I’ve kicked around these parts long enough to see bands return for a second or third review. Their half-beheaded corpses dredge up memories of growing-pains reviews and the struggle to swing a clean cut. Though no less of a butcher now, it’s still a weird sign of growth, both for me and hopefully for acts returning for a smoother shave. Netherbird too evolved up quite a bit since the rocky, raw days of their youth. They’ve gone from garish gothic to contemplative pseudo-meloblack and the maturity required to handle that respectfully. Into the Vast Uncharted, then, is apropos, as despite that growth, Netherbird is a band searching for more.
On a sonic scale, the Swedes’ long-form black metal remains largely unchanged. However, their songwriting chops, improved in each iteration, push Uncharted over critical mass. The result is the most consistent, well-comported album of their career. Opener “Saturine Ancestry” is the Netherbird of now—extensive in scope, ambitious in craft, built on the years of hard work that came before. It’s almost high brow, the type of subdued melodic black metal you might find Gaahl swirling in a wine glass. That restraint keeps the obvious Dissection pastiche from consuming the album; the nod is sly and welcome instead of abrasive and ostentatious. Jon Nödtveidt is here in spirit, but instead of a record full of frost and fright, Netherbird embrace Bathory‘s legacy in wandering the seas and stars. Songs spin long, not so long as to be indigestible, but always with a point in mind. Everything about Uncharted distinguishes itself from the two-bit poser parade squabbling over crab droppings as they trail Abbath across the tundra.
Sure, the oogie boogie of “The Obsidian White” and the quick shot of “Lunar Pendulum” are essential to a well-rounded album, but “Mercury Skies” is their opus. It’s everything they vied for when they started their lonely trek, and it’s what they need more of to reach that next level. When eight minutes of excellence reveals Netherbird‘s potential so plainly, you take notice even if the supporting cast falls just short. Unfortunately, that’s the case. Netherbird are a only breath away from vaulting their fortunes into the same ragged heights as acts like Sinmara, The Great Old Ones,1 and Thormesis, but a breath away they are. The overall product, while cohesive and complete, still lacks that special something, the same missing element I got hung up on last time. The hooks are strong but short of sublime. When moving away from the headier aspects, abandoning the infinite obscurity of “Nexus of Unlight” for the storm of the light’s bane, the band doesn’t differentiate itself well from track to track.
With Dan “The Man” Swanö at the helm, the polished production perfectly pairs with what Netherbird are going for, adding to the overall cohesion. Even for Swanö, the sound, the style, the whole essence is perfect. Everything fits, like Nephente’s cowboy hat and the band’s leather fetish. The entire crew returns from The Grander Voyage and the band benefits from it. The drumming of Frederik Andersson (Amon Amarth) always stood out, but Tobias Jakobsson, Johan Nord, and Bizmark find their way into more consistently enjoyable riffs than ever before. The heavy metal so(u)los of “Harvest the Stars” and “Lunar Pendulum” share more in common with an old Ozzy record or Pantera‘s “Cemetery Gates” than rank-and-file meloblack. Likewise, Nephente’s Nödtveidt is strong. However, with music with this much dynamic potential, he should expand his repertoire to properly plunder those depths.
Netherbird show the poise of a band well-versed in their own sound and capabilities, and as a result Into the Vast Uncharted is their most complete album to date. It just… never quite reaches that next gear, “Mercury Skies” included. It’s a bonafide improvement over their last record, but more because my warm fuzzies for The Grander Voyage have dissipated. That final ascension has eluded Netherbird for their entire career, but now it’s so close, I can smell the crab legs. Each new release converts their potential into pedigree and polish and poise. With just a little more seasoning, Netherbird will have what they’ve been searching for.