“You guys remember Istapp?” asked the Head Honcho Himself, as he shared the news of an upcoming release. Not to mention “I väntan på den absoluta nollpunkten,” from debut record Blekinge. A song from a record as novel as any the black/folk/Viking metal world has ever known. So much so that you’d guess these Swedes have been around since the beginning of time. Perhaps as a black metal outfit that morphed into a melodic, folky one? Or a group that invented the subgenre, releasing their first album before the almighty Bathory and his Viking trilogy? But, it turns out, the untouchable Blekinge is shy of only nine years of age. And the only other full-length in the band’s catalog is their 2015 release, Frostbiten. An album that fell short of its predecessor. While still great, Frostbiten isn’t as excellent as the debut. Which puts a little pressure on this year’s The Insidious Star. But what’ll be the outcome? Is The Insidious Star the best, the worst, or somewhere between? This may only be one man’s opinion but you’ll have to read below.
Psh… I’m not gonna give away the impressiveness or lackluster length/girth of this icicle, just yet. Though, there are plenty of attitudes and elements to note on this new opus. For one, there’s another lead vocalist for the band.1 For two, Istapp was pretty much a solo act in the early demos, but the founding member, Fjalar, chose to focus on his kit work and songwriting duties for Star. The result is that this new release is home to the most complete lineup the band ever had. And, with it, comes some of Fjalar’s greatest work. Along with the richest clean/harsh vocals the band has ever produced. Not to mention the band’s unwillingness to overstay their welcome, no matter how epic a song. Clocking in at a mere thirty-five minutes, Istapp proves, with The Insidious Star, that less is more.
And they begin by beating the brakes off your fucking Volkswagen Golf with the ferocious riffs of “Eternal Winter.” Like “Muspelheim,” the opener drops some aggressive second-wave riffage, but keeps it simple and focused. Or so it seems. It’s what lurks in the background that makes Istapp who they are. For “Muspelheim,” it’s the atmospheric melodics that mold the song into something more than the usual weekly black metal single. Yet, “Eternal Winter” does one better and gives the listener a taste of everything to come: a sweet dash of Borknagar/Vintersorg-like clean vocals, a poisoning cocktail of Immortal-ish/thrashtacular bliss, and leads/solos that’ll have you air-guitaring nude in your living room.
The only song uses all these elements (as any great Istapp song would) is the title track. It combines vicious riffs with gorgeous melodies, drum work that’ll stick like a thorn in your paw, and a repeating chorus that’ll haunt you even after it fades. The other tracks use parts, a combination of parts, or modifications of parts to tell their story. “Dit solen aldrig når” uses mid-paced, emotion-packed songwriting with some of Fjalar’s strongest footwork.2 “Vita döden” briefly dabbles in the folkiness of Finntroll, while “Natten då Gud blundade (1888)” borrows the Viking-ish qualities of Vintersorg. But that’s not all. The former ups the ante with some tasty Immortal-esque fretwork and the latter paints its rasping/growling interludes in Gorgorothian black.
Other tracks go extreme, rounding-out another classic Istapp release. “The Alliance of Cold” is similar to “Natten då Gud blundade (1888),” but in a one-hundred-eighty-degree kind of way. Instead of layered clean vox, “The Alliance of Cold” sticks to the raspy ones, delivering a meloblack ditty as beautiful as its clean-vocal led sister. “Snowball Earth” taps into the folkiness of “Vita döden” and “Natten då Gud blundade (1888)” and pushes it into the world of Dissection‘s Reinkaos—using a bigger-than-life chorus to match its more-accessible nature. Closer “Orrekulle,” much like “The Alliance of Cold,” prefers the rasps over the cleans, but it crushes the Gorgoroth/Dimmu Borgir chuggeries of “The Alliance of Cold” and the Dissection/Immortal chaoticness of “Vita döden.”
As with all Istapp releases, there is diversity here. How much you want and how much you need is dependent on personal preference. Though Star doesn’t quite rise to the level of the debut, it’s a step above its predecessor, Frostbiten. Which, all things considered, puts it in a great place. With only three LPs to their name, as well as household names in their field, I’m sure everyone will argue the ranking of best to “worst.” In any case, fans can rejoice to know that this new release is yet another masterpiece in the outstanding Istapp catalog.