As one of the writers with the least seniority, my relationship to the promo bin is like a continuous first date. More tenured writers with sharper elbows usually have dibs on established bands, so I must rely on two main factors when choosing reviews: genre tags and album art. Genre tags can be misleading, but as a professional in the visual arts for the last 20 years, my gut reaction to images is rarely wrong. Questionable visual choices often translate to sounds, and image medium tends to say something about the music. For instance, as Photoshop levels rise, the likelihood of my enjoying an album falls. Vanum caught my attention with this gorgeous image of a violent geological process–a particular interest of mine–that is both legibly pictorial and pulling at the edges of abstraction. Tasteful typography and minimal framing compliments rather than competes with the painting. Interest piqued, I dug further and discovered this to be a project of K. Morgan and M. Rekevics of American black metal bands Ash Borer and Yellow Eyes, respectively, both of which I enjoy. Now firmly on the hook, my main question is: does the musical carpet match the visual drapes?
It does indeed, as Ageless Fire, Vanum‘s second full length, is a scorcher front to back. Right from the jump, “War” announces that this is black metal without cross-genre bells and whistles. Influences here range from Rotting Christ to viking era Bathory to moments of Agallochian beauty, but this is certainly not Cascadian black, and it sounds much fresher than mere second wave worship. Warm production, clear guitar tones and un-intrusive synth work make Ageless Fire a great sounding record, and what it lacks in experimentation, it more than makes up for in ample melody and sharp songwriting. Although an instrumental, “War” is a fully realized exhibition of Vanum‘s strengths, with complementing melodies that unfold naturally throughout the song. It does the job asked of any intro, whetting the appetite for what’s to come.
For fans of Morgan and Rekevics’ other bands, Ageless Fire is a more immediate take on black metal. The doom-inflected cold of Ash Borer is dialed down, and while Vanum hews closer to the melodic wandering of Yellow Eyes, these song structures are slightly more straightforward, and stronger for it. The band itself calls this “elemental black metal,” and I’m inclined to agree with the term. This extends to the emotional impact of Ageless Fire, which boasts music that is stirring in a way that’s almost primeval. Case in point, the guitar line that opens “Under the Banner of Death” is downright majestic. The band takes its time building around this until vocals kick in at the three minute mark. The track closes with one of a couple well placed and well paced guitar solos found on the album (the other being in “Jaws of Rapture”), striking a similar emotional tone to the earlier melody. This is music to stand resolutely on windswept peaks to. Good work, if you can find it.
The criticisms I could level at Ageless Fire are minor and subjective. Some may find the vocal performance grating, as the hoarse barks can sound flat compared to the instrumentation. That said, we’re talking about black metal here, kids. If the vocals don’t sound like they’re doing permanent damage to your throat, you’re probably doing it wrong. Track lengths may also give some pause, as three of the four proper songs–closer “Erebus” is also an instrumental–clock in at over eight minutes. This is mitigated by Vanum‘s smart songwriting. On the excellent ten-plus minute “Eternity,” a chiming guitar line separates the song into halves before tedium can set in, lasting just long enough for listeners to savor the mood shift before the blistering pace resumes afresh. Also helping, the album as a whole is a highly repeatable 41 minutes.
If “Elemental” is a word the band means to evoke with their music, they succeed, and their choice of album cover communicates the same. “Tasteful” also comes to mind when considering the visual and musical compositions. Knowing what you want to do and then doing it well may seem simple enough, but it’s actually very fucking difficult. Vanum is a band who knows what they’re about. They represent themselves well visually, and the music speaks for itself.