It’s been five years since Norway’s Keep of Kalessin released Reptilian to a ludicrous amount of critical panning stemming from a combination of “The Dragontower” being entered into Eurovision and most critics donning their rose-colored glasses when looking at its two predecessors, Armada and Kolossus. While both were great albums, they weren’t at all perfect, featuring some grating mediocrity that was exacerbated further by appearing amidst some of the finest black metal of the aughts. Reptilian was no different, but their biggest swing-and-sort-of-miss on the record was placed at the forefront of everyone’s attention during the promotional cycle, and their public image has yet to fully recover. Epistemology is here to right those perceived wrongs, but how successful is it?
Anyone keeping up with Kalessin knows that vocalist Thebon is no longer part of the band, and mastermind/guitar extraordinaire Obsidian C. has taken on the role of vocalist whilst retaining his guitar duties. The rest of the band (bassist Wizziac and drummer Vyl) remains the same, as does their unique hybridization of Norwegian black metal and Scandinavian melodic death metal that began in earnest on Armada but was hinted at throughout their career. Obsidian possesses a smoother voice than Thebon, and it takes some getting used to. While Thebon would add his rough cleans frequently into the mix to accentuate certain phrases amidst his screams and growls, Obsidian tends to alternate between mid-to-high-pitched screaming and silky crooning, occasionally double tracking one over the other. It feels more calculated and a bit less passionate than Thebon’s best vocalizations, but Obsidian turns in a praiseworthy debut performance nonetheless.
In typical Keep of Kalessin fashion, Epistemology yields both epic killers and mediocre fillers. “Dark Divinity” is an example of the former, initially channeling the aggression and vocal hooks of Kolossus, then transitioning wonderfully into a mid-paced groove that Obsidian’s stellar lead work takes full advantage of. Proper opener “The Spiritual Relief” throws Obsidian’s vocals into the spotlight almost immediately with a solid two-part melody followed by a huge chorus, and moves to an extended somber coda with lush keys and subtle emotive playing from every member. The latter half of the killer to filler ratio damages some of Epistemology, notably in the lackluster “Necropolis.” The song rides what sounds like a modern Exodus riff all the way to nowhere and back, barely kept afloat by a catchy vocal hook and some good leads at the end. “Universal Core” is a little better, but never goes anywhere too meaningful beyond its interesting use of an almost funky black metal riff backed with Vyl’s fast and precise blasting.
The most infuriating aspect of Epistemology is the title track, which could’ve been the best song on the record by a mile but instead ends up as the album’s best track by a hair with big ol’ asterisks beside it. Beginning with some insanely catchy Kalessin aggression followed by nearly three glorious minutes of The Obsidian C. Lead Guitar Extravaganza, it sets itself up to be a career highlight. The five and three quarter minute mark sees the end of the soloing and Epistemology with a great melody that screams finality, which would be outstanding if this conclusion wasn’t dragged on for nearly four minutes; this incessant repetition nearly hamstrings both a would-be tremendous song and an emotionally potent ending to the record.
While there are some signs of minor growing (perhaps shrinking?) pains following Thebon’s departure, Keep of Kalessin have released another album with masterful highs and mediocre lows. In terms of production, it’s their most polished and loudest record since Armada, but I can’t complain too much given that Vyl, Wizziac, and Obsidian C.’s excellent playing is nicely showcased, leaving nothing to the imagination. Overall, this stands comfortably alongside the band’s prior three part-masterpieces, held back by noticeable mediocrity and an occasional need for more editing. Both die-hard and casual fans will find plenty to chew on with Epistemology, but as per Keep of Kalessin standards, there’s some fat mixed in with the AAA cuts.