The quality of an album’s production is a pretty common theme for reviews and comment sections here at Angry Metal Guy. We’ve all heard them — great albums that have been brickwalled, suffocated, or buried behind a head-scratching production choice that probably made perfect sense to the producer at the time. So when I received The Red Wanderer, the debut album from Isgalder, who play pagan black metal, and saw that the band produced the album themselves, I was apprehensive. We’ve seen this go wrong before. But I’m always happy to open my heart to new pagan-themed black metal, so hey, bring it on.
As I listened to The Red Wanderer, I found that there was a lot I wanted to like. This is an album full of good ideas that never really come together into something great. Take “Funeral Fire” as an example. Grimwald’s rasps are icy and powerful, while the riffing and keys that make up the song’s atmospheric backdrop work well together. “Soaring Mountains” follows suit, with an interesting tremolo lead, while “Empire of Ice” aims for fast-paced fury. And yet, little of The Red Wanderer really connected with me. There are some really cool ideas here, but unfortunately, the album feels restrained and held back by — yes, that’s right — its production.
The Red Wanderer is a promising debut rendered ineffective by the way it sounds. There is absolutely no power to this album at all, save perhaps in Grimwald’s rasps. I’ll start with the drumming, which has two primary issues to speak of. The first is that it is really quiet. Moppel is talented behind the kit, but it can be a bit hard to tell at times. The second issue is that the snares on this album sound suspiciously like tin cans, and achieve the opposite of what I think the band is going for with their use. Next up is the bass, which you might expect to be easily audible, considering how thin the guitars sound, but no. Aussen Geist’s bass work is only occasionally audible, which is a shame, since the bass itself sounds rather good. Thin guitars, a quiet bass, and non-impactful drumming are not issues that can be easily overlooked in any metal, and I’d say that goes double for black. “Empire of Ice,” aims for fast-paced fury, but fails, not because of poor songwriting, but because when the drums begin their blast-beating glory, the pace of the song somehow feels completely unchanged from beforehand.
What’s left of The Red Wanderer hovers stubbornly in the “okay” range. “Sirius Ablaze” manages a few spots of memorability, thanks to a cool guitar lead and and a vicious vocal performance. It also, however, serves as a spotlight for some of the album’s less exciting tendencies, namely the clean vocal lines and the keyboards, which sound out-of-place and inauthentic, respectively. The keys and choirs remind me uncomfortably of GarageBand samples, while the clean singing is given too much prominence in the mix, and works better as an enhancer than a lead. The clean singing works best in “Der Rote Wanderer,” which is arguably the best song on the record. It’s also fully acoustic, which means that the quiet drumming and clean singing actually work really well, to the point that the song’s eight-minute runtime feels much lower. It’s a clear sign of potential for Isgalder, but not a great point for The Red Wanderer as a whole.
The Red Wanderer concludes its sixty-five minute runtime with the twenty-minute long “Galthro,” which is, for the most part, a collection of wind and other ambient noises that connect two-to-three minute sessions of slow drumming and synthesizer melodies together. I don’t really understand the logic here. Increasing the album’s length by nearly fifty percent is a pretty strange choice to make for what ultimately comes across as a recycling bin for ideas that didn’t quite make the album proper. So The Red Wanderer concludes with its most disappointing track yet — and that’s a good description for the album as a whole. Beneath the awkward production and questionable choices is a good debut from a talented band — but sadly, it’s just too deeply buried here.