Kvaen – The Great Below Review

What’s there left to say about Kvaen beyond five little words, four of which are “fire?” Back in early 2020, Jakob Björnfot came out of seeming nowhere with a fully formed meloblack/speed metal aesthetic and a keen songwriting ear to deliver one of the the most vital sounding throwback records of the year. The Funeral Pyre had something going for it that a lot of good, even great records don’t. Beyond technical musicianship—which Björnfot most certainly has—beyond reverence for a genre’s history, that record was fun. As. Hell. It didn’t matter that no new ground was being broken, it only mattered that Björnfot was driving it like it was stolen. At the time I wrote that he played his style “with such verve and venom that it sounds as fresh as when it first emerged from the primordial forests.” Two years, a global pandemic and widespread civil and martial unrest later, how does Kvaen hold up on the all important sophomore release The Great Below? I’ll be kind and sum it up early: this album is fire, fire, fire, fucking fire. 

The Great Below finds Björnfot at times replicating his scorching meloblack successes, and at times expanding upon them with further forays into speed, thrash and especially Viking metal. One remarkable thing about The Funeral Pyre was how each of the first four tracks, taken in isolation, could be considered a near-perfect specimen of melodic ferocity. If you took “The Great Below” and shuffled it into those four songs at random, no one would question it coming from the same inspired songwriting session. There’s perhaps a thrashier edge to it overall, and this is repeated in the other song that feels like it came from the same head space as the debut, “Sulphur Fire.” With a blood pumping chorus that’s basically just shouting the song’s title, it makes a nice companion piece to Pyre‘s “Yee Naaldlooshii.” The largest departure from the debut comes in the form of two slower tracks that draw from the epic scope of Viking-era Bathory.

I want to focus on these two tracks because so often, when a band more adept at scorchers tries to slow things down, the results are mixed at best. This isn’t the case with Kvaen, since “In Silence” and “Ensamvarg” join the title track as album showstoppers. At seven and a half minutes, “In Silence” is by far the longest song on The Great Below—which by the way clocks in at a svelte 39—but you could tack on another minute and I doubt it would feel too long. The song rises and falls like the tide on waves of melodic guitar leads and tremolo riffs, but the steady, marching pace conveys the sort of solemn determination that clenches jaws and puts storms on brows. In his most Quorthon-esque turn yet, Björnfot uses stripped-down riffs and a rousing chorus synth line on “Ensamvarg” to create the most hopeful sounding moments of the album. This doesn’t mean for a moment that the aggression is dialed down, though.

That aggression, that conviction and ferocity Björnfot pours into his songs, is what separates his work from so many others. Metal is, as a rule, an eruption of raw emotion, but that doesn’t mean everyone who plays it is dialed up to 11 all the time. Kvaen comes close. Opener “Cauldron of Plagues” burns off eyebrows right out of the gate with a sustained shriek, blast-beat drums and one of those oh-so-pleasing melodic riffs, but that same energy is maintained even during the album’s more methodically paced moments. As on The Funeral Pyre, Björnfot brings several guest musicians along for the ride, starting with this album’s drummer Tommi Tuhkala and including Jeff Loomis (solo on the title track), Mike Wead, Sebastian Ramstedt, Nephente Fridell, Angus Norder and Vreth of Finntroll, but their contributions seamlessly fold into Kvaen‘s aesthetic. This is Björnfot’s show, and he executes his vision with authority and flair. 

This vision isn’t unique. There’s no dearth of metal musicians trying to catch black thrash lightning in a bottle. Kvaen just happens to hog up all the lightning. The Funeral Pyre was a hit because it was ears-pinned-back fun. The Great Below is an even better album because it captures that same ethos while expanding into wider and more subtle territory. This is once again end-of-year list material with multiple song of the year candidates to boot. For the moment, it seems Jakob Björnfot can do no wrong.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Black Lion Records
Websites: kvaen.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/OFFICIALKVAEN
Releases Worldwide: March 25th, 2022

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