As the old (not so old?) adage says, scratch the car, but don’t total it. If dumping Ungfell‘s TYMHM last year counts as a fender bender, then my whiffing on Varmia‘s TYMHM altogether came damn close to causing a five-lane pile-up. Z Mar Twych crept straight outta Poland, riffing that mean blackness, that the country has become known for, while still having a folken good time. W Ciele Nie arrived little more than a year later, and I’m left wondering what the hell happened in the interim. A new label setting unrealistic deadlines? The infamous sophomore slump? Did Czernobog steal their riff-making abilities to create some sort of shared hell for band and reviewer alike? Whatever it is, W Ciele Nie is the record I expected, but not the one I wanted.
At first blush, everything is right where it should be: quirky rhythms, reverberating drums, and a cutting Polish blackness folked up through a distinctive backing intonation and something called a… tagelharpa? And another instrument named a krivula? Opener “TAWE” may (or may not – what’s a krivula?) have all of these things. Yet unlike before, what really matters really sucks. Somewhere in the last year, the black metal portion of this black/folk band lost its way. Were this Varmia‘s debut, the shrug-worthy riffcraft might skirt by on inexperience and an otherwise unique sound. Instead, WCN is a bitter pill to swallow, knowing Varmia could manage so much more. I’ve been informed that my happiness is directly proportional to an album’s riff count, and that’s what’s at fault here. The lone killer in the filler, “Pokarvis,” and too-short closer “Bez pożegnania” serve as a reminder that Varmia can slug it out with the rest of the hooded masses. By and large, however, it’s like these guys forgot how to riff.
Pressed for a culprit, I turn a malicious scalpel to the quick turnaround period. WCN is too basic and pedestrian for a band that showed such pedigree in navigating the quiet moments around a roaring hearth and the branch-snapping fervor of a midnight storm. “Skvarc” manages this in their opening build, but without a screaming blackened mortar to hold their shit together, the rest of the song’s eight minutes barely manages par. Lasota’s vocals still work, mercifully, sounding like a more upright Silencer (Medico Peste). The Thrawsunblat intonations of Ćwiara and Piotr’s backing vocals, though mediocre, lend more memorability than the entirety of the great blackened blah around them. With an off-kilter drum action and a deep, throaty backing cry, “Biesowisko” traipses through the Ruins of Beverast but succeeds only in weirding me out, not in improving the tepid black attack. Likewise with the ostentatious goat horn on “Ni ya.” Aside from being largely obnoxious on a song I might like, they generate 1000 Burzum vuvuzela memes per bar.
Compounding the issue, W Ciele Nie features the type of roughshod sound that you only get from an album “recorded entirely live in an old barn somewhere in Warmia.” Varmia recorded their vocals “live in the forest somewhere in Warmia.” No, really, I’m not fucking with you. The DR – low hanging fruit, but still – drops from ZMT‘s 9 to an underachieving 5, and anything enjoyable is drowned out in a garbled mess. It’s almost a miracle ZMT didn’t sound this poor, given that it too was recorded “live in a shed” – Where? – “somewhere in Warmia.” Not what I meant. Not that these muffs should surprise anyone. You can take black metal out of the garage, but you can’t take the garage out of black metal (or make this shit up). There had to be a sound engineer that could fix this monstrosity somewhere in Warmia. Yet for
once the millionth time, black metal’s authenticity vanity gets the best of itself.
It’s not terrible; it’s not great; it’s black metal. That sad phrase encompasses 90% of the stuff we get in the promo bin, but it wasn’t supposed to be Varmia, dammit. With Medico Peste pushing into their 6th year without an LP, M. too damn busy to tend to my needs, and Behemoth still another year away at least, this was their moment to steal the show. Instead, W Ciele Nie is a loud, poorly executed, enjoyment-sucking punch in the nuts. Most days, I’m a pretty happy camper, much to the chagrin (and cattle-prod) of HR. But you know what? Today? I’m angry.