Nostalgia. In times of uncertainty, people seek its warm and motherly embrace: the familiar smells, the sense of safety, the notion that things were “better and less complicated” back then. Artists have been trading off nostalgia for years now, whether it’s dropping the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens or the Pixies reuniting to perform Doolittle, there’s an undeniable comfort in the familiar. Perhaps this is the reason “traditional” sounding black metal appears to be making a comeback of sorts. Of all the subgenre branches of the massive tree of metal, black metal ones are the most versatile, unpredictable, and durable. When offshoots include dream-pop, (An Autumn for Crippled Children), shoegaze (Deafheaven), doom (Mizmor), and endless other variations, it’s easy to get lost and deviate from the original source. There will always be those who yearn for the simpler days of climbing the original trunk: of not being side-tracked by irritating distractions or detours. For those who yearn for those simpler days, I present Nattverd, a Norwegian black metal band from the icy shores of Bergen. Playing black metal that hearkens back to the days of the greats of the second wave movement, Styggdom is the band’s second album following 2017’s Vi Vet gud Er En Løgner. This promises a return to the days when Scandinavian weather was cold, the metal was evil, and churches distinctly flammable. Is that nostalgic itch about to be scratched?
Styggdom‘s fantastic album art sets the stage. At first glance, it appears innocuous: a figure in a bed, illuminated by a ray of sunshine, next to a collection of trinkets. Closer evaluation reveals a rotting corpse, prostrate next to items that are now rendered useless. The decay, despair, and horror are evident but require investigation. This is a good metaphor for Styggdom. What appears, at first glance, to be standard black metal in the vein of Darkthrone is actually more complicated. There’re fury and despair aplenty, but the band is careful to alternate these with plenty of catchy moments, fiery riffs, and clever touches. These ensure that at its best, the band is frightening and compelling. Unfortunately, the best moments are contrasted with some fairly significant weaknesses.
The first notable strength of Styggdom is the tremendously oppressive atmosphere it creates. Beginning with a frightening scream, the fear and malevolence are palpable. From here there is hardly a moment to breathe. The dual vocals, alternating Mayhem-type croaks with the more traditional black metal shrieks, combine extremely effectively, maintaining just the right balance of unhinged chaos and remorseless fury. Brief spoken passages over the music, which usually just annoy, are actually effective here, adding to the unsettling sense of dread. The devastating percussion and thick guitar work are impressive, but there isn’t very much variety here, which results in songs that sound like a whole lot of other bands, and a whole lot of Scandinavian bands at that. This lack of surprises in the music ultimately becomes wearisome and results in limited replayability.
Unfortunately, while the best moments of Styggdom are really great, this hour-long collection of songs just can’t maintain the intensity. Some of the tracks (“Heksebrann,” “Gatelangs i og rike”), like the album, go on far too long. Chords are repeated, ideas recycled, and attention spans wander. The riffs themselves are often of the basic variety (“Dragsvoll”) with little to truly wrestle the listener’s attention. Unoriginal music is fine if it is consistently entertaining. Nattverd, however, loses its way too often, with results that are occasionally stale and lifeless.
Ultimately, Styggdom is an album that I enjoyed listening to, but it has too many flaws to be able to strongly recommend. The atmosphere and vocals are fantastic, and when the riffs click, the results are frightening in all the best ways. But you’ve heard this all before, and you’ve probably heard it better. It’s too long and too repetitive and only intermittently as engaging as it should be. If the urge to indulge your nostalgia for traditional Scandinavian black metal is simply overwhelming, you’d best be advised to flip on one of the classics.