Skuggorna Kallar follows the dying of the light on a Nordic eve. Darkness encroaches and envelops as light fades. Previously, Skogen had crafted airier atmospheric and pagan epics. Earlier albums, especially their magisterial second platter Svitjod (one of my favorites in this subgenre), carry a lofty melodic sheen. The crunching mid-paced riff-craft of their debut was present but filtered in lighter dosages. Four years later and Skuggorna Keller — their fifth album — comes knocking at our door, draped in ash and frost. This is Skogen‘s darkest record yet. Guitars have been tuned down to an A# to capture the heavy yet lurid darkness at the mystical heart of the Swedish night. Does this tonal shift detract at all from their sound? Has the epic quality of their first records been dampened by the heavy dew of night? Gå in i skogen.
Skuggorna Kallar is the band’s shortest and most focused album yet. Nothing lingers. Like the frosty air under a nebulous fog, everything is sharp and direct. Folky interludes and interruptions are kept to a minimum. The riff in the form of a heavy battle-axe is swung with consistent menace throughout. Bass heavy, the songs — especially in the opening half of the album — rupture into existence with a bone-shaking force. Opener “Det Nordkisa Morkret” explodes into existence from the first second, crunching, searing and buzzing with a deep and heavy forthrightness. Similarly, follow-up “Nar Solen Bleknar Bort” weaves a stinging thread of even more deadly riffs, counteracting the sharpness of the lead guitars is the bass that throbs with the subterranean force. What’s instantly striking is the greater frequency in the usage of the husky Solstafir-esque vocals. These perhaps make up 30-40% of the album, often a heavenly bridge between the hell-fire growls and gutturals that writhe through most sections. The clean vocals vary from excellent to downright-bad. The excellent nine-minute “Beneath the Trees” is slightly-ruined by the sappy, off-key cleans. There’s a sort-of endearing Quorthorn quality to these rough and ready vocals, but — in reality — the band could do a lot better.
The concept of the album rests on the relationship between the lighter moments, representing the fading of the light, and the darker moments that become heavier as the album transitions to the pit-black malevolence of darkest night. Acoustic guitar melodies often feature, sometimes as the backbone and driving force of songs — as in “Nebula” — and other times as an atmospheric accompaniment. Skogen excel in integrating folkier moments with tact and balance, something that seems difficult for a lot of bands in the genre. Another key integration is the icy cold keyboard sounds that ominously rest like a specter in the lofty heights of songs like “The Funeral,” the despairing, lead-heavy dirge at the album’s end.
Once again, Skogen sublimate these elements naturally and proficiently. They’re economical yet powerful. And, perhaps, this a slight problem I have with this album – it lacks that truly epic, vast quality. But, this is not an album that seeks to reach that. Skuggorna Kallar deals more with a claustrophobic blanketing of darkness rather than the vast airiness of a Swedish landscape. In my eyes, Skogen do the latter better — the former is still really, really good though. I remember when I reviewed Wormwood‘s Ghostlands and I mentioned a moment in “Between Ravens and Bones” where the song suddenly transitioned into a 10-second span of pure musical bliss, at least in my mind. A similar moment occurs here, mid-way through the standout “Frostland,” where a subtle twist in the tone of the song following a solo sends forward an epic gallop of Viking-esque romance. These moments, though, are — compared to previous albums — rarer.
After much reflection, I find myself slightly underwhelmed. The off-key cleans of songs like “The Suns Blood” and “Beneath the Trees” are a barrier to enjoyment. Conversely, the outstanding clean vocals in “Nebula” and the husky tones of “Frostland” are an outstanding force. Riffs, though simple and dirtier, are etched with an abundance of well-attached dark atmospherics and the album has a natural, well-formed rhythm that makes this is more than pleasing listen. And the solos especially are a joy to behold. Yet there’s just something that lacks here: vastness. The album is actually too short — an extra ten-minutes would actually allow the excellent moments here to embed in this frost-bitten cemetery.