I first became acquainted with Vananidr through the AMG metal forum. One of the contributors recommended the band’s second album, Road North, on the grounds that although it seemed, from afar, like a fairly straightforward, old-school black metal album, there was something compelling about it that kept him returning. Well, for once, the rabble was right: while Road North is far too long, it’s an unpretentious slab of second-wave, black metal goodness. It also sports that often-undefinable quality, possessed by bands like Immortal or Sacramentum, that brings you back again and again. I was impressed, and gladly signed up for the follow-up, Damnation. Although Vananidr is ostensibly a Swedish three-piece, it’s really the brainchild of creator Anders Eriksson, who formed the band and writes all the material. Vananidr has undergone serious changes in its lineup over the course of its existence, with the only constant factor being the presence of Eriksson. Damnation once again features a new line-up, but the sound has remained consistent; Eriksson refines, rather than radically alters, the previous aesthetic. I was a bit worried, however: Damnation is the band’s third album in a year. Is this a super-creative streak, or a rushed, over-extension?
Damnation’s biggest strength is that it continues to build upon the facet that previously set Vananidr apart from many similar bands: the ability to shift tempo seamlessly and convincingly. A lot of extreme underground black metal blurs into an indistinguishable mix of blast beats and basic riffs, all played at a similar, furious pace. Vananidr avoids this trap by regularly and seamlessly altering speed both within, and between, tracks. The best example is “Hunter” which has four major shifts, all handled organically. It isn’t the only example, however: the album is full of dynamic and entertaining changes that forge momentum (“Reflection”) or allow some breathing room when required (“Damnation”). These variations lend the songs a unique identity while avoiding the fatigue trap of similar-sounding bands.
Damnation also achieves the rare feat of achieving real catharsis by the album’s end. This happens because the material is strong – riffs stick, solos land, beats explode — but also because it is disciplined. Road North was bloated, but Damnation, with a run time of 45 minutes, is perfect, with not an ounce of filler. The already-strong material is further elevated by the energetic and sincere performance of the band members. Drummer Ljusebring is a superb addition to Vananidr, providing a solid, driving base to the songs, while also nailing complicated and hugely entertaining frills when given the chance to cut loose (check the final passage of “Hunter”). This means that when climaxes are reached, they hit hard and they linger.
I don’t have a lot to criticize Damnation about, but there are some issues that prevent it from achieving true greatness. I’m not a fan of the production, which is significantly murkier than Road North. Imagine the band photo above in musical form. I don’t think this adds anything to the atmosphere, but it does detract from the riffs by inexplicably burying them towards the back of the mix. In addition, none of this material is truly original or revolutionary. Anyone familiar with the sound of second-wave Scandinavian black metal will immediately feel like they’re putting on an old, comfortable shoe. Vananidr is here to operate in a well-worn sandpit, not to trail-blaze new paths.
Nevertheless, Damnation is a hugely impressive album from a very talented, unusually prolific band. It takes all the excellent aspects of Road North and builds upon them while cutting out much of the bloat that dragged that effort down. While the sound isn’t exactly revolutionary, it is still sleek, entertaining and dynamic, with a clear identity and aesthetic. The regular tempo changes and catchy riffs mean the listener’s attention never wanders or drowns, and the commitment shown by the musicians to their craft ensures that real catharsis is achieved. The production, frustratingly, is really the only thing holding it back, but even that can’t disguise what most listeners will discern after one or two spins: Damnation is the first really compelling black metal release of 2020.