SIG:AR:TYR are one of the most criminally overlooked acts in the Viking/folk/black metal arena and even after three high quality albums they still seem woefully under-appreciated. Taking the best elements of Bathory’s Viking era and fusing them with influences ranging from Immortal, Falkenbach and Primordial, founder and sole member Daemonskald crafted some amazingly epical moments on unsung classics like Beyond the North Winds and 2010’s Godsaga. After a long period of hibernation and transformation, SIG:AR:TYR now re-emerge as a full-fledged band for their new treatise on all things Viking, Northen. Clocking in at over an hour, Northen is a massive saga detailing the 10th century Viking exploration of modern day Canada as the Viking age itself was drawing to a close. Imagine what Bathory could have done with Hammerheart or Twilight of the Gods if he had a talented band and vastly superior recording technology and you get an idea of what to expect here – huge odes to the ways of the Norsemen full of thunderous riffage, glorious bombast and more heroics than 10 Avengers movies. Most importantly, you get songwriting chops capable of turning these elements into something truly special. One thing’s for certain: if you aren’t strong enough to swing a war hammer now, you will be after one spin of this platter of raw Odin-meal.
Allow me to be blunt: Northen contains some of the best metal you’ll hear in 2016. It’s a protracted war march of mammoth, skull crushing riffs and tasteful, even beautiful guitar harmonies all designed to conjure images of long ships crashing through the waves manned by bearded pagan invaders brimming with Northern rage. Opener “Helluland” is the best song Bathory never wrote and features the same kind of simple, martial riffs that adorned much of Hammerheart. It will have you raising a mailed fist in defiance in the very first minute and that fist will only clench tighter as the song (and album) progresses. On top of the stirring riffs and pounding war drums, Daemonskald and new guitarist Mike Grund interlace sweet harmonies and smoking solos that really take the band’s sound to the next level.
And all this is just setting you up to be pulverized by “Crowned,” which is a mighty contender for Song o’ the Year for it’s powerhouse energy and wicked Immortal influence. You can easily imagine Abbath crab walking to Vahalla and back as he riffs and raffs this tune out to the nine worlds. The solo break at the 4:00 minute mark is wondrous and fills my soul with a burning need to sack, pillage and gerrymander. “Runarmal” keeps the raiding party going with more Immortal-sized riffing and the kind of face-peeling solo work that could only be played atop a snow shrouded mountain during a lightning storm. It isn’t until “Markland (the Hammer Fades)” that things head toward calmer waters for a somewhat restrained plod. But even that semi-plod includes lovely acoustic plucking and dazzling fret-board wankery ripped from a Jag Panzer album before things erupt into mayhemic blast beats and berserker fury on the back-end.
The high quality never lets up either as “Skraeling” blossoms with lush acoustic work, gorgeous harmonies and enchanting leads, only to give way to the goth-rock meets Pale Folklore era Agalloch strangeness of “Krossanes” and the jittery, folksy grandeur of “Vinland.” Album closer “Last Ship Sails” is brilliantly melancholic, conveying the wistful awareness that you’re witnessing the end of an era and a whole way of life. It’s an emotional song loaded with tasteful, Borknagar-esque sweeping guitar-work and the perfect way to finish this magnum opus. I keep returning to this one and it’s easy to envision those long ships making their final voyage into a blood red sunset as the trilling riffs repeat themselves. Powerful stuff.
I was a fan of SIG:AR:TYR‘s prior works, but shifting from a one-man project to an actual band has made an enormous difference to their sound and scope. It still sounds like SIG:AR:TYR but now they’ve fully transformed into the beautiful Viking butterfly they always hinted at becoming. The step up in musicianship is apparent and the technical execution of these large-scale concepts is inspiring. The guitar-work is nothing short of stunning as Daemonskald and Mike Grund rewrite the book on what the genre should strive for musically. Whether it’s the soothing acoustics, rampaging battle riffs or beautiful soloing, everything works perfectly and nothing feels over or underdone. Daemonskald employs his standard black metal rasp but this time forgoes the occasional clean vocals and chants. Those provided variety and dramatic effect in the past and could have played an interesting role on such a massive epic, but in the grand scheme of things that’s a minor complaint. What matters is just how shockingly accessible and consistent this hour-long collection of 7-minute songs actually is. That’s a major testament to the top-notch writing and performances the band brought to the oaken table.
Northen is a near flawless album and a musical tour de force that manages to remain faithful to the Viking metal genre while elevating it to a whole other realm. This is the Nechochwen of 2016 and a serious contender for Album o’ the Year. As immersive and cohesive an album as you’ll ever encounter, if this doesn’t earn SIG:AR:TYR their due, then there is no justice in the metal world. Don’t miss this, because the North remembers.