Potentiam is by far the most recent disinterment inducted into the hallowed halls of Riffs from the Crypt. Potentiam’s tomb gleams proud and new among its brethren decades older on the strength of their 1999 debut, Bálsýn. But like the rest, Potentiam and their eccentric debut have been largely forgotten to time.
Bálsýn sounds like a relatively standard melodic black metal album, until it very, very much does not. The hefty opener spends 11 and half minutes meandering its way through melodic black metal tropes: a creepy synth/acoustic intro, melodic keyboard sections, and — of course — hyperspeed tremolo riffs. Although nothing about the opener is particularly unique, every element works in concert to produce a track that transitions seamlessly between violent tremolo and synth-heavy passages, and feels shorter than its running time.
And from that standard opening, Bálsýn explodes into the kind of album that finds itself enshrined in Riffs from the Crypt. “The Pleasures of Suffering” opens the chaos with one of those special riffs that is epic without pretense, headbanging and purely melodic without being cheesy. The drums fire off in rapid fits of excitement and the eerie, high-pitched synths pierce the sound from above as the band hits its stride. Imagine an Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk-era Emperor song, sprawled out and confident, without the maniacal lust for speed in its eye. That’s Potentiam at their best — fast but not in a hurry, sure of their power and careless to conventions.
“Voices Within” continues Bálsýn’s assault into the unknown with almost Gregorian-sounding choruses and one of the more intense solos black metal has paid witness to (at 21:22). Bálsýn continues in this manner, reliably belting out crackling riffs spelled by various synth passages. It’s all rather epic and well-done, but not necessarily anything groundbreaking, until —
(Now here’s the trouble with writing about music. I’m going to tell you about the best moment of Bálsýn. It’s completely surprising and utterly awesome — but in doing so, I’ll ruin the surprise. I’ve already half-ruined the surprise by saying such a surprise exists, of course, but if you, dear reader, wish to preserve some semblance of awe, then stop reading and listen to the dang album.)
The curveball of the century award goes to Potentiam for penning the most surprising, most deliciously incongruous track I’ve ever heard. Smack in the middle of the album, “Álfablóð” is an eminently danceable, absurdly catchy synthpop track that would sound most at home in an 80’s dance hall, cleansing the dancing palate after a high-energy Dead or Alive banger. Except it’s dead center in a stellar 1999 black metal album. Hearing it unprepared was an ear-to-ear grinning experience for this crypt curator, and sealed Potentiam’s inclusion in RftC. The synths chime with absurd joyousness, gleaming out a bright and honeyed beautiful tenor bliss while the bass line thrums out a jubilant heart-rhythm, coyly prodding the listener to trade their pentagrams for their dancin’ shoes — get down and boogie! As the song progresses, synth trumpets declare their interpretation of the melody, and the bass line broods a darker tone, bumping out lumbering minor chords to counterpoint the exuberant melodies. What’s incredible about “Álfablóð” is that it’s not a gimmick, not a trick thrown haphazardly into Bálsýn for shock value or novelty. It’s a well thought out, complex song that works as a standalone track and in the context of Bálsýn — partly because it showcases the synths wreathing the album, partly because it breaks up the black metal onslaught, and partly because exceptionally good tracks, no matter how odd, don’t kill an album.
Bálsýn continues as if “Álfablóð” hadn’t happened, unleashing two of the most aggressive tracks after the synthpop respite. Potentiam works best like this, unencumbered, unchained, and unrelenting, charging forward on the powerful back of the prominent bass guiding the entire album. A long ambient track featuring quite a bit of screaming brings the record to a close, because Bálsýn does what Bálsýn wants.
Bálsýn is an exceptional album that deserves more time in the light, if only for the wonderful secret hidden within. Tell your friends. Hell, play them “Álfablóð” — they won’t have a clue that they’ve just listened to a second wave black metal album.