Grand Magus - Wolf God - (8/10)
Published on April 7, 2019
The underdogs bite back
Wolves: dangerous outsiders, canny tacticians, or lonely dogs? The animals that steal sheep from the flock, that form packs with social positions, that howl mournfully into the night. Already, on the journey through childhood, our heads are packed with thoughts of wolves, from the devilish Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales to the wolf who founded Rome by suckling Romulus and Remus. The animal seems just to hold us in a perpetual state of awe, a breathlessness caused by its uncanny stare or a vivid flash of grey against the treeline. And yet, there are still more tales of its ambiguous glory, as upheld here by Grand Magus, who seem a wolf in kind: distant from the pack, they have wandered the treeline of heavy metal in comparative solitude, unable to feel at home in any grouping, whether that be of classic metal, doom, or Nordic bands.
With Wolf God, however, it feels that the Swedes have just about got it right. Past albums seemed always solid, if unspectacular, attempts to blend the slow, epic qualities of doom with the stomping, chest-beating grandeur of true metal. Varying degrees of success have attended their efforts over the past 20 years, peaking perhaps with Iron Will and The Hunt, albums that showed the band at their heaviest and most anthemic respectively. Importantly, a sense of continuity has followed Grand Magus during their career, perhaps due to the distinctive sound of a three-piece struggling to imbue their music with a sense of the epic. As sole guitar player and vocalist, JB Cristoffersson carries a great deal of weight on his shoulders, belting out his masculine tones like Butch Balich of Argus with either a battle-ready roar or battle-weary sigh, though crusading riffs and hair-raising singing rarely overlapped owing to his dual focus. The pure simplicity of marching riffs often made the songs easy to grasp yet flimsy once held.
Ultimately, the successor to 2016’s Sword Songs sticks to the same mindset, just moulding the natural Grand Magus sound into a slightly more refined form. Wolf God contains no surprises like the more modern “Freya’s Choice” or “Master of the Land” from that previous effort, pushing ahead with a swaggering momentum that suits the massive themes chosen for the lyrics. Songs of victory and remembrance such as “A Hall Clad in Gold” and “Glory to the Brave” truly stride in like kings thanks to the immense drum sound and Ludwig Witt’s bravado behind the kit, while an outstanding balance between guitar sharpness and bass ballast makes the slow chords thunderous and – crucially, since this technique often fell flat in the past – the silence between thrusts echoes just as potently. “Brother of the Storm” is compelling evidence that the pauses form a primary component of the music. The first portion of “A Hall Clad in Gold” proves that Grand Magus have learned about simplicity, a pounding kick drum setting the tone for Fox Skinner to rumble in with a fanfare of bass before the guitar enters with the power of an aurulent monarch. The procession drops down a notch as the throne is ascended, then the assembly unites for a poignant group chorus, a trick repeated in many songs and one that lends Wolf God a distinctive medieval atmosphere at times.
Grand Magus have never been all about grandeur though. In truth, a full album of marching and bowing and scraping would be dull, so the shorter, more vicious songs play their part, just as they have on past efforts. Again, ingenuity is not the aim of the trio, merely an expression of the opposite side of their philosophy: a savage, instinctive release from the pomp and nostalgia of the heartier cuts. The contrast occupies similar ground to the split of songs on Visigoth’s latest. On Wolf God, “Spear Thrower” proves to be the archetypal attack of this kind, taking the speed up several notches and dashing through a quick bout of bloodshed. Corresponding with the terrific instrumental tones, this kind of song has no opportunity to go wrong, while “Untamed” stands as perhaps the finest album closer since Iron Will’s “I Am the North”, kicking off with a fierce drum fill and massive chugging riff, squirting a solo over that, and ensuring a glorious ending with an anthemic chorus of “From the North / Now hear us roar”.
But what of wolves in all this? Grand Magus distil just about all the aforementioned features into the loping stomp of the title track, positioning the song somewhere between the low end shudder of doom and the relentless charge of glory habitual to Manowar. The weight of the theme grows with lyrics that command us to “Tremble as the moon grows every night / Now it’s shining like a dagger,” while the shimmering solo that Cristoffersson peels off is one of several that shows his band can do anything Argus can, even with only one guitar. Despite Grand Magus having fewer options than some other epic metal groups, that dogged persistence at mastering their own particular sound – the effort from their underdog position – marks them out as the genuine article and soaks their music with character that reveals itself little by little. And from that underdog position, as the outsiders, it makes perfect sense that Grand Magus have offered up this latest work to their spiritual guide, the Wolf God.