Wormwood – Arkivet Review

Sweden’s Wormwood received a lot of love after the release of their debut Ghostlands: Wounds from a Bleeding Earth. In my 2017 review, I described it as moving “with a ghostly smoothness that ebbs, flows, rises and falls with a mixture of beauty and malice that only impresses.” It is still in frequent rotation on the Akerblogger music machine. In 2019, the melodic folk-black wonders released Nattarvet. Hopes were high and the record didn’t hit quite as hard. It was solid but safe, less wild and fizzing and more restrained and balanced. It’s 2021 and Wormwood is back. Does Arkivet manage to merge the vigor of Ghostlands with the maturity of Nattarvet?

There’s no superfluous whispering, scratching, owl hooting, cosmic howling, thundering or world-building at the beginning of this record. “The Archive” opens with a blaze of sparkling melodic guitar lines that send a listener straight to the heart of Arkivet. This is typical Wormwood: super melodic guitar leads weep and bend, theatrical growled vocals accentuate a cosmic misery, drums rumble, and then the song breaks down into a solemn, softer section. “The Archive” brings melodrama by the bucket load. There’s a lot of wooooooahhhh wooooooo-ing by backing vocalists in an attempt at tearing your heart open. There’s a similar sense of urgency at the beginning “Overgrowth,” too, and the balance between melody and crunch is structured well. Again, the track breaks down into a softer serenade of twinkling sound – another stab into the emotional wiring of a listener. “End of Message” does the same. Groundhog day.

My issue is that the lamentable melodrama feels forced and too regimented. Wormwood knows how to write songs that are equally visceral and solemn – “Godless Serenade” from their first record is the best example of this – and it seems like they’re really doubling down on that in Arkivet. In general, there are fewer unpredictable twists and turns here. Ghostlands was so impressive because tracks had the canny ability to hoodwink a listener through abrupt shifts and clever transitions. Despite tonal shifts songs worked well as in toto and a wide spectrum of emotions were explored: loss, fear, rage, joy. In Arkivet, songs – especially the opening three – simmer and shimmer nicely but follow a very similar format. Guitar rush, guitar softness, guitar re-rush. Drum rush, drum softness, drum re-rush. Vocalist Nine performs various acrobatics. His snarls are vast, his bellows vaster, and his lyrical approach appeals to the heart. They certainly save songs from falling into deja vu, although his bellowing roars do grate.

Thankfully, Arkivet really gets going after the opening trio. “My Northern Heart” doesn’t suffer from the malaise of melancholic slowdowns and overly sentimental soloing. It surges, shifts and strikes with a folkier vengeance for six minutes, writhing with a melodic furor that previous tracks lacked. “Ensamheten” has a greater sense of malevolent energy, too. The slowdown in the song carries more of a trollish, devilish energy. The build-up is supplemented by tasteful violins and echoing percussive touches that give it a sense of uniqueness that the record as a whole lacks. “Ensamheten” is the only Swedish language track on the record. Nine’s vocals do sound a lot more powerful in his native tongue. “The Slow Drown,” too, possesses an unpredictable quality and is supported by dynamic drumming and probing basslines, although its core riffcraft, again, fails to hook.

Unfortunately, Wormwood leaves the worst till last. Nine minute closer “The Gentle Touch of Humanity” is an epic attempt at heartstring tugging. It’s a drooping, weeping track that borrows similar guitar tricks from previous songs – it’s pretty but lethargic. The opening minutes are solid, but a spoken word vocal collage of news reports and vox-pops consumes the heart of the song, supported by cheap synth throbs. Voices discuss the end of life as we know it due to the climate crisis and other crises. It’s poignant and touching but I expected Ziltoid to appear in a comical turn – the track doesn’t recover from that.

Wormwood is dressed in a deceptive cloak of melancholy in Arkivet. For me it feels surface level only, underneath is plainness. It feels like a soul has been sucked from their sound, leaving only a toothless shell of what made them exciting at the beginning. Tastes change over time and perhaps my intrigue in Wormwood‘s melodic sheen of black, folk and trad metal has lessened. There are some very good tracks here: “My Northern Heart and “Ensamheten.” However, the remaining tracks instil in me little emotion. The opening three tracks are not awful but they feel like hollow re-runs of their previous sound. I cannot forgive “The Gentle Touch of Humanity.” Its heart might be in the right place but its blunt, cheesy delivery is a big fail.

Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Black Lodge Records
Websites: wormwood-official.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/WormwoodSWE
Releases Worldwide: August 27th, 2021

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