I miss the days before my gig as a review monkey. If I liked an album, I’d spin it as often as I pleased for as long as I pleased. If the first couple songs didn’t grab me, I could hit pause, move on to something else, and never give it another thought. The freedom was beautiful, and I took it for granted. Now I break rocks all day in AMG’s labor camp. Each week, my cell door is thrown open in the wee hours and I’m roughly shackled to a new album. If I’m lucky, my temporary cell mate is tolerable and I won’t wake up to them leering over my bunk. Sometimes they’re sickly and die within the first 24 hours, but I still have to drag their corpse everywhere: to the rock breaking fields, to the weightlifting station during yard time, to my wife’s conjugal visits. But every so often the heavy metal door will creak open to reveal a gift of an album, a radiant angel of mercy taking me by the hand and bearing me away from my imprisonment on wings of fire. Kvaen‘s debut The Funeral Pyre is just such an angel.
Kvaen1 is the solo project of Swedish musician Jakob Björnfot (The Duskfall), although he employs a number of guest musicians to flesh out his vision. With The Funeral Pyre, he joins acts like Sun of the Sleepless and Spectral Wound as artists who play throwback melodic black metal with such verve and venom that it sounds as fresh as when it first emerged from the primordial forests. Björnfot changes up the formula a bit by weaving blistering 80’s speed metal leads and solos into his ferocious black metal riff cycles. The opening salvo of “Revenge By Fire” blends these two styles with a gorgeously toned buzz saw riff, and if it doesn’t pare your face flesh from your skull after five seconds, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. The song’s chorus is backed by an emotive melody as Björnfot rasps about a raiding party sailing to southern shores. It reminds one of a certain viking metal band, rhymes with Blamon Blamarth, although this is the first and last time Kvaen so directly conjure their fellow Swedes.
Fire is a theme that plays heavily across The Funeral Pyre, from the titular body burning to the fires of the sun to the last line of “Yeet Noodle Dish,” *checks notes* sorry, that’s “Yee Naaldlooshii,” which sidesteps all subtlety as Björnfot screams “Fire! Fire! Fire, fucking fire!” This lyrical focus on burning is backed up musically by the first four songs, which are all white-knuckle scorchers. Each features searing melodic black metal riffs and ear-wvrm choruses, with the speed metal elements in a complementary role, highlighted by the main riff in “Revenge By Fire” and the dynamic guitar solo in “The Funeral Pyre.”2 These are the kind of songs that do nothing innovative, but transcend genres and remind you why you got into metal in the first place.
A subtle shift happens on the back half of the album, starting with the relatively slow tempo of “The Wolves’ Throne.” This breather had me a bit worried at first, until the energy ramped back up and another heroic 80’s guitar solo dropped like a dime in the final minutes. There is no dip in musical quality over the last four tracks, as each is impeccably played, but they are less immediate than the first four, with fewer repeated choruses and more compositional shifts. “Bestial Winter” has no apparent chorus at all. What it does have is a pummeling first half of blast beats that get the heart pumping followed by a wonderfully urgent cascading riff. By the time closing instrumental “Hymn to Kvaenland” goes out on a relatively relaxed, melodic note, it’s like we’ve walked a cool-down lap after sprinting for seven.
The week I’ve spent spinning Kvaen‘s The Funeral Pyre is almost enough to make me forget that come the weekend, I may be shackled to yet another potentially mediocre album. One that I must nonetheless synthesize and analyze as I swing the ‘ol rock hammer in AMG’s Super Secret Siberian Labor Camp. But now I’ve got Kvaen‘s searing melodies and choruses burned in my brain, so they can imprison me, beat me, work me to death, but they can never break my spirit. At least until Steel Druhm foists another Christmas themed power metal album on me 3.