnehaha” offers far meatier riffs than almost anything on the last album, even if its extended outro is a bit overlong and ends things on a somewhat shrugworthy note.
Yet though they’ve matured a bit, the core sound is still very much the same. Opener “The Song of Hiawatha” shows this from the start, beginning with the dainty plucking of an acoustic guitar before moving into stormier black metal that shows Cryvas trading off his wretched Wintersun-esque rasps with the operatic female vocals of returning singer Grushenka Ødegärd. Later, “Flames in the Sky” and “A Soul to Burn” dial up the Saor influence with prominent flute melodies that are hummable but nonetheless end up sounding a bit generic to these ears. In fact, as a whole these songs do tend to blur together a bit and were it not for acoustic instrumental “Starlight, Moonlight, Firelight” to break things up, the album might not be as enjoyable.
Fortunately, Thunder sounds good and colorful, with dry electric chords contrasted with acoustic guitars that trickle like raindrops. The drums are lively, with nice thumping bass drums and splashy cymbals that add to the vitality of the whole thing. Every song is packed with layers of different instruments, from flutes to piano to pulpy basslines, all taking their share of the spotlight without crushing themselves together into a mess. Mastered by none other than Dan Swanö, you know this is a good sounding album, and it doesn’t hurt that it possesses a slight sense of distance that helps the atmosphere. It’s worth mentioning that several of the solos on this album are quite noteworthy, crackling with a liveliness that brings tracks like “The Song of Hiawatha” to the next level.1
It’s always heartwarming to see a young band find their footing, and that’s exactly what Thunder in the Mountains shows Dzö-nga doing. While slightly more refined and varied songwriting would help in the future, this nonetheless stands as an enjoyable and thematically interesting folky black metal record that shows the band maturing beyond their solo project roots. It’s almost hard to believe that Dzö-nga was just begun in 2016, and while I’m not sure Thunder will bring them to the upper echelon of the style, it certainly puts them on the right track while giving fans of the genre plenty to enjoy along the way.