What makes speed metal speed metal? Holdeneye mused on this philosophical nightmare not too long ago, and never really formulated an answer. At the time he was pacing around the Angry Metal Break Room like a caged animal,1 muttering incoherently to himself, I spent many an hour watching him, amused, thinking to myself: “Riffs. Speed. Done.” I’m a bit basic that way, but really, as long as the music is speedy and the riffs are good, what cause have I for complaint? Lo and behold, a short time later I wound up with Mystik, the eponymous debut album for Swedish purveyors of speed metal. “What cause have I for complaint?” I asked. And friends, I’m sad to say, I have my answer.
Riffs and speed, I said, and make no mistake, Mystik has both riffs and speed aplenty. For the whole of its thirty-seven-minute runtime—excepting the thirty-two-second outro track—the listener is treated to a non-stop barrage of thick, upbeat riffing as the meat of the album. And yet, I don’t really feel like I’m getting everything I’ve asked for. Lo Wikman and Beatrice Karlsson are certainly skilled guitarists, but for most of the album, it feels like they’re just going through the motions, playing whatever is going to sound good for their designated audience. The same feels true of Julia von Krusenstjerna’s vocals. Her singing hovers in a bit of an awkward place for most of the album. She isn’t quite singing; she isn’t quite speaking. It feels more like melodic narration, which doesn’t exactly muster the kind of energy demanded by the style.
Not mustering the kind of energy demanded by the style is probably the biggest issue Mystik has, and it weighs the album down heavily. I really don’t think Mystik sounds much like speed metal. The ambition, passion, and drive that this style needs to thrive just isn’t here. Certainly, there are a few memorable moments; the chorus from “Nightmares” is surprisingly catchy, and I really like the lead guitar lines from “Lake of Necrosis.” But for the most part, songs blur into each other, despite the general variety of riffs in each one. As an example, I know that I like “Lake of Necrosis,” and remember that it has cool lead lines, but I can’t actually recall any of its riffs or leads at the time of writing. I just remember enjoying it during each album listen.
The production and mastering, unfortunately, do not help matters. There are moments throughout the album where it feels like Sven Nilsson’s cymbal section is given equal prominence to the riffs, and others where his drum kit isn’t nearly audible enough. Worst of all, no instrument has any time to breathe in the crushing master—it wasn’t until the album was over halfway finished on my first listen that I could definitively say there was a bass here at all. And this kind of blurriness is the death of aggression. I don’t doubt that Mystik are looking to sound tough and aggressive, but nothing about Mystik really conveys that properly. Maybe it’s because of the brickwalled sound, or maybe their hearts really aren’t in it.2 When the album concludes (“Ritual (Outro)”), however, with a literal thirty-two second “hail Satan”-style chant, it feels insincere and tacked on, as though for arbitrary aggression to make up for a master that won’t allow it to thrive otherwise.
Mystik has all of the components to make up good speed metal, and the band is certainly not lacking in talent, but the execution simply falls flat. This is sort of like what I imagine would happen if you hired a bunch of freelance musicians and told them to “play speed metal.” It has everything, really—riffs, speed, lyrics glorifying hell-themed adventures—except discernible passion to really push it into where it needs to go. And to me, anyway… that’s simply crucial. Riffs. Speed. Passion.