With roots reaching as far back as Bathory, acoustic guitars have long subverted the conventions of traditional black metal, adding vibrancy to a scene born of minimalism. The last fifteen years have seen acoustic-laden acts like Agalloch and Panopticon transcend the genre with atmospheric forestscapes that owe a great deal to the Grandpa’s guitar. This evolution lit a new path through the early darkness of winter and allowed Netherbird to find fresh inspiration later in their career. After years worshiping Cradle of Filth and Dissection, The Grander Voyage signals an important turning point in the continual transformation Netherbird began with The Ferocious Tides of Fate.
With its opening notes, The Grander Voyage triggers the new focus on atmosphere central to the album’s success. Intro “Pale Flames on the Horizon” acknowledges the group’s earliest progenitors with a stormy, probing opening reminiscent of Hammerheart‘s “Shores in Flames” before partner track “Hinterlands” shifts Bathory parallels closer to Panopticon. Divergent rhythms and devastating drums bind the assertive riffing of “Hinterlands” into a tumult of melodic fury, while Nephente’s phenomenal vocals cash in their usual guttural villainy for gasps akin to a punchier Daemonskald (Sig:Ar:Tyr). The result emulates Dissection less than ever but sacrifices none of its potency. Rather than burn out early, the Swedes opt to balance this fire with its rain-drenched motif; however, acoustic guitar now expands the somber atmosphere into something more. Time and again Netherbird returns to this thematic reset, simultaneously letting the storm cleanse its aggression while the supporting instrumentation unshackles the work from prior influences. The crystal-clear piano that cuts against a swirl of storm clouds and plaintive howls provides a fantastic climax to “The Silvan Shrine,” while closer “Emerald Crossroads” sees both piano and acoustics elevate the blackened experience. Though never as totalitarian as the atmospheres established by stalwarts like Ethereal Shroud or Downfall of Nur, this setting reflects the logical next step in Netherbird‘s ever-changing progression.
Netherbird‘s few deficiencies fittingly stem from their discarded character traits. Noticeably absent is the cutthroat brutality that made previous entries so appealing. Tempering Nephente’s growls dull the album’s sharper edges and require the music to stand on its own. Additionally, a more steady flow of thrilling peaks and dew-kissed valleys would serve TGV well. When “Pillars of the Sky” finally bursts into the sunlight, riding thumping bass pedals over triumphant refrain, the album’s highlight is all too brief. Though the heavy attention to scene-setting pays off overall, the nature of the record skews away from the memory-making quality of Netherbird‘s early years. Though this balance is rooted in the core of the album, a rearranged track listing may help. “Dance of the Eternals” and “Windwards” pair off similar to TGV‘s introductory tracks, matching waterlogged ambiance with charging strands of compelling riffs, but slotting them directly after “Hinterlands” retreads established territory. Bumping a diverse album-ender up in line would separate these natural foils and offer a fulfilling thematic loop.
Netherbird is a band with the good fortune to have no weak links. Filling in on the kit, Marduk skinsman Fredrik Widigs stands out with exuberance and precision, consistently selecting the right fills and beats with ease. Though stylistically Nephente may lack the killer edge I crave, in execution he excels. His lyrical themes center on senses of discovery and renewal, fitting words given the band’s constant fluidity. Guitarist and keyboardist Bizmark again handles the bulk of the writing duties and the ensemble cast with focused and well-arranged movements. The Grander Voyage suffers from little chaff at a well-trimmed forty-two minutes, with each track deserving of its long run time. Though opening salvos from “Hinterlands” and “Windwards” grabbed my attention early, “Pillars of the Sky” and “The Silvan Shrine” reeled me in over and over with their tonal diversity and natural progression.
Four albums and four gradually variant styles later, Netherbird can do no wrong. Embracing and then transcending various trends in black metal have made the act impossible to pigeon-hole. Lurking just outside the upper echelon of the scene, The Grander Voyage represents the summation of the band’s musical coming-of-age and flags the group as one to watch in this evolving black metal scene. If Netherbird was not on your radar before, it should be now.