Oh, Kvelertak. Five years ago and hot on the heels of their 2010 self-titled debut, it seemed the Norwegian sextet were the subject of every third MetalSucks post, and their wild live shows were the stuff of legend. In a metal scene curdling from years of cvlter-than-thou extremity, the group’s insanely catchy combination of blistering black metal, hooky arena rock, and party-hard attitude not only appeased metalheads with a repressed desire to let loose and rock out, but also broke through to listeners who seldom dipped their toes in the insular metal blogosphere. With great songwriting and memorable riffs, the group’s rise to fame was well-deserved, and at the time they seemed poised to only keep growing.
Always one to sniff out the latest trend, I experienced Kvelertak firsthand during a New York Harbor concert cruise in 2011. In a drunken haze of broken ceiling panels, bloody noses, and sweaty Scandinavian bellyfat, I witnessed a boat get utterly trashed while pounding my fist to anthem after anthem of blackened punk n’ roll. In the aftermath, I lost my new Warbringer shirt but gained a wispy-eyed appreciation for the group – one that wasn’t stymied until 2013 Roadrunner Records debut Meir. The record was just as its translation suggested: ‘More.’ As in, ‘more of the same, but not quite as good.’ Coupled with a far less rowdy live performance I attended that same year, I was inclined to believe my Norwegian punk idols were another promising group that burned out too quickly.
Fortunately, third album Nattesferd (‘night traveler’) is a different beast. Rather than attempting to reclaim the punked-up aggression of the debut, Nattesferd sees the group dialing things back in favor of more relaxed, colorful hard rock. In fact, other than opener “’Dendrofil for Yggdrasil” – whose searing blasts and faintly cheery tremolos sound like the band’s last-ditch attempt to get re-listed on Metal-Archives – there’s little here that resembles black metal at all. ‘Sell outs!,’ you cry? Thing is, it works.
Rather than toning themselves down in a bid for commercialism, Kvelertak instead sound like they’ve made the shift out of sheer inspiration. Take first single “1985,” an afternoon joyride of mid-tempo beats, breezy leads, and Sunset Strip power chords culled from Van Halen’s playbook. It’s terrific, and while frontman Erlend Hjelvik maintains his signature throaty rasp throughout, that’s the only vestige of extremity in songs like “Odskapens Galakse,” whose steady beat is built off what sounds like a lost Sisters of Mercy guitar-line.
With three guitarists, it’s a shame solos aren’t more common, but the stylistic diversity more than makes up for it. Early highlight “Nattesferd” builds off a vintage bass intro and terrifically fuzzy Queens of the Stone Age melodies before the airy clean vocals of the refrain, while “Bersekr” goes straight speed metal with its divebombing main riff and galloping rhythm. “Svartmesse” begins with a progression that sounds inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd before moving into a clean/harsh vocal pairing that hearkens back to the debut, while “Bronnesgard” punctuates its pounding measures with shouts of “hey!” and “whoo!” along with lively guitar trills.
Some problems from Meir still remain – namely, the group sometimes plays ideas a bit beyond their ideal lifespan. Aforementioned “Yggdrasil,” “1985,” and “Odskapens” all feature extended instrumental outros that feel pointless, while “Nattesferd” probably didn’t need a full two-minute intro. Additionally, the eight minute behemoth “Heskebrann” and the Happy Meal-sized Electric Wizard riffs of closer “Nekrodamus” – while both good tracks – may have found better homes elsewhere in the track order, as ending the record with two relatively sluggish songs feels less like a victorious sprint across the finish line and more like Ron Jeremy waddling around with a loaf of bread shoved up his ass.
While Natteferd’s production is a bit flat, the mix is solid, and the vintage guitar tone and plump bass are a welcome fit for the record’s feel-good, summer cruising vibe. While not a perfect record and certainly not a complex one, it’s packed with great moments, and feels refreshingly comfortable and genuine. Ultimately, while trading the gut-busting viscera may have drawn the band further away from a ‘metal’ tag, it also may be just the deal Kvelertak needed to make to keep listeners – and themselves – fully engaged. Rock on, boys.