There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Imagine if Agalloch had released Pale Folklore, The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain over a four-month period. These are all great albums and given time, you can appreciate every glorious nuance that makes them the timeless beauties they are. But over such a condensed period, crammed together, each vying for your attention, you appreciate absolutely nothing and eventually they gather dust. This is the problem that plagues the “busiest man in black metal.” Since releasing Enjoy of Deep Sadness back in 2014, Vardan‘s gone on to release four albums in around as many months with a fifth just on the horizon. Now, I get wanting to be productive, but this is just absurd. I’m at the point where Monday rumbles in and I check my e-mail to see if a new Vardan promo arrived. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight. At any rate, I’ve spent a good few weeks ruminating over Vardan‘s latest albums and I’ve done my damnedest to review each one of them. For this little exercise in patience and determination, I should collect some kind of research fee – if you can’t self-edit your work, then pay me to do it!
Only a short spell into Winter Woods, you’ll notice that the album falls solidly into those years between Agalloch‘s The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain. “Winter Woods Part 1” creeps in with painstaking slowness on a siren-like scream that sounds an awful lot like the opening to Agalloch‘s “Limbs” and the successive icy melody reeks of the very same influence.
Once again Vardan‘s changed up his vocal delivery to suit the nature of the album and for most of the opening track and what follows his tone has a wind-like chill. There’s a single instance on “Winter Woods Part 1” where you’re introduced to the clearer side of Vardan‘s dry croak, and lo and behold lyrics flow in and out of earshot,. It’s a fleeting but welcome surprise. Around the album midpoint (“Uroborus Black Circle”), Vardan drops vocals that sound cavernous, engulfing and dense, bringing to mind a grittier John Haughm (Agalloch) turned up to 11 before falling back into his usual droning anguished cries.
Of the five tracks that make up Winter Woods there’s barely a moment when you’re not reminded of Agalloch in some way shape or form, from the graceful and stark entrance of “Uroborus Black Circle,” to the stifling wintery guitar melodies that backbone “Cold Night of My Soul” and beyond. This is great and I’m a huge fan of Agalloch‘s sound, but by this point in the advanced depth of Vardan‘s discography I want more of his own personality to shine through with only a smattering of his influences providing nuance here and there. In general Winter Woods feels safe and comfortable going against what black metal, and more specifically, depressive black metal’s all about.
This leads me to another problem with Winter Woods – the subtleties which differentiate one track from the next. It often feels as if every single thought Vardan experiences needs to be expressed musically. A little like those friends on social media who compulsively photograph their breakfast, lunch, dinner and possibly their midnight snack too. It feels like oversharing, like you’re intruding in his personal space, like less would be more and that’s no more obvious than 5:34 into “The Cry of Dying Forests” where the guitar pickings just sound so random and unnecessary before this overly long track makes a harsh exit.
Despite the negatives, I really enjoyed Winter Woods. I experienced no ear-bleeding loudness issues, the production seemed consistently DIY, in line with both my expectations and with Vardan‘s earlier albums. Imagine my surprise when I see the DR reading and it comes back as a lowly 1 [A new record, yay! – Steel Druhm]! I’m at a loss on this. Maybe the gents at MetalFi will have some insight into how this can be. At any rate, consider this your fill of Vardan for some time to come. Going forward, Vardan‘s reviews will be aggregated into “The Year-end Vardan Report” since no one can keep up with his release schedule.
S.A.D. (Storm at Dawn) – This, the first of Vardan‘s 2015 releases has the lost, forgotten and sad spirit stepping beyond his depressive roots, chanelling ambient based riffs that borrow a little from the back catalogue of Burzum. There’s an increased energy on S.A.D. that underlies the dragging emotions of the four-track offering. “Dying Daylight”‘s impending tragedy and the circulating doubt of “Obscure Rumours” are a precursor to “Blacker Than Light” – S.A.D.‘s big crusher. From the onset, “Blacker Than Light” rattles your consciousness with fuzzed-out, upbeat melody and indistinct tortured howls that swim in and out of earshot, feeling brighter and more intense than anything Vardan‘s done before. The weirdly layered drum interludes, mimicking a miss-timed heartbeat, leave me very edgy and whether this was intentional or not is of no consequence as it certainly leaves a lasting impression that’s only slightly diluted by the Agalloch-like closer – “Storm at Dawn.”
Verses from Ancient Times – Well Vardan found a way to reduce the risk of ESL song title snaffoos here. Each of the (wisely) numbered tracks follows the upbeat path of S.A.D. while remaining unassuming with the murky blackened traits you’ve come to expect from a Vardan album. Vardan‘s vocals disconcertingly veer into the range of Maniac (Skitliv and ex-Mayhem) from time to time, but of the four tracks, II proves the most entertaining with its hints to the frostbitten ancient ways of early black metal wrapped in a cinching black ‘n roll embrace. I’m left wondering at the end of this album, whether S.A.D. and Verses from Ancient Times shouldn’t have been released as a single album with only the strongest of the strong making the cut.
The Night, The Loneliness – Don’t be alarmed, this album really does begin with Part 2. Playing out like the hush of night, this is considerably slower than what Vardan put out in the earlier part of the year and along with the subtle, barely there vocals you quickly find yourself in a dreamlike, reflective state with this one. Out of character for Vardan, he’s included entrancing keyboard interludes, with each of these moments of clarity dancing in and out of the boundaries of electronica, giving the album a melancholic melodiousness that during Part 4 and 5 leaves you feeling quite heartbroken. This is the perfect album to put on when your mind is racing and you need sleep.
Despicable Broken Hope – In amongst Vardan‘s strangled wailings, this album is largly focussed on hauntingly delicate Agalloch and Ulver-like guitar melodies that ring out clearly from each track. There’s not a bad song on the album but there’s also none that stand out as particularly remarkable. If you’re looking for good old-timey black metal slowed to a crawl, built around simple, frighteningly honest musical arrangements with heavily brooding atmosphere, then Despicable Broken Hope‘s depressive bleakness is the way to go.