Label: Peaceville Records
Were there any justice in the world, Dødheimsgard (DHG) would be huge. Undoubtedly one of the most fearless, adventurous bands within the broad spectrum of black metal, with the release of 666 International in 1999, they really threw open the possibilities of the genre, warping it beyond recognition. To this day, the album still stands as a benchmark of truly avant-garde metal. 2007’s Supervillain Outcast condensed such creativity in to shorter, more tightly focused songs, but whilst still good, didn’t quite succeed in scratching the same itch. So, expectation for A Umbral Omega have been high, partly because there’s no real way of knowing what the album will sound like. Paradoxically, it is both their most challenging and most accessible release and, having spent some time with it, I’m glad to say that it lives up to (perhaps overly) high expectations, and then some. It combines the focus of Supervillain Outcast with the longer songs and sense of adventure in to the unknown that 666 International possessed. This is metal that succeeds both as high art, and on more base levels.
That trademark sense of daring is evident right from the start, with introductory track “The Love Divine” reminding the listener that DHG are unafraid to experiment with electronic music, before “Aphelion Void” crashes in with its avant-garde black metal. The traditional black metal elements are there – intense drumming and tremelo guitar melodies – but there is that sense of something else lurking behind. That becomes clear after little more than a minute, when piano and saxophone are introduced, along with some jazzy, progressive work on the bass, guitars, and drums. Such curve-balls and changes are present throughout the song, as it rarely sits still or settles in to a single style for long. This is nothing too unusual for DHG, and yet it still feels hugely exciting. What is most noteworthy is the way that it all feels planned and natural; there is less of the jarring feeling that accompanied some of the shifts on previous releases. The track certainly does not feel as long as its fifteen minutes, being a consistently engaging and thrilling journey. The point at the 7:11 mark when everything drops out, to be replaced by shimmering guitar, ominous bass, and pounding drums is utterly breath-taking. There are more ideas here than can be listed, and even after more than a dozen listens, there are still new elements to be discovered.
Each song on here may start in largely familiar ways, front-loading the black metal elements in a way that offers something close to an easy introduction, but such familiar starting points are quickly left behind as the band move through a vast variety of styles, often to be returned to later in the song. There is an absolute embarrassment of highlights on show, and I can only marvel at the minds that thought not only to try some of these things, but to have them succeed in such style. The mix of haunting background chants and Aldrahn’s theatrical, commanding style a third of the way in to “Architect Of Darkness” is stirring, and when the song shifts in to dramatic synths, and then again in to spacious guitars, it is absolutely marvelous. Likewise, the shift from black metal to shimmering guitars, and then back again, during the later half of “The Unlocking” is a highlight, as is the haunting way the song concludes. “God Protocol Axiom” contains maybe the emotional highlight of the album though, as the ending of the song climbs, reaching for the stars with clawed hands and primitive majesty, the bass melody taking the lead over the guitars and wonderfully restrained drums. Closer “Blue Moon Duel” reaches comparable peaks, especially during the melancholy section just prior to the halfway mark. They are prime examples of how less can be more, which is something this album excels as demonstrating, and is perhaps the biggest contrast compared with what they have done before. Whilst 666 International was thrilling in large parts because of sheer sensory overload, A Umbral Omega demonstrates how space and restraint can be just as effective – especially when combined with moments of full-on, abrasive black metal. Even though each of these songs is long – the shortest being just shy of eleven and a half minutes – they never feel bloated or over-stay their welcome.
The truth is, though, that A Umbral Omega is the kind of album that demonstrates how redundant album reviews can be. There are no words to adequately describe the constantly shifting and consistently thrilling nature of this music, or the emotional weight it carries at points in its majesty and glory. DHG have clearly built upon all they have done before – right back to the early black metal of Kronet Til Konge – learning from their mistakes and successes. In doing so, they have produced an album that is not only appealing on initial, head-spinning listens, but also later, once the listener has some kind of grasp on what to expect and is coming next. And much like their previous works, I expect listeners will be coming back to A Umbra Omega years and years after release, still finding new thrills. But really, what did you expect? This album is an absolute triumph, and deserves all the praise it will inevitably get.
A Umbra Omega can be pre-ordered from Peaceville Records on CD and 2x vinyl, due for release on the 16th March.