“Too dense, too impenetrable, too fucking spooky,” a n00b once regarded black metal. That poser embarrassed himself as glorious Icelandic output like Misþyrming sailed right over his head; now he’s putting poor other n00bs on blast over it. That is to say—in the most roundabout way possible—black metal good now. So, much to a lesser me’s surprise, I clamored after the ensuing jump-ball when Svartidauði guitarist Þórir Garðarsson resurfaced with Almyrkvi and Slidhr alums on Sinmara’s sophomore release. Cue the cliché about “being glad I did because Hvísl Stjarnanna is great,” because I’m glad I did, and Hvísl Stjarnanna is great.
Those expecting another systematic extermination of poser souls like that one Svartidauði unleashed last year will find themselves no less impressed, but perhaps surprised by the methodology. The riffs of Garðarsson and Garðar Jónsson (Almyrkvi, Slidhr) press less directly than I expected. Instead, they layer dense Deathspell Omega dissonance in a space somewhere between the aggression of Svartidauði and the aura of Misþyrming. Opener proper “Mephitic Haze” teases that individualism early. During that harrowing drive through the night, the dissonance swings back toward overt melodicism, albeit briefly and in a restrained manner. As the volcanic ash settles around you at the end, the pattern more Cascadian than Scandinavian, that attribute threatens to pass as simple dalliance as “The Arteries of Withered Earth” leaves it largely untouched. However, early Song of the Year-candidate “Crimson Stars” blossoms around that approach, finding stellar direction in both the blackened magma of Sinmara’s fury as it builds toward a finale rife with head-snapping pseudo-melody that, though born of dissonance, could be another of Elder‘s arpeggiated concoctions.
Hvísl Stjarnanna primarily operates in a balanced template; its long-form entries weigh heavy on the ear but prefer asphyxiation to piledriving in execution. “Arteries” evokes a more atmospherically-produced version of The Satanist as it trundles through blood and bone, thanks partially to Ólafur Guðjónsson’s Nergal-esque vocals. That superb production ties together with the aforementioned balance in a way evoking Devouring Star. And as with Devouring Star, the peaks in the mist, the moments of pvre blackness that files the corpsetiller through the fetid graveyard soil and unearths the horror beneath, are damn important. However, the album’s best moments come from elsewhere. The oft-quivering dust in the air, of “Haze” and “Stars,” marvelous on the pained intro to “Úr Kaleik Martraða,” steals the show from the traditional bits. When “Úr Kaleik Martraða” moves away from that direction, I find myself torn back. This fault does not lie with the aggression itself, as Sinmara do not sell themselves as, nor do they come across as, a purely atmospheric band. Asking them not to pummel seems asinine, especially the necessity of pacing shifts. Instead, this seems more a case of a band doing something interesting so well that the more standard fare is relegated toward the back.
That sense might be mitigated if the production tended closer to Svartidauði‘s. The performances of drummer Bjarni Einarsson (Almyrkvi, Slidhr) and bassist Sigurgeir Lúðvíksson sink beneath the dirt of the modern blacken burial, with the latter almost entirely gone. This works fine for Guðjónsson’s jagged, echoing affectations, but losing the pop of the rhythm section lowers Sinmara‘s face-bashing potential. This style is understandable and almost certainly intentional, though a looser master couldn’t hurt. With Garðarsson and Jónsson’s guitars often curling in several directions at once, space has to come from somewhere. Otherwise, the overall presentation is marvelous and menacing. It allows what on paper should be a nearly impossible record to swallow, given the breadth of it all, and makes it an incredibly easy record to spin over and over.
Sinmara remain transient yet whole. They rip through ideas and dabble in the unconventional and the odd in ways that differentiate themselves from their compatriots, but all the while stay on course. The results are sublime, a spectacular composite that satisfies you regardless of whether approaching it with a magnifying lens or from across a crowded museum hall. If the world were made of me’s, Sinmara might be billed a one-trick pony because their atmosphere is so meticulous, so deliciously evil and edible, that aggressive aspects feel lesser. Fret not though: Hvísl Stjarnanna handles its multiple facets with such clear skill that it offers something for everyone. I found my niche; I don’t doubt that you will too.