They might never have risen to the upper echelons of the Swedish scene, but as far as no-nonsense Black Metal goes, SVARTSYN has always been one of the most reliable second-tier acts out there. Their last full-length, 2007’s “Timeless Reign,” is still in regular rotation in my playlist and I have absolutely no qualms about ranking it as one of the best traditional BM releases of the last decade. It was a seriously brilliant effort and I have thus been eagerly anticipating their newest one, “Wrath Upon The Earth,” ever since it was announced last year.
On the surface, things seem to have been rather quiet in the SVARTSYN camp over these last few years, what with the band being notoriously averse to live gigs and pretty much any kind of publicity, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. A new logo, new label, the departure of long-time drummer Draugen, and the recruitment of a session bassist – mainman Ornias has evidently been a busy man. Hell, even the abstract (and full color) cover art points to “Wrath Upon The Earth” being an entirely different kettle of fish altogether.
As soon as the weird (but sufficiently creepy) carnival-esque intro kicks in, it becomes very clear that this is perhaps not the SVARTSYN that we have come to know and love. The subsequent songs do little to alter this perception, and I must say that I began losing interest about halfway through the album. It’s not bad, per se, just very, very different from what I expected. We’re still dealing with an undeniably belligerent brand of Swedish Black Metal here, but there seems to be little regard paid to any notion of song structure, melody, and flow. There is a tangible stream of consciousness approach going on, as songs shift relentlessly between hyper speed and crawling tempos, the drumming has a strangely tribal flavour to them, and Ornias’s hideous hissing and gurgling sound completely detached from the sonic barrage. Yep, it’s certainly intense and unsettling, but there seems to be a lack of focus.
“Wrath Of Leviathan” and “He Who Knows” are pretty much the only songs that resemble the SVARTSYN of yore, jam-packed with those typically chaotic bursts of speed and subtle melodies. This is classic SVARTSYN fare, but the remainder of the album is much harder to swallow. “My Mountain” has a terribly annoying staccato-ish first half (the stop/start beats never seem to end), but the “Timeless Reign”-like melodies of the second half make up for it. The same could be said of “Deathsworned” and “Pyramids Of Deathlight” – they take a while to finally kick in (so to speak), and the slower sections tend to drag a bit, but both have a subtle melodic undercurrent, with the former making deft use of sparse backing samples, and the latter seeing Ornias deliver some of his most demented vocals ever.
Due to its oft bewildering character “Wrath Upon The Earth” is definitely a grower. Very few of these songs are genuinely catchy (in the traditional sense of the word), and the seemingly random drum beats and erratic pacing of the songs will ensure that this is not the easiest listen to sit through. The band is in a bit of a transition, so it may very well be that this album is only but a stepping stone to greater things in the future. Ornias is still a great guitar player and the overall level of musicianship cannot be faulted, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss Darugen’s drumming. He had such a powerful yet “groovy” style (almost like Frost in a way) that really fit the music like a glove, something I can’t necessarily say of his replacement. I’ve sat through this album about four times now and even though it gets slightly better with each spin I don’t think it will ever rival the genius of its immediate predecessor or even older works like “His Majesty...”. It’s decent enough in it’s own right, and I do respect the band’s decision to not simply rehash past ideas, but I think the real litmus test will come with the next SVARTSYN album...
(Online February 19, 2011)