Shredding: Wolf

Lonely outsiders, howling pained threnodies beneath the moonlight, yearning to be part of the pack but never quite fitting in… That’s Wolf and their peculiar brand of heavy metal that beat the NWOTM by almost a decade, leaving the Swedish band in a no-man’s land between classic and modern scenes and sounds. Prepare to witness their exquisite discography shredded by sharp teeth!

Beginning life in Örebro, Sweden as Wolverine, the trio released 3 demos before finding a stable line-up of Niklas Stålvind (then known as Niklas Olsson) on guitar/vocals, Mikael Goding on bass, and Daniel Bergkvist on drums. Never has there been a worse time than the late 1990s to start a heavy metal band, what with the massive dip in traditional metal’s popularity at the time, but Wolf would go on a mission to write the powerful and impassioned songs in their heads regardless of contemporary trends. Debut album Wolf arrived very inconspicuously in 1999, the group not even having a logo to place on the front cover, just 4 plain white capital letters alongside an oddly stylized lupine version of a Fungus the Bogeyman drawing. The music within, however, had much more of an effect, proving that speed metal had as much influence as heavy on the young musicians, what with an extremely energized approach to the classic sounds Iron Maiden, Accept, and Judas Priest.

Wolf performing live in 2012

From their self-titled album onwards, Wolf would be characterized by that frantic sense of energy, which Stålvind’s slightly unsettling vocals emphasized. The frontman’s desperate upper range would soon locate a suitable companion in lyrics about darkness, devilry, and insanity, a direction that was stated more overtly on Black Wings in 2002. A more visceral cover of Merycful Fate’s “A Dangerous Meeting” revealed another influence too, both vocally and musically, as evidenced by sometimes complex songwriting. With Evil Star (2004) and The Black Flame (2006), Wolf solidified their status as masters of non-retro heavy metal, adding a permanent second guitar player to the line-up as the opportunities for live shows increased. Johannes Axeman stuck around for longest, totalling around a decade in the band, though by the time he left in 2011 Goding and Bergkvist had departed too, leaving Stålvind as the only original member throughout Wolf’s history.

The current line-up of Wolf (l-r: Pontus Egberg, Simon Johansson, Niklas Stålvind (seated), Johan Koleberg)

New members Anders Modd (bass) and Richard Holmgren (drums) may have signalled a change, since Wolf began to experiment more with mood, tempo, and arrangements on Ravenous (2009) and Legions of Bastards (2011), though not drastically altering their style. The greater change arrived with Devil Seed (2014) alongside another new guitarist in current member Simon Johansson. Perhaps the alterations seem gradual from the perspective of Wolf’s whole career, yet the general absence of fast-paced songs, subtler lyrics and vocals, plus a more varied sonic palette certainly seemed like a departure from the original course. Several years of touring, more member changes (Pontus Egberg coming in on bass and Johan Koleberg on drums), plus an arduous recording process meant that 2020 was upon us before Feeding the Machine appeared. The material showed some intent to return to the distinctive Wolf style, a homecoming completed more fully by Shadowland 2 years later. Now well into their third decade, Wolf neither show any sign of slowing down nor of fitting in with the pack.

#9 Wolf (1999)

Wolf have not made any poor albums. All 9 full-lengths thus far contain great ideas and a whole load of passion, mixed up to varying degrees with striking originality and pleasing traditionalism. As a debut released during the wasteland of heavy metal in 1999, Wolf does a huge amount of things right. It pulls influences from the key players in heavy metal’s rich history, yet retains a sense of originality with spiky yet booming guitar production, a real crazed athleticism, and rather exciting topics that stray from the stereotypes. The mark of Iron Maiden looms largest, what with surging riffing sometimes based on triplet patterns, as well as the use of isolated melodies and high voltage speed metal moments like those found on Killers. Even the arrangement of “243” and “In the Eyes of the Sun” feel very Maiden-esque, as the former is an instrumental that shows the melodic prowess of the band and the latter an 8 minute epic concerning a pharaoh’s burial. Elsewhere, journeying themes feature heavily, what with 2 seafaring adventures and the self-explanatory “Desert Caravan”.

Wolf is marked by high intensity, probably more so than any of the Swedes’ other albums. The riffing found on “The Sentinel”, “Electric Raga”, and “The Voyage” rockets along in rabid speedy style, while “In the Shadow of Steel” presents as the ideal opener, climaxing in under 2 minutes. Matching the instrumental tension, Stålvind sounds like – and has since admitted to being – a man desperate for release, wailing out tales of escape as though his life depends on it. That desperation balances the album on the edge, meaning that Wolf errs close to disintegration at moments, Stålvind notably straining on the high notes in the last chorus of “Moonlight” and some of the raw melodies feeling too bare when they appear on the closing Egyptian act. For all those imperfections, moments of genius shine through, such as the novel sitar foreshadowing on “Electric Raga”, the shocking wah-wah bass blasting the solo of “Desert Caravan” up a notch, and about a dozen superlative riffs, all of which makes Wolf’s debut feel like a wild demo that captured the spontaneous spark.

#8 Devil Seed (2014)

While Wolf may prove easier to stomach for the hardier fans of the group, Devil Seed remains a minor trouble with indigestion much more recently in Wolf’s history. The departure from speed metal can be seen very plainly here, yet the preceding album contained little of that style as well and didn’t seem like such an abandonment of principles as Devil Seed. Rather it is danger and tension that absent themselves, apparent both in the more relaxed styles and paces and also a relatively muted performance from Stålvind. At times, that takes Wolf to some musically interesting places, such as the Spanish guitar solo and calm bridge of “Skeleton Woman” and the moody psychedelic chugging of “The Dark Passenger”. Even the more regular heavy metal songs opt for a new path, the pair of “My Demon” and “I Am Pain” both revelling in simple hooks and head-bobbing momentum.

Head-bobbing has never beaten out headbanging in metal though, so unsurprisingly the faster and more impactful cuts leave the deepest impression. “Back from the Grave” and “Shark Attack” sound most like typical Wolf cuts and are essential in the context of the whole listen, even if not the finest songs from this discography. All the same, the second half of the album picks up a thread that has been important for Wolf many times before, which concerns flashing solos that show off the aptitude of both guitarists. Another point on which Simon Johansson bears strongly, Devil Seed marks the start of the six-stringer taking on recording and production duties (this time shared) that has given Wolf a magnificent sound on their most recent efforts. Thus, Wolf’s seventh outing sounds lush, only lacks some of the character the band had developed over the years.

#7 Feeding the Machine (2020)

With another new rhythm section and 6 years of studio silence, Wolf had a lot to prove on Feeding the Machine. Arguably the record did much to placate fans worried that the band had changed track, and the canny construction of the experience as a whole shows that Stålvind and his cohorts workshopped this set of 12 songs carefully. Cutting down on excess length and experimentation, every track but the gradually building closer “A Thief Inside” sits at 3 or 4 minutes, while the pre-release singles (which Wolf had not used for promotion since 2004) exhibit the best of the incisive tension on offer. That trimming increases the urgency of “Shoot to Kill” to vein-busting degrees of excitement, while the lurching stomp of “Midnight Hour” provides a different kind of positive momentum. These cuts, not to mention the instant hooks of “Devil in the Flesh” and “Mass Confusion”, highlight just how powerful the combination of wicked riffs, piercing vocals, and bolting rhythms can get.

On the other hand, it can hardly surprise that having so many songs leads to unevenness across the whole listen. Despite attending to fans’ desires, Wolf needed to write a few alternative numbers, on which count “The Cold Emptiness”, “The Raven”, and “A Thief Inside” succeed to different degrees. All remove the bite of the guitars somewhat, the former remaining entirely subdued and the latter employing structural variety to tell a more detailed story, which is otherwise absent from Feeding the Machine – something it could have benefitted from. Indeed, the over-simplified nature of cuts like “Dead Man’s Hand” and “Black Widow” (exemplified by a tediously repetitive chorus in “Guillotine” too) leaves a few gaps in Wolf’s “return” effort, which nonetheless quite happily passes muster as an immediate catchy listen.

#6 Legions of Bastards (2011)

Apparently Niklas Stålvind’s least favourite Wolf album, Legions of Bastards certainly stands out as a difficult listen in his band’s discography. The longest standard issue release of all 9 full-lengths at 53 minutes, this sixth instalment can seem bloated in places, especially when the most concise songs open the album. Tellingly, “Vicious Companions” sets off with the only high-speed burst on offer, while the rest of the listen compromises between bulky swagger like “Nocturnal Rites” and some actual groove riffing on “Absinthe”. The less than ideal situation of changing producers at the last minute may explain why Legions of Bastards lacks the sharpness of the preceding Wolf albums, although the Swedes had anyway opted for quite a different blend of atmosphere and hard-hitting grit. To put it a different way, the athleticism of the early days had disappeared: if Wolf and Black Wings showed the mark of a sprinter, Legions of Bastards comes on more like a heavy metal wrestler.

Lack of pace does not equal lack of electricity, however. The most mixed Wolf album in terms of quality delivers relative duds like “Jekyll & Hyde” and “Absinthe” – into which category the helpfully energetic “Tales from the Crypt” could be dragged, depending on your enthusiasm for repetition – a few middling cuts, and also works of surprising genius. Curiously, the real gold hides at the end of the release, “K-141 Kursk” making excellent use of the tough production to hammer cold riffs and desperate vocals into an atmospheric tale about a submarine disaster in a Wolf song like no other. “Hope to Die” delights with much more traditional charm, delightful hooks coalescing with a plethora of sparkling guitar leads, which represent the album’s greatest strength overall. Despite overall inconsistency, the extended soloing proves the highlight of almost every song on Legions of Bastards.

#5 Ravenous (2009)

By the time Wolf arrived at their fifth album, single-direction growth transformed into a confident attitude and the ability to do whatever they wanted. As such, Ravenous contains searingly fast speed metal, slower moody material, and even more of an ‘80s vibe than anything else in their history. Stålvind and the boys prove adept at all of it, setting the bar high early with the electrifying “Speed On”, delivering an anthemic stadium singalong for “Voodoo”, then wrapping up with “Blood Angel”, a reflective longer song that tries out balladic acoustic verses. The Swedes had enjoyed great production before, but Roy Z’s efforts in the studio proved ideal for all the styles on display, even lending the guitars a booming halo on the massive mid-paced weight of “Secrets We Keep” and “Hail Caesar”. The sonic presentation proves equal to such massive themes as the latter song implies, and the confidence of the band seems imperiously high as well.

The contrasting elements of Ravenous also highlight the main downside to the release. Wolf do better when crashing through your ears and into your brain, not when subtly requesting your attention. The second half of Ravenous decelerates markedly from its opening, the final 2 songs dropping the intensity too, so that a gradually underwhelming feeling may accompany the progress of the album. Aside from the ambivalent conclusion, heavy metal fun and games should delight throughout as a result of the greater focus on hooks and memorable lyrics, even if parts of “Love at First Bite” or “Whisky Psycho Hellions” sound pretty daft out of context of the musical intensity. It helps massively that the speed metal songs all hit magnificently, “Curse You Salem” involving one of the most fluid examples of dramatic riffing and soloing in the whole Wolf catalogue. That cut’s lead guitar motif sounds just like something King Diamond’s band would write, so Hank Shermann (Mercyful Fate) playing a guest solo on the title track just sweetens the deal.

#4 Black Wings (2002)

Not so much a quantum leap forward as a much-needed refinement of Wolf’s basic principles, Black Wings essentially took everything that made the debut a great listen and cranked it up a notch or three. Therefore, the focus remains on a white-knuckle version of old-school heavy metal, with more than a small dose of speed, yet the bold riffs, highlighted melodies, and exaggerated vocals all sit at the front of every song, brought out wonderfully by the rasping power of Peter Tägtgren’s production. In fact, Black Wings may even be harder to argue with than the couple of excellent albums that followed it, especially if viewed song by song, since many of the cuts boast unforgettable features, such as the dramatic motif riff in “Demon Bell”, the searing chorus of “I Am the Devil”, or the bruising brunt of “Genocide”. Perhaps the main drawback to Wolf’s sophomore pertains to the repetition that extends a few cuts just too much, especially when a couple of the lead guitar parts prove a little unimaginative.

Still, such limitations could be expected from a three-piece outfit, and “Venom” actually succeeds in making the repetition its most attractive feature in a sort of joyous Motörhead fashion. The trio sound much more connected and sure of their intentions, even unifying the lyrics with themes of nocturnal evil and chaos to give Stålvind’s eerie yell something to sink its teeth into. Occasionally it veers a bit close to Iron Maiden’s Killers template (opener “Night Stalker” covers familiar territory in a few ways), but the electric energy pulls Wolf through on every song and showcases excellent chemistry that seems to accelerate the record as it progresses. Indeed, if you want to hear Wolf at their absolute sharpest and most vicious Black Wings probably remains the place to do so. Rarely has traditional heavy metal been played with such crazed intensity.

#3 Evil Star (2004)

Black Wings may be the fieriest Wolf record, but Evil Star was the first time the Swedes truly came into their own. Having already received one exemplary Peter Tägtgren production, this last album as a trio saw a concerted effort to write anthems, with pace subtracted and hooks added, yet the pulse-pounding result proves just as exciting. A group of longer songs gives Evil Star a fleshed-out appeal, evident immediately from the 6 minute title track, which takes a novel approach to structuring by jumping straight into the verse riff, de-intensifying for the chorus, and including a theme in the bridge that returns as an addendum at the end of the song. This freedom and creativity marks other cuts too, “Transylvanian Twilight” setting up the hypnotic mid-pace of “Devil Moon” with an atmospheric introduction, while “The Dark” has its own signature lead break.

All this richly characterizes Evil Star as a sharp and focused but not especially aggressive album. That’s not counting the briefer numbers, however, which redress the balance extremely convincingly. Though its video is simplicity itself, “Wolf’s Blood” just snaps shut tighter than anything Wolf had formerly written, providing yet another anthem from this third full-length, and “Black Wing Rider” opts for a shot of howling intensity that gradually unfolds into more melodic memorability, which is essentially the album’s greatest strength. The massive array of riffs and hooks from Stålvind’s guitar has real support in the form of Goding’s voluminous bass tone, which alone props up the atmosphere of several verses, along with some suitable tension from Bergkvist on the sticks. However, the real triumph of Evil Star is shown from just how well the trio had begun to construct their songs, setting up Wolf’s fourth album which would feature 2 new musicians and a band arguably on a larger stage than before.

#2 Shadowland (2022)

Reason dictated that Shadowland would be a more agreeable album than Feeding the Machine before it. Not only had the latest additions to the band had time to settle into touring and rehearsing with Wolf, Simon Johansson had finished constructing his own studio (which had delayed the previous record considerably), thus making the recording process more relaxed. Then again, Stålvind claimed that several of the songs that ended up on Shadowland were initially penned as potential material for a solo album. That last point seems almost laughable in the face of just how Wolf-ish the set of songs turned out to be, including a few very thorough nods back to the older speed metal roots of the band. A long time had passed since anything as simultaneously catchy and ruthless as “Visions for the Blind” or “Exit Sign” was put to tape by the Swedes, while the obvious confidence of the group can be witnessed from “Dust” and “Into the Black Hole”, both bulky riff-fests threaded through with copious lead guitar highlights.

What makes the latest Wolf instalment excellent stems not only from its bold depiction of the group’s core identity or the tasteful throwbacks to past successes. More than that, Shadowland seems just the kind of legacy album that heavy metal bands somewhat long in the tooth can often produce: one improved by having done it before and made mistakes or having previously tried less desirable avenues for experimentation. Thus, we still get some unorthodox ideas by Wolf standards, such as the rhythmic play that constantly resets “The Time Machine”, the near balladic parts of “Seek the Silence”, and the eerie theremin that closes “Rasputin”, yet these unexplored territories are entered into with the same kind of wild and desperate energy of past glories and thus seem easy to accept. After counting a sumptuous full-bodied production, the most cohesive variety on any Wolf album, and plenty of edgy drive, it should be clear that Shadowland is no mere “return to form” album, but a great effort in its own right.

#1 The Black Flame (2006)

Niklas Stålvind performed in Jesus Christ Superstar before his band recorded their fourth album. That seems like an odd way to prepare for the rampant heavy metal success that The Black Flame turned into, though in a way it makes sense since the vocals took a serious step up to fully meet the electric riffing and adventurous songwriting that had blossomed on the former album. As such, The Black Flame doesn’t really need to aim for hooks in the same way as other Wolf albums, simply making every idea stick from pure confidence and instinctive appeal. The riffing arguably takes up less focus on cuts like “At the Graveyard” and “Demon” due to the higher focus on storytelling lyrics and blistering extended guitar solos, here provided by Johannes Losbäck as well as Stålvind. Both add buckets to the appeal of the listen, with heaviness, momentum, and atmosphere getting distributed at least two deep at any given moment. Needless to say, barely an ounce of fat remains on these 10 songs.

Nonetheless, a satisfying complexity remains in several places. “Demon” in particular plays the structuring card with numerous sections of frenetic melodic work and a bridge break to die for, something that “Seize the Night” and “Black Magic” also pull off with aplomb, transfiguring the direction of the song as they respectively drop down and shift up a gear. The more biting numbers include “The Dead”, “I Will Kill Again”, and “Steelwinged Savage Reaper”, all of which carry the greatest traces of speed metal in their iron fury, whipping the excitement up to cacophonous levels and making use of more concise writing. And still those highlights neglect to include the rampant shout-alongs “The Bite” and “Children of the Black Flame”. Quite beyond anything else in the Wolf canon, The Black Flame excels in almost every way and yet remains fairly neglected in heavy metal generally. If you don’t own it, take your first step to rectify that now…

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