Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Review: Aurvandil - Yearning
Did you know that black metal used to be about more than de rigueur "occult" and "mystical" imagery? That its emotional spectrum extended beyond nebulous negativity and new-age serenity? That people once listened to Norwegian bands other than Darkthrone and Burzum? Of course, I hope you know this, but it seems like the scene itself has forgotten. In the early 90s it was totally obvious to young Norwegians that black metal was about reclaiming the world for fantasy, about bringing an "imaginary" ideal closer to reality. It was about reawakening the old gods and the hard, joyful way of living over which they presided.
Perhaps this undertone of pagan Romanticism isn't so obvious if you listen to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas or A Blaze In The Northern Sky devoid of any historical context, but it should become clearer if you listen to Burzum or Emperor or Enslaved, and it will become pretty damn obvious if you bother exploring the underrated "also-rans" of the scene: Ragnarok, Hades, Aeternus, Kvist, the list goes on. I'd also recommend reading Varg's touching "The Origin and The Meaning." You can't understand the Second Wave without understanding that it was the product of boyish dreaming and an exuberant sense of play, and that these were inextricably bound up with the rage, hatred, and borderline psychosis. That's part of what was so beautiful about all of it.
If you're looking for a new black metal release that is true to the Scandinavian scene's loftiest ideals, you must listen to Yearning. The album cover positions us behind a solitary wanderer, following his footsteps across the face of a thickly powdered slope. As Aurvandil's shimmering, spacious guitar sound envelops us, the wanderer leads the way across vast landscapes of forest, snow, and sky, through the trackless thickets of elves and the hoary halls of frost giants. Yearning is truly a journey, and as such must be experienced from beginning to end.
Aurvandil is all about densely layered guitar parts. Every melody is but a part within a textural whole, where interlocking tremolo lines are complimented by soaring leads and crystalline acoustic guitar arpeggios. The harmonies almost always have a consonant, heroic feel. But where some bands use this sound as a kind of quick and dirty route to "epic," Aurvandil have done the songwriting work to make it compelling. It helps that the riffs are integrated into genuinely epic song structures, full of repetition but always flowing onwards with the arc of the album's narrative.
"A Guide To Northern Scape" begins with a howling blizzard of chords that reminds me a bit of Led Zeppelin, and then around 4:45 opens out into a gorgeous theme that brings the song's earlier melodic ideas to fruition. It sounds sort of familiar, but it's the way it's executed and placed within the song that counts. That suggests something important about Aurvandil--this is subtle stuff, less about hammering us with riffcraft than drawing our attention to the way music unfolds over time. In "I Summon Scorn" Aurvandil leads us through slow, majestic riffs that--like many riffs on this album--evoke trudging through deep snow. But at 5:35 there's a turn, a leaping melody that summons us to battle. "Reign of Ice II," however, might be my favorite track, simply because its central riff is so damn good. It was here I realized just how much Aurvandil has learned from the epic style of Enslaved's Vikingligr Veldi, a masterpiece of early black metal that's been written out of the genre's history by the kvltsters and the hipsters alike.
When I first listened to this album I felt there was some unevenness to the songwriting. I'm thinking particularly of the way Aurvandil almost always organizes chords in groupings of 4, usually doing 2 or 4 measures of each. It sounded a bit too symmetrical and predictable, and to my ears detracted from the inherent coolness of the chords themselves. That's probably the best example of an overall "4 of this, 4 of that" feeling in the riffs. Nevertheless, the more I listen to this album the less I care. For one thing, these are the sort of quibbles that recede into the background when you take the album as a whole. For another, it seems more and more likely to me that these aren't a bunch of unintentionally similar riffs so much as variants on a single riff, a 4-chord leitmotif that repeats throughout the album with a different harmonic structure each time. And that's cool. So my considered opinion is that some more rhythmic variation on the next Aurvandil release would be welcome, but that Yearning is well worth appreciating just as it is.
I can't think of a more appropriate title for an album. Everything about Yearning speaks of longing for something beautiful and lost, but not altogether out of reach. It's out now on Germany's Eisenwald, and you should order a copy. Put it on your headphones, read the sagas or Lord of The Rings or even some George R.R. Martin, and slip away into the imaginative landscape of true black metal.
Buy this album on Amazon