Friday, July 1, 2011
Review: Horn of Valere - Blood of the Heathen Ancients
My favorite black metal bands tend to make songs that are lengthy, narrative, and riff-oriented, and Horn of Valere falls right into this Taake/Hirilorn paradigm while still putting a uniquely American spin on the style. A bit more restrained and dynamic than their European cousins, Horn of Valere makes extremely melodic black metal that incorporates bites of '80s heavy metal and old punk into its music to make a sound that's particularly timeless and memorable while not sacrificing any of the aggression of more well known artists in a similar vein. This is extraordinarily riff-oriented music, especially for the USBM scene, which is so often concentrated on a rhythmic attack- Horn of Valere are refreshingly pure, letting the guitars do the vast majority of the talking on this release. And the riffs are phenomenal, ranging from tremolo renditions of elaborated punk chord structures to somewhat more virtuosic, lead-driven work (such as on "A Prophecy of Ivory Skies") which brings to mind a more refined and ultimately interesting take on Arghoslent. "A Blaze in the Northern Sky"-era Darkthrone's sense of pacing and song structure emerges on the longer tracks, with songs like "Ageless Winds of Infinite Wisdom" coming off like a slick, modern, melodic version of "Kathaarian Life Code." These guys have done their homework and absolutely know how to construct interesting black metal, but above and beyond that have a talent for the essential pieces of metal songwriting- riffcraft, texture, rhythm- that sets them apart from the rest.
The fairly long track times on this disc- it does open with a twelve minute song, after all- might suggest something is amiss, and I'll admit it upfront: there does seem to be a hint of post-rock influence on this release. However, given its 2004 release date, it's clear that Horn of Valere definitely missed the post-metal movement that's resulted in so much disposable trash. More importantly, Horn of Valere seems to incorporate these structural influences in a way that's useful and relevant to the music as a whole. Other black metal bands who employ post-rock apparently think that it's a shortcut to wimpy acoustic passages, major key melodies, and a general softening of their sound. Horn of Valere, on the other hand, uses this influence to make their music more dynamic: the slowly developing, riff-to-riff, lead-to-lead structures of songs like (again) "A Prophecy of Ivory Skies" helps to expand the songs without stepping on the general intensity of the music. It's probably one of the most delicate and effective applications of post-rock I've ever heard in a black metal disc.
But still, these influences are minor compared to what really makes this release so absurdly good: the riffs. Generally simple, elegant, and even somewhat typical, Horn of Valere takes traditional melodic black metal riffs and somehow manages to twist them just enough to make them sound fresh and ambitious. An inherent grasp of texture and chord arrangement allows the band to create riffs that sound familiar yet still work tremendously towards creating a feeling all their own. While Horn of Valere's melodic sense is firmly within the realm of traditional black metal, I can't help but feel as though there's an intrinsically American quality to it; subtle undercurrents of blues, American folk, and perhaps even old country that flitter around the edges of riffs sculpted from traditional European molds. While Horn of Valere does nothing particularly outstanding and obvious to create an identity for themselves, their songwriting does all the talking and results in a release (and a compilation, no less!) that manages to have more of an identity than many larger bands can cultivate.
Horn of Valere is a band who never got the attention they truly deserved from the USBM scene, perpetually more concerned with flash in the pan displays of novelty and pointless antagonism than concrete music that seeks greatness. They represent a true ambition and vision within the well-established tropes of black metal which shows that, no matter how well you think you know the style, new subtleties and layers can be uncovered from even the simplest and most seemingly cliched elements. If you can track this disc down, absolutely acquire a copy. Even if you don't find it as seminal as I do, it's nearly impossible to deny that, within its confines, is a grasp for true artistry in a scene of boredom.
Buy this album on Amazon