If you found a younger version of me anytime from 1991 to about 2013, and asked past me how many albums I wanted to hear similar to Bathory‘s mighty Hammerheart release, I would grab you by the throat and scream “ALL OF THEM!” before running into the night to pillage and sack the sackable. The sound and atmosphere of Bathory‘s monsterwork was so damn trve, mighty, and metal, how could anyone grow tired it? Around 2013 however, I did start to grow tired of the style, because so many of the bands attempting it lacked the charisma and gravitas to pull it off properly. Sweden’s Ereb Altor has long positioned themselves as the logical heir to Quorthon’s musical estate, releasing album after album in the classic Hammerheart template. Hell, they even did an album of Bathory‘s covers to get the point across. Yet even their heartfelt efforts have settled into a comfortable Norse rut of late. I haven’t really loved any of their releases since 2013s Fire Meets Ice, and though the Law of Diminishing Recordings hadn’t taken its pound of flesh yet, the wolf seemed closer to the door with each subsequent release. With 8th album Järtecken, the wolf’s foot is officially in the door. They’re still a good band who can hit a home run now and then, but the hammer no longer hits the heart strings with the same force.
The songs here are typical Ereb Altor, mixing Viking metal tropes with straightforward black metal outbursts. They’ve always been at their best when sticking to the epic Viking side, using clean singing, chanting and classic Bathory influences to paint larger-than-life tapestries of muscle, might and mountains. You get all that on opener “Avgudadyrkans väg,” which is a bit of a throwback to early albums like By Honour. It has that epic feel and the clean vocals work well, while the black metal element is used judicially to pump up the aggression at key moments. “Queen of All Seas” is also solid, and as crazy as it sounds, I hear Blue Oyster Cult‘s “Shooting Shark” referenced in the song’s burly Wotan works alongside the expected Demonaz and Immortal influences. Best of the bunch is “With Fire in My Heart,” which is the quintessential Ereb Altor number in many ways. It’s seven minutes of sweeping, epic Viking metal interspersed with blackened aggression and it’s crafted well enough that you can feel the icy winds in your hair and the weight of heroic destiny on your back. Those quasi-chanted clean vocals capture the Viking ethos and there’s a satisfying feeling of conquest and throne usurping throughout.
The remainder of Järtecken is less mighty and makes my hammer fall. While straight up black metal numbers like “Alliance in Blood” aren’t bad, they aren’t particularly memorable or compelling either. “My Demon Inside” features a hefty Dark Tranquillity vibe in its riffing and overall mood, but that doesn’t save it from feeling a bit undercooked. The biggest cut, “Hvergelmir,” strives to be another big mood piece, but lacks much actual impact despite the addition of some effective death metal vocals. A lot of this material feels like watered down versions of older, better songs, and it’s hard to shake the “been there, done that” feeling as the album marches along. The good stuff is good, but none of it rises to great.
As always, Mats’ rough clean vocals aid the songs in achieving a Hammerheart-esque level of epic status. His tone has always worked perfectly for this genre, especially on the bigger cuts like With Fire in My Heart.” He is in many ways the spiritual successor to Quorthon’s style of singing and I respect his performance as always. He and Ragnar provide solid if not always spectacular guitar-work that contains moments of inspired playing where that larger-than-reality feeling really comes across. There just aren’t enough of them anymore. This is a capable, veteran band with several members also spending time in Isole, but I’m left wishing for a consistently higher level of songcraft.
Järtecken is the first Ereb Altor album I don’t see myself returning to in the future. I like a few of the songs, but none of them reach the same level of their best moments, and the album as a whole feels recycled from past glories. It’s not bad, and fans of Viking metal will likely find things to enjoy, but it sounds like a band stuck spinning their wheels in the mud of their own comfort zone. I expect more from them at this point. Go check out the excellent new Isole platter instead.