Hailing from the wooded glens of Ontario, Hexenklad come bearing as many cursed furs as their teetering carts can bear. Many will recognize SIG:AR:TYR guitarist Mike Grund, but only those hooked into the Canadian black metal scene may notice frontman Timothy “
Voldemort Voldamares” Johnston, former member of the now-defunct Eclipse Eternal and contributor to David Gold tribute Heart of Gold. Though Hexenklad takes after Thrawsunblat more than Woods of Ypres, Canada has trained me to take its woodsy black metal seriously. Debut Spirit of the Stone suddenly has very lofty expectations to meet.
With oaken shadows laying low in the day’s dying embers, “In This Life or the Next” opens with vengeful intent. Its blackened trails wind past crumbling monuments to melody and folk, embracing the spirit of the forest. Hexenklad show a modest talent for chorus composition, evoking Enslaved as they rise above their blackened charges sections with dual vocals. “To Whom Veer Sinistral” draw on Hexenklad’s folk roots, packaging the forest-dwelling aspects of Wintersun with elements of Finntroll and Moonsorrow. Its rising chorus again pulls Enslaved into the fray, a feeling heightened by Johnston’s Grutle Kjellson croaks. Highlights “At the Ends of Existence” and “Returned” introduce Thrawsunblat into the mix, but at their core, their manacles clank and rattle with Enslaved furor. This lack of originality raised some red flags early on. Penultimate “Path to Ruin” also traces its best aspects back to the beshackled Norwegians, but makes good use of guest cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne1 (Musk Ox, Woods of Ypres, Thrawsunblat).
At this point, I should mention that I typically mail in my first few listens of an album. If the music gets my head moving when I’m only half-paying attention, it generally stands up well to heavier scrutiny. Not so with Spirit of the Stone. The plodding “At Dusk” swaps in a bit of Insomnium feel but suffers from plainly awful backing vocals and a deaf man’s imitation of a melodic doom guitar tone. Those negatives crop up regularly over the course of the album, but “At Dusk” graciously compounds everything I dislike about SotS into one easily skippable, shit-on-able example. “In Waking Tymes” applies death and thrash to SotS’ blackened demeanor, but aside from some decent gallops, Hexenklad cannot help but return to the same Enslaved tactics as the rest of SotS. Even stronger cuts like “At the Ends of Existence” and “Returned” are not entirely fulfilling, coming across as imperfect In Times B-sides. Even would-be finisher “An Offering,” a track with nothing outright wrong with it, finds itself at odds with the track listing. Opening the album with the Agallochian interlude would have made far more sense than closing it.
When Hexenklad buckle down and just play some goddamn black metal, the passages come together quite well. Grund and fellow guitarist John Chalmers convincingly service both the black and folk aspects of their riffs, while Johnston provides more than just Kjellson impressions, delving through several depths of scalding depravity. However, SotS features a substantial lack of polish, with too many hard edges and niggling issues to ignore. Aside from the hideous guitar tones and second-rate, speaker-rattling production, the keys deserve special mention. Half of the time they skirt by with simple, folky melodies, but cannot be depended on for anything past intentionally shitty fluting “To Whom Veer Sinistral” and “Returned.” They pop up just often enough to frustrate – a common theme across the album.
Truthfully, Spirit of the Stone should be better than this. The quality of the acoustic riffing on “An Offering” alone proves the strength of Hexenklad’s potential. They have a solid proof of concept, but one well within the bounds of reproach. The additive nature of Hexenklad’s secondary failures leaves a taste in my mouth that undoes the good will their imitative highlights engender early in the record. Those highlights probably deserve better than the following score, but even after a full slate of review listens, I still cannot get through a single track of Spirit of the Stone without some gripe, large or small.