Let’s cut right to the chase, peeps; we live in a time where there’s very little innovation to be had within our blessed little circle of extreme music. Sure, you have bands that throw humongous curveballs at you from the far left, or those bands where they don’t innovate, but they sure as hell deliver with incredible conviction and sincerity. But more often than not, we are caught amidst the never-ending waves of retro-insert trend here. Be it 70s occult rock, 80s thrash metal, or in this case, 90s Swedish death metal, there is very little envelope-pushing to be had. Vanhelgd‘s fourth full-length, Temple of Phobos, hopes to at least color their homages to their country’s classic sound with some sprinkles of doom and experimentation. How successful are they?
It all depends on the listener’s patience and love for the original material from days gone by. Opener “Lamentation of the Mourners” kicks off with a tremolo riff to remind you that the red in the sky is truly theirs and theirs alone, taking the now well-worn path that At The Gates blazed over two decades ago. Even the vocals of Mattias “Flesh” Frisk borrow heavily from Tomas Lindberg’s younger years. Thankfully, the tremolo riffing of Frisk and fellow guitarist Jimmy Johansson keeps things interesting enough, especially during the chorus. About halfway in, the song slows to a near-Asphyx tremolo-peppered crawl, adding a bit of much-needed atmosphere before returning to kiss the burning darkness once more. Not a bad song to introduce your album, and it gives a decent snapshot to how the rest of Temple of Phobos plays out.
It’s not easy to take an old sound and do something new with it. Mess up the formula too much, and you’re betraying your influences, but if you stay within its restrictive confines, you wind up stagnant. Vanhelgd thankfully know this, as they do take a few liberties here and there, incorporating horns during “Den Kentrogenes Klagan,” and a serene female vocal and acoustic section in the first half of twelve-minute closer “Allt Hop Är Förbi.”1 The runaway cut on here is most certainly the title track, where Vanhelgd sound their nastiest, successfully amalgamating doom and death metal with a nice, primal middle section consisting of rumbling drums and chants that would have Rotting Christ running for their shields and spears.
But these moments are few and far between, as the rest of the album is a bit too familiar and slow for my liking. “Gravens Lovsång” slows the mood down a bit too much (despite having a sweet lone My Dying Bride solo guitar melody near the end), and “Rejoice in Apathy” slows things down even further immediately after. In both cases, however, the feeling of having heard this all before starts to creep in before “Allt Hop Är Förbi” closes things off. Thankfully, they’re played with enough conviction and sincerity to look past their shortcomings. Also, the Joona Hassinen production keeps things warm and heavy, with extra care in Jonas Albrektsson’s bass tones and the guitars.
So while this isn’t exactly fresh, Temple of Phobos is a pretty solid slab of Swedish death metal. I look forward to more experimentation from these guys, as they’ve given some rather good tunes on here. A little tightening up and a bit more variety, and we could have a new name to champion. Keep an eye out.