It’s been five years since the previous Keep of Kalessin album, and the band has gone through some odd times. But the Norwegian progressive black metal trio have finally returned with Epistemology, and they’re not holding back. They’ve refined their sound, rediscovered themselves and as a result created an album that hits the listener like a freight train of blast beats, chants and an orchestral section accompanied by frontman ‘Obsidian Claw’ Arnt’s trademark brand of ridiculous guitar playing. With all the epicness of power metal and speed of black metal, Epistemology is an invigorating and overwhelming tour de force.
The freight train analogy is no joke, as the album sets the scene with a short orchestral intro then just explodes with a combined flurry of breakneck paced drumming, a gothic choir and Arnt’s immediately recognizable playing. Then he starts singing and two things are immediately clear: Arnt is a great singer and he made the right choice picking up vocal duties after the debacle with the previous singer Thebon; and clean vocals work really well with blast beats. There are few bands with the testicular fortitude to pull them off, as it requires a certain empowering quality to the singing and overall approach to music, but it works extremely well in Keep of Kalessin’s music. The band are masters at crafting memorable melodies — it feels like they could have been one of the best power metal bands ever, but they decided not to stop there and went heavier and heavier. The closest comparison here is Wintersun, as they also have a simultaneous flair for the dramatic and extreme. But KoK’s sound is more snappy, more energetic and more sinister than Wintersun’s. They are quite a bit closer to their black metal roots, and when they’re not instilling insanely catchy chants in one’s head, they’re inciting head-banging that’s probably too intense to be healthy.
The album is perfectly paced, with some songs over seven and even nine minutes, while some are around two minutes long – yet none of them feel too short or too long. In fact, both the longest track and the shortest track feel just right in their lengths, which is no small feat. The band’s songwriting really deserves a lot of praise, as they create and resolve tension with such expertise that it’s impossible not to get caught up in their rhythm and swept along without noticing. And their brand of progressive metal is unique too, as most progressive bands often try to attain that title by introducing complexity to their writing; but Keep of Kalessin take a different approach. Instead, they break their sound down, take the base, simple elements and put them together in a way that essentially tells a story across emotions. Within a single song, they have solos, grooves, ballads, over the top black metal, instrumental interludes and, of course, momentous choruses. And it always feels like a natural progression. Thematically, the album is their most introspective (it even has a song titled ‘Introspection‘!) and they use this as an opportunity to reexamine their sound and focus on what makes them who they are and refine their writing – it clearly works, as it’s near impossible to stop listening to this album. The grasp each song has on the listener’s emotions as it tugs it back and forth between explosive rage and empathetic sing-alongs is palpable. This is catchiest and most empowering album that’s also ridiculously heavy since, well, Reptilian. But the increased emphasis on clean singing and focus on concise construction of songs makes the overall listening experience a lot more balanced than that album.
The album sounds impressively clear, in addition to being very well written. The drumming does not overpower the rest of the instruments despite being extremely intense at points. The guitar tone is crisp and characteristic, letting the nuances of Obsidian Claw’s playing come through clearly. He employs a wide range of playing styles, and fans of the band will know what to expect. For newcomers, his technique and composition are quite unique. He employs a mixture of archetypal black and power metal styles — namely tremolo picking, sinister sounding arpeggios, power chords and harmonized leads – but he also has his particular quirks, like shifting rhythmic characteristics of riffs as he plays them tho keep the listener guessing, using multiple leading tones in chords to simultaneously keep a consistent bassline while shifting the overall tone, and explosions of fast notes in between slower ones. It’s no unremarkable feat that he manages to do this while performing vocals at the same time. He has a remarkable range, as he can do bile-filled black metal rasps, shrieks and growls; but he also has an ethereal clean singing voice which is the star of the show here. While Arnt has provided backing vocals for the band before, he’s taken his singing to the next level as he became the front man, as he is purely incredible. Harmonizing with bass player Robin “Wizziac” Isaksen, he conveys a surprising depth and breadth of emotions with his voice, and the rather alien quality of their voices result in a very unique vocal performance that is unprecedentedly awesome.
One could keep rambling on and on about how incredible Epistemology is, but the quality of this spectacle needs to be experienced in person. The band have come back and are hitting harder than ever, more focused and more willing to take risks to achieve greatness. And it truly pays off; as with the masterful songwriting, out-of-this-world singing, powerful, intense and fresh riffing, Epistemology is a unique and genuine masterpiece. With Epistemology, there are chants, there is headbanging, but there is no stopping Keep of Kalessin.
Keep of Kalessin – Epistemology gets…