Hræ – Þar sem skepnur reika Review

Iceland. What on earth do they put in the water over there? With a population of a small city, the country is consistently at the cutting edge of black metal. More importantly, there’s a certain aesthetic that is unique to the country; you just know when you’re listening to an Icelandic band. Now we have Hræ, the project of scene-veteran, I, who has appeared in other groups like Endalok, Naught and Guðveiki. The clear source of inspiration for its debut, Þar sem skepnur reika (Where Animals Roam) appears, at first blush, to be compatriots Misþyrming, especially their album Söngvar Elds Og Óreiðu. Both feature cover art showing red-tinted colorings of Francisco Goya’s etching, “Fiero Monstruo!” The similarity, however, is only skin-deep. While each plays cavernous, dissonant black metal, Misþyrming sticks to the time-honored BM fabric, with a bunch of dissonant ideas maniacally woven in. Hræ, on the other hand, is far more liberal and laissez-faire, using black metal tropes as a starting point for weird, almost jazz-like arrangements. The vocals, too, are more of the deep, growled variety rather than the traditional rasp. Intrigued? You should be. Is Þar sem skepnur reika another winner to add to the Iceland cannon?

You bet it is! The album’s greatest strength is that it manages to be both avant-garde in its dissonance, while retaining a distinct air of accessibility. It’s by no means an easy listen – and your non-metal pals will hate it – but anyone with an ear for Deathspell Omega or Icelandic acts like the aforementioned Misþyrming or Svartidauði, will soon adjust. It’s much easier to unlock than, say, Imperial Triumphant’s excellent Alphaville from earlier this year. This balance between complexity and accessibility makes for tremendous replay value. The spiky, restless “Drep” twists and judders like a restless eel, punctuating thundering blast beats with disarming and disorientating high-pitched guitars. “Paradis,” on the other hand, hooks you with its catchy riff before spinning you like a top with its creeping arrangements. There is so much to explore, and the melodies ensure that going back isn’t a chore.  It’s all compelling, fascinating stuff.

The other impressive aspect is the fearsome, yet balanced, atmosphere Hræ creates. This is primarily due to sole member I’s lead guitar, which displays an unhinged flair that is nevertheless extremely disciplined. Þar sem skepnur reika never sounds like loose improv, no matter how chaotic some of the songs are. “Lofsöngur hinna rotnu” judders and roars before squeezing its way through a frightening and compelling wormhole of spiky riffs. The switches between pummeling, traditional black metal, and more experimental, twisty passages are generally seamless and controlled, keeping you disorientated in the best possible way.

The album is not without flaws, however. While I’s guitar work is exceptional, the other instruments are merely perfunctory. Þar sem skepnur reika is such a complex beast, that the anodyne drumming, which often struggles to keep up, is unfortunately highlighted. “Hryllingurinn,” for example, features a guitar flying and swooping like a drunken bird, while a boring beat hammers away in the background. The recording is also a bit compressed and rocky: occasionally, the vocals or guitars drown out the drums, which momentarily go quiet before roaring back after a few seconds. It’s the aural equivalent of your eyes having to suddenly adjust to a dark room after being in bright sunshine. Except this feels like an issue with the recording process, rather than artistic choice. Either way, it’s distracting.

Overall, though, Þar sem skepnur reika is yet another sterling black metal release from Iceland. This kind of extremely dissonant black metal will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but Hræ balances its dissonance with a large dollop of accessibility. For those who thrive on complexity, it’s a real treat: disorientating, challenging, frightening and engaging, while also sounding unique. It pays homage to its influences without completely aping them. While Hræ may not quite occupy the rarified air of some of its contemporaries, it’s not that far off, which is amazing when you consider this is only the debut. I’ve spun this collection ten times already, and I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Best of all, I can’t wait to go back and explore it some more. Icelandic madness never sounded so good.


Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Goathorned Productions
Websites: hrae.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/Hræ
Releases Worldwide: September 15th, 2020

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