I like to think that I’m one of the more omnivorous consumers of metal on the AMG staff, but sometimes while perusing the promo sump, I’m overcome with a strong urge to say “fuck it” and dump nothing but atmospheric black metal onto my upcoming review schedule. There are so many submissions to choose from in this style, and I’ve had such consistent luck in reviewing the genre, that I would probably be content with pigeonholing myself as the blog’s go-to atmo-black guy for an extended tenure. Of course, “atmospheric black metal” is an especially broad classification in today’s metal climate, and perhaps no other album I’ve encountered plays with the term as loosely as Vallendusk’s third LP, Fortress of Primal Grace. The only “atmosphere” to speak of is a pervasive air of fun as black metal, melodeath, folk, and power metal collide in a longwinded yet unforgettable record.
One might think based on such a descriptor that Fortress might be written by guys who hold weekly contests to see who can tug themselves off to Jari Mäenpää fastest, but this is far from the truth. Vallendusk’s roots are indeed intertwined with black metal tropes, but at any moment the blastbeating, tremolo picking proceedings can swing unexpectedly into swift bouts of highly melodic death metal, and sweeping, melodic folk hooks comprise much of the record’s aesthetic as opposed to typical icy abrasiveness. The European folk aesthetic is so convincing that I have a hard time believing Vallendusk actually hails from Indonesia; the warm, crisp guitar tones and chipper note progressions come across as sincere and friendly, as if the music is blasting from a cozy pub on a cold night, inviting the listener inside. Vallendusk is having a good time, and they want to make sure you’re having fun, too.
In this hour-long quest in pursuit of an aesthetic that balances the epic with the earnest, Vallendusk largely forgoes any sort of identifiable song structures. Rather, the tracks’ individual movements are glued together by means of tonal consistency. This dedication towards self-contained atmospheres keep me constantly engaged in Fortress of Primal Grace and ensures that tracks never threaten to blur into each other. Though nothing on the record comes close to “skippable” territory, not all cuts are created equal. “At the Heart of the Storm” sports some of the record’s most immediate riffs, but is an obvious weak spot as it fails to explore new ground after its first couple of minutes. Conversely, other tracks are immensely enjoyable yet notably schizophrenic, with the two lengthiest pieces (“The Presences” and “Higher Ground”) exhibiting some of the record’s best ideas arranged in an order lacking in logic.
Yet when Vallendusk nails their sought-after balance of scope and cohesion, it results in compositions that feel destined to rank high in my year-end total listen count. The record’s greatest accomplishments include the ebb and flow structure and celebration-in-a-rainstorm atmosphere conjured by “Coronation” and the massive, novel melding of the cosmic and the nostalgic on “Eons.” The former is an excellent example of Vallendusk at their most effortlessly catchy, echoing the infectious folk metal melodics of Tyr, though other cuts such as “The Shield” benefit from injections of harmonized melodeath a la Skeletonwitch. Aggressive passages such as these would benefit greatly from an improved drum sound – as is, the skins sound weak and plasticy, as if recorded on a Hello Kitty drum kit – but the loose, naturally flowing instrumentation helps to balance out the artificial tone, despite an unnecessarily cramped mix.
When I wrap up a review, I typically take a break from the record in question for at least a few months due to the rapid saturation that the process entails. As I close in on what’s probably my tenth or so spin of Fortress of Primal Grace, I’m struck with the urge to keep listening to the damned thing. It’s records like this that I absolutely hate slapping a numbered score onto; though Fortress sports some glaring songwriting issues that ultimately drag down its rating, there is so much music here that is so very, very good that I’m not even close to sick of its countless hooks and riffs. There’s something very genuine and wholesome to Vallendusk’s take on folk-oriented black metal that should grant it a significant level of cross-fanbase appeal within the metal community, winning over black metal kvltists and power metal weenies alike. For someone like me who falls into both camps, this is the winningest of win-win scenarios.