12/16/2009 - Review by: Etiam
Many bands take more than three years to create their next album, but Thyrfing's 'Hels Vite' still feels a comeback record. After 2005's 'Farsotstider', the band was overtaken in the public eye (especially Stateside) by the likes of Amon Amarth, Turisas, Ensiferum...the list goes on. Too, the band lost two longtime members--vocalist Thomas Väänänen and guitarist Henke Svegsjö--bringing about the only serious lineup changes the band has dealt with in its 15-year existence. In a pleasing coup, Väänänen was replaced by one of the best well-qualified vocalists available in Sweden: ex-Naglfar vocalist Jens Rydén. Renowned for his sky-scraping shriek, Rydén split from Naglfar when the band took a different, more modern direction after 2003's 'Sheol'. After a brief sabbatical from metal, Rydén returned to the scene in 2006 with a true solo effort, Profundi. 'The Omega Rising' was a surprising and scathing black metal opus that boasted early Naglfar's windswept vigor and classic-era Dissection sense for melodic themes. The LP was a year-end list dark horse, but Profundi has been silent ever since Rydén joined Thyrfing in 2007, marking a new chapter for the band and the beginning of their comeback.
Though Thyrfing's general formula has not changed drastically over the years, 2008's 'Hels Vite' is many miles beyond the band's eponymous debut, and a few of their classic era albums as well. One of the most notable changes is how the keyboards are sitting much further back in the mix these days--perhaps leaving groups like Turisas to flit about with flashy synth leads while Thyrfing moves towards moodier pastures. Indeed, 'Hels Vite' is far more brooding and tempered than the Thyrfing of old, and carries its newfound weight well: many supporting string or brass synths slip so smoothly into the mix that one hardly notices them at first. In fact, the sinister stomp of these songs shares more with Finnish doom like Ajattara than with the orchestrated bombast of Turisas. 'Hels Vite' is also step back from the seething brink of their last record, 'Farsotstider': the production levels are more balanced, Jens' vocals more polished than Thomas' swansong effort, and the songwriting more nuanced. In short, 'Hels Vite' redirects Thyrfing towards their driving and slightly anthemic roots without losing too much of the mid-era's eerie slither.
Underpinning its strong songwriting are subtle addenda throughout the album that are the mark of experience and elevate the record's replay value considerably. Some examples: the echoing harmonic in the verse of 'Tre Vintrar Två Sola' and the off-beat massive cymbal crash that heralds the song's climax; the broken cry that marks the peak of the mournful 'Från Stormens Öga' (perhaps the album's strongest track) and the diminuendo, but not fade-out, that closes it; the dissonant interval of the backing clean vocal in the title track's interlude, et cetera. In general, the clean vocals are yet another step up on this album--less catchy than on some previous efforts, but very tastefully done and superbly performed (it seems that Toni Kocmut is still on tap here).
Mostly memorable across the board--though some acclimation time is necessary--'Hels Vite's two English songs are also its most forgettable. This may be a coincidence, but it does seem that Thyrfing made an effort here to sound a bit more 'American', focusing less on folk melodies or classic Swedish riffing and more on heavy vocal hooks that plod a little too predictably. Some might attribute this to the lead writer of both tracks, drummer Jocke Kristensson, but he also heads up the album's looming closer, more than proving his worth. Hardly a one-man effort, though, each 'Hels Vite' song lists at least two composers, trading off between Patrik Lindgren, Peter Löf, and Jocke Kristensson, all of whom are original members. Rydén's name appears on a few tracks, and the band has since added a second guitarist in Fredrik Jansson, but 'Hels Vite' is authentically Thyrfing in composition and Viking in spirit.
Also improved over past records is the production, which is Thyrfing's strongest to date. Metal in this Viking/pagan vein is often either authentically folky (i.e. treble-heavy and warbly) or beefed up like death metal (case in point: Amon Amarth), so it is rare to find albums with great heavy distortion balanced against acoustic or clean vocal passages. Perhaps the secret of 'Hels Vite' is the bass of Kimmy Sjolund--spanky, present, and snarling--that makes its presence felt in the first seconds with a neatly sliding riff. With Sjolund audibly thickening up the low end, Lindgren's guitars are freer to range about, articulating melodic themes or punctuations, without losing too much low-end chunk. The percussion is, if a tad quiet, still full and brushed with just the right amount of reverb. It is a modern production, but is neither too streamlined nor too indulgent.
With seven songs spanning more than 50 minutes, 'Hels Vite' has plenty (actually lots) of heft, with four songs hovering near or above eight minutes. Moreover, as with all Thryfing albums, 'Hels Vite' does not immediately bury its hooks in the listener; this is very much an album to revisit and treat with patience. After time, the layers begin to reveal themselves, a pervasive melancholy begins to set in, and 'Hels Vite' finally exacts its toll. This modern incarnation of Thyrfing will surely alienate some of the band's older fans who enjoyed rough-hewn, old-school aggression, but this new, adult form is primed for a longevity that the adolescent stage could never match.
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