As a mere music critic, I’m well aware I’m not in the music business in a meaningful way. Still, I’m entirely baffled when artists choose to release albums at the very ass end of the year. Even more perplexing is when an album drops on December 30th when a sizable portion of the world is distracted by holiday cheer and excessive eggnogery. Call it bad capitalism or extreme trvism, but one man doom death act Vanha decided to release an album on this of all days in what seems like a calculated attempt to get it overlooked. Luckily for all concerned, Steel isn’t letting this slip into that good night unnoticed. The brainchild of Swedish instrumentalist Jan “Jane” Johansson, Melancholia is Vanha‘s second offering and it mines the depths of established acts like My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost and Draconian in an effort to start your new year on a depressive foot. And a pretty decent foot it is too, as the man knows his way around the genre. What you get is 46 minutes of morose doom which flirts with several related genres, doing justice to all. Not a bad way to start the reviewing slog of 2019, eh?
Things open solidly with “Storm of Grief” which sounds a lot like Amorphis‘ early doom death days—plodding, morose and full of death roars, and it’s quite an immersive introduction. The stripped down presentation is effective, and when minor orchestration joins the fray a few minutes in, it works without diluting the overall heaviness. It’s hardly a revolutionary sound, but the mood is appropriately dour and the music is well conceived and executed. The orchestral elements linger into “Starless Sleep,” taking the route well trod by My Dying Bride by teaming weepy violins with the traditionally doomy riffage and funeral-esque death roars. Again, you’ve heard it before, but this will scratch that doom death itch for any fan of the style.
The remainder of Melancholia plays out in similar patterns. You can hear strong influences of more established acts in what Johansson does, but his compositions usually avoid sounding like mere clones. The excellent lead riff in “The Road” sounds like something While Heaven Wept might have conjured and it elevates the song from average funeral dirge to something a bit more. The strong Type O Negative influence in the vocals during “Your Heart in My Hands” pairs well with a palpable Wildhoney-era Tiamat vibe to captivate the listener’s attention as the guitars trill and moan morosely. All the songs work and help create a mightily bleak tapestry, but none fully rise to that next level where your heart races and your skin breaks out in goosebumps. Songs like closer “The Sorrowful” also suffer slightly for being too minimalist and one note through extended runtimes.
Johansson handles all the instruments and vocals and he’s quite adept at using minimalist riffs and melodies to maximum effect. While no riff succeeds to the extent of the one in “The Road,” the general level of riffcraft is effective enough to convey the intended grim tidings. The on and off use of violins and piano works well, isn’t overdone and never crowds out the guitars or vocals. Speaking of which, Johansson is a gifted death metal vocalist with a deep, rafter shaking bellow. He resorts to somber spoken passages more than actual singing, but when he does go that route he has a passable semblance to the late, great Peter Steele.
Melancholia is a successful journey into the grey ether, and it’s easy to put on and wallow in the grief presented. Johansson’s a talented chap with a solid handle on his chosen niche. If he can up the level of his writing a bit while working on a more unique identity, he’ll be on the cusp of becoming a genre contender. Until then there’s plenty to enjoy here if you need the happy holiday spirit smacked out of you. Now let’s work on that strategic release scheduling, eh?