Serpent Ascending – Hyperborean Folklore Review

Knocking about since 2008, Finland’s Serpent Ascending is the solo handiwork of Slugathor bassist Jarno Nurmi, formerly of Desecresy and Nerlich also. It wasn’t until 2016 that Nurmi released this project’s full-length debut, Aṇaṅku. A slab of blackened death metal in the vein of Desecresy and with more than a little Cruciamentum in the mix, Aṇaṅku packed a decent punch into its pleasingly trim 30 minute run. Another six years slithered by before the reptile resumed its climb to the surface, appearing now for second full-length outing Hyperborean Folklore. Can these tales from the frozen wastes of the North help Serpent Ascending reach new heights or is the metal ladder just too slippery for this snake?

Hyperborean Folklore is quite a departure from the blueprint set by Aṇaṅku. Where the last record was Finnish death metal with blackened edges and just hints of something more progressive, Serpent Ascending‘s sophomore effort is an altogether different sort of viper. The death metal has largely seeped away into the forest mists, leaving behind something built around the carcass of epic heavy metal and proto doom. It sounds at once familiar but in a way that, to these ears at least, was a little hard to pin down initially. Nods to Celtic Frost‘s Into the Pandemonium are channelled through Twilight of the Gods-era Bathory, with hints—just hints mind you—of Blind Guardian. The whole has a melancholic, wistful melodicism to it that feels somehow worn, like it’s almost cracking with age, as perhaps it should, drawing inspiration from the likes of epic Finnish poem the Kalevala.

The deceptively upbeat beginning to opener “Growth of the Soil,” soon gives way to a broodier, more portentous side of Serpent Ascending, as galloping guitar lines and insistent drumming beat out a rhythm by which to narrate extracts from a work by Knut Hamsun of the same name. Nurmi’s vocals oscillate been gruff, growls and barks, and a sort of husky chant, which is perhaps meant to emulate a skald of old telling great tales of death and heartache. This pattern continues across Hyperborean Folklore, and is most evident on the title track, as the record majors in contemplative and mid-paced, doom-laced epic metal but every now and again breaking into something heavier and darker, that threatens, but never quite delivers, old school death metal. Highlight “Stállus Hideout” sees Serpent Ascending at its most progressive and most epic, with those melodic leads punctuated by guitar lines that border on the psychedelic and Nurmi’s vocals coming dangerously close to (albeit poor) clean singing.

Comprising only four tracks, with the shortest being closer “Skadi’s Longing for the Mountains” at 8:28, the whole album keeps its predecessor’s trim figure, coming in at a nice 37 minutes. This is not folk metal in any shape or form but Hyperborean Folklore has that air of whimsy and storytelling that folk metal is often imbued with. It feels like one ought to be downing ale from a drinking horn as the flames dance, while taking in Hyperborean Folklore. And at times, Serpent Ascending does the blood pumping and the excitement rises, as its bard’s tales seem to reach a crescendo, like the last third of “Stállus Hideout” or the middle section of the title track. But, sadly, these are few and far between, with too much reliance placed on atmosphere and repetition in between such moments. Meanwhile, Nurmi’s already average and warbling vocals are not helped at all by the fact they disappear into a muddy void of fuzzed guitars and clicky drums for much of the album, with even the clean sections sounding distant and indistinct.

There is undoubted promise on Hyperborean Folklore, which is an altogether more interesting, if less consistent, record than Aṇaṅku. Serpent Ascending has not, however, managed to harness that potential into a truly compelling album. It doesn’t feel fully realized, as if Nurmi had the first cut of the record written and, intending to come back and add a few finishing flourishes or moments of mayhem, got side-tracked, never to return. I found this to be the case right across Hyperborean Folklore, even down to the way the closing track just fades out on a repeating refrain, as if it’s run out of ideas. Worth a visit but ensure you book your return.

Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: I, Voidhanger Records
Releases Worldwide: June 17th, 2022

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