Label: Signal Rex
One of the reasons the Scandinavian second wave of black metal is so lauded is that, whilst it possesses a clearly identifiable sound as a scene, each of the key bands were different from one another – Mayhem differed from Immortal differed from Emperor and so on. The same is true of the modern Icelandic scene; there is certainly an overall Icelandic sound, characterized by a soul-searing intensity and sense of this being music for the other. But crucially, each band sounds different from one another. On their debut album, Volaða Land, Draugsól demonstrate a style of black metal that is clearly Icelandic in origin, whilst also possessing their own unique character and take on the style. And, like almost everything coming out of Iceland these days, it is absolutely superb.
Draugsól’s take on Icelandic black metal is more melodic and wide-ranging, with soaring guitar leads and melodies that are – for black metal – fairly bright and energetic. Not that it is music for good times or partying; rather, it is music that reaches for something greater in an almost physical way, in a manner not too far removed from the best pagan metal. The movement that begins just before the three minute mark of ‘Bót Eður Viðsjá Við Illu Aðkasti’ is a prime example, and would not sound out of place on a modern Enslaved record (albeit, one that is more black or pagan than prog metal). There are hints of Immortal-esque arctic grandeur throughout, and even a blasting intensity that would do Marduk proud, not to mention a few more experimental leanings in terms of song structure and riff construction. To describe the sound and atmosphere as epic would be accurate – this is black metal that is truly larger than life, telling stories and tapping in to things that are greater than any one individual. It is music that is yearning, questioning, striving for superiority and mastery, and achieving it in superb style.
It is also (for Icelandic black metal) relatively accessible. I state this as a positive – whilst there is a place for black metal albums that take a dozen or more listens to reveal their secrets, or that throw the listener in to a maelstrom of whirlwind riffs and mind-fucking movements, Volaða Land is fairly easy to get a handle on, and to understand what it is doing and how. The production is relatively clean and spacious, with each instrument being given room to shine (including the bass – a rarity for black metal of almost any kind). It could never be considered mainstream in any sense – the songs themselves are too intense, too structurally complicated for that – but it is an album where the appeal of it is fairly front-loaded and easy to grasp. This is especially true of the second half of the album, which features shorter songs.
There may be those who feel that this is too ‘bright’ a black metal album, and that its obvious sense of melody means that it is not crushing in the same way as most other black metal records coming out of Iceland in the past few years. Those criticisms represent a fundamental misunderstanding of Volaða Land – it is not trying to mimic the overwhelming likes of Wormlust or Misþyrming. Instead, the sense of melody is one of the album’s strengths, adding as it does a different kind of emotional and spiritual depth. This is still music of the void, it is just expressed in a different manner than might be expected. The results are no less impressive for that though, and Volaða Land is another superb release from Iceland and Signal Rex. I have little doubt that, in ten or twenty years time, those exploring the underground will look back on this scene with real envy, and that Volaða Land will be held in the regard it deserves. Quite possibly a future classic.