Häxanu – Totenpass Review

In 2020, a very well-regarded black metal album generated some waves that… completely passed me by. That album was Snare of All Salvation by American black metallers Häxanu. For a debut, it was praised for its stargazing atmosphere melded with violent hysteria. The combination of multi-intrumentalist A.P. and vocalist L.C. appeared to have hit upon a winning formula which meant that a generous amount of buzz greeted the announcement of the follow-up, Totenpass. With influences and collaborations running the spectrum of black metal, and a cool early single, I was intrigued. Was a new USBM voice upon us?

At first blush, Totenpass feels like a slightly awkward combination of traditional atmospheric black metal melded with the harsh, almost depressive screeches associated with DSBM. It’s an interesting combination because it upends the traditional idea of atmoblack being “peaceful” and “immersive.” The desperate, at times even plaintive, yelps rebuff any attempts at comfort and familiarity, making Totenpass’s aethetic an uneasy one. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But if you’re constantly jarring the listener away from the expected, you had better have some great ideas to maintain their interest. It’s here that Häxanu, sadly, fall short.

Repetition is part of black metal, and especially atmoblack. It adds to the hypnotic vibe that many of us enjoy. But Totenpass takes the repetition to an absurd extreme. “Thriambus” has a section where the band plays the same bridge 16 times. “Threnoidia” has a melody the band loves so much, they believe it warrants 10 repeats in a row. “Ephòdeon” is nearly 5 minutes of minor variations of the same riff. I could go on but you get the idea. There is a place in music for the same passage being repeatedly endlessly, but unless you’re trying to subvert expectations, or build up tension (“How much longer can they keep doing this?”), a la Flood-era Boris, it generally comes off as wearying. And that’s the case here. I found the frequent repetitions tedious, which made my mind wander to my grocery list for the next day. Which is not, I suspect, what Häxanu were aiming for. Part of the problem is that the passages being repeated just aren’t very interesting. We get minor chord shifts, or subtle variations on a basic riff or melody. The entertaining drumming does its best to mask the fact that beneath the sound, fury and howling vocals, there often isn’t a whole lot going on. The track lengths only exacerbate matters. The worst offenders are “Sparamos,” which drags on for over 10 minutes without going anywhere particularly interesting, and the combined track (?) of “Thriambos/Threnoidia” which lugs on for nearly 15. Atmoblack can be long, but when it’s uninspired melodies ground to death on an anvil of repetition, it feels marathonic.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Häxanu, however. Flashes of potential shine through when the band breaks from its repetition, particularly on opener-proper “Death Euphoria.” There’s an energy and fury to that song that gets sadly lost as the album progresses. Closer “Totenpass” takes a break from the relentless pace to show flashes of the epic feel the band is clearly aiming for. The drumming by multi-instrumentalist Alex Poole is a cut above, applying the blast beats when needed, but introducing subtle changes and frills that (partially) mask the lack of riffs they’re supporting.

Listening to Totenpass is to hear talented musicians trying something new, but sadly falling short. There is a clear aesthetic choice, relying on repetition and jarring vocals, which has potential but doesn’t come together in a coherent whole. It sounds trite, but the band struggles to find the ear-worms to make their sound compelling. In the end, it all blurs into a forgetful hodgepodge. Häxanu are better than this, of that I have no doubt. But they need to shift direction, or find that all-elusive riff. Because there is nothing here that will make them stand out (beyond the typically great Burke cover) from a saturated black metal field.

Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 12 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Amor Fati Productions
Website: Too kvlt for the internet
Releases Worldwide: February 7th, 2023

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