Karmanjaka – Gates of Muspel Review

I know what you’re thinking: dark, fantastical imagery; Norse titles and lyrical themes; a spiky logo. Gates of Muspel by Karmanjaka must be the latest in Scandinavia’s bottomless sump of black metal. You’re not wrong. Muspel is a contraction of Muspelheim, the most Abrahamically hellish of the nine realms, replete with fire and destruction. Accordingly, this troupe most obviously aligns with black metal of the core metal sub-genres, advertised as for fans of Enslaved, Borknagar and Rotting Christ. These references are fitting; each boasts particularly progressive or theatrical forms of the style, and so it holds for Karmanjaka too.

Though “black metal” offers an umbrella description of Muspel’s music, woe betide those that instinctively dismiss this release because of it. Eldritch Elitist described them as “black metal with a power metal feel,” and while I don’t think that tells the whole story, that’s not a bad place to start. I suspect this comparison draws from Karmanjaka’s theatricality and the relatively clean, harmonic guitar tone which is layered over a lot of the music. They don’t completely align with “melodic black metal” but the music is plenty melodic. More than this, it’s rich with textures in a way that goes further than the bleak, thin texture of 90s black metal. And it’s certainly more dynamic than most, with reasonably detailed compositions. Muspel features winding tracks flowing between blackened passages (with traditional tremolo-picked guitars and blast beating drums), chugging grooves, noodling transitions, uplifting group chants and shout-along choruses. It’s a lot to take in on first listen.

Further than just fluid intra-track song-writing, there’s surprisingly varied inter-track song-writing too. Each song has a slightly different flavor and spin on the core aesthetics. The drums across the front half of “Draug” evoke a battle scene, while the drumming on “Amongst the Waves” is far more tribal. The opening couple of tracks conclude with grand, climactic set pieces, while big harmonic guitar solos across the last few tracks really emphasize the overblow, melodic qualities of the band. And speaking of “Amongst the Waves,” the breakdown over its introduction makes for a compelling and emotive change of pace, leveraging electric and acoustic guitar harmonies with windy synths to build atmosphere. Muspel remains energetic and intriguing throughout due to its diversity.

However, this relentless dynamism doesn’t always work in Karmanjaka’s favor. A number of tracks smash unrelated ideas together as a way of creating songs. “Draug,” at track 3, is one half an introduction and one half an interlude. Its rolling battle opening cuts back before restarting with a repetitive shredding lead. There’s an attempt to return to the introductory melodies at the conclusion but this just whiffs of their not knowing how to finesse the ideas into a single song. “Socerer King”1 echoes this to some extent with a blunt transition in its middle which doesn’t do a lot to bridge two distinct passages. Each of its halves are enjoyable individually but don’t fit together. This is symptomatic of Muspel overall: it features lots of strong elements but never quite pulls them together into greatness. I’m left with an overarching sense that there’s too much content squashed into too little time. It’s somewhat scattershot and lacks song-writing discipline.

Despite my critiques, I can’t help but enjoy Muspel. Everything here is executed with so much enthusiasm and panache that somehow Karmanjaka pulls it off – even across the excessive 10-minute closer called “Fenrir.” This track rambles on somewhat aimlessly in places but it’s annoyingly engaging throughout with its riffs, solos and general sense of excitement; in short, it’s a microcosm for the record as whole. The incessant change and busyness, including in the squashed mix, tries to dampen my enthusiasm and yet my enthusiasm persists. This is not the black metal you think it is based on its name and art.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps MP3
Label: Grind to Death Records
Website: facebook.com/karmanjaka
Releases Worldwide: February 11th, 2022

Show 1 footnote

  1. Sadly not my spelling error.
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