Black metal is at its best when it’s raw. And I’m not referring to tin can production quality, which has become an obsessively mandated component of the genre for purists. The rawness I’m referring to is a of a more human variety. Give me black metal that feels utterly unhinged, dripping with inexorable sadness, misery and anger. Give me black metal that does more than herald Satan’s kingdom through decades old, redundant and stale shock value, but feels instead currently gripped by a madness only explored through personal anguish and suffering. Give me despair. Give me struggle. Give me that messy, organic, raw human shit all day.
The Icelandic black metal scene has, over the past few years, come closest to hitting my above stated black metal sweet spot time and time again. It’s aggressive, wild, and inventive enough to almost invariably hold my interest, while exhibiting an emotive core that feels utterly, chaotically human. Bands like Zhrine, Sinmara, Misþyrming, Skáphe, Svartidauði, and a host of others have delivered some of the most profound and emotive black metal I’ve heard this decade, and 2019 has seen a veritable glut of releases from the scene’s most influential acts. But none have taken me by surprise quite like the debut record from Andavald, Undir skyggðarhaldi. Taking the Icelandic black metal template and tweaking it in some fascinating and effective ways, Andavald have here constructed one of the most harrowing, interesting, personal, and vital black metal records I’ve heard in a long while.
There are some key attributes that set this release apart from its contemporaries. First and most immediately noticeable is the record’s tempo. While the majority of bands in the Icelandic black metal scene are prone to utilizing manic speed as a cornerstone of their sound, Andavald take a decidedly more measured approach. As a result, the compositions on this record feel deeply melancholic, drinking sadness in a manner more reminiscent of depressive black metal than anything created by their Icelandic kin. At least that would be true if Andavald didn’t drench their music in enough frosty atmosphere to be of an unmistakably Nordic origin. It’s Icelandic black metal through and through without ever feeling cookie cutter, which in equally potent measure can be credited to the album’s vocal performance, delivered here by A.F. with absolutely breathtaking intensity. “Intense” is a word bandied about with far too much regularity around the metal blogosphere (and I most certainly implicate myself in this sweeping judgment), but here it is meant in its purest sense. The wails, screams, and howls present on these tracks feel utterly human to an unsettling degree, making them truly terrifying and often quite disturbing to sit through. “Hugklofnon” contains a section of maniacal screaming and laughter that sounds like a man about completely lose his mind or burst into tears, and the impact is nothing short of jarring. Throughout the record, A.F. delivers compelling, diverse vocal gyrations that are as unique as they are stunning, and his performance is without question one of the highlights and stand-out components of the record.
But all this uniqueness is no more than window dressing if the music isn’t excellent, and boy is it ever. The songwriting throughout Undir skyggðarhaldi (while admittedly maintaining rigid adherence to its chosen style) is uniformly excellent, allowing Andavald’s members to shine as a collective and as individuals. The guitar work on “Afvegaleiðsla” is fantastic, creating a mournful intensity that permeates the track with an overwhelming sense of misery. The drum work in the album’s title track is equally commendable, barreling forward with an intensity that never feels anything less than controlled, guiding and manipulating the track into thoroughly rewarding territory. Even the record’s atmosphere-drenched instrumental bookends are noteworthy, delivering ethereal, otherworldly textures to a set of tracks already cloaked in oppressive minor key darkness. But rather than feeling like overkill, the album’s alpha and omega serve to tie the music together in a sonically pleasing fashion. It is, on the whole, a truly spectacular experience from start to finish.
There haven’t been many listening experiences over the past few years that have left me feeling more internally disrupted than Undir skyggðarhaldi. It’s a mesmerizing, emotionally harrowing listening experience that catapults Andavald into the upper echelons of the Icelandic black metal pack, and is essential listening for fans of the region’s deliciously dark take on the genre. Andavald have with their debut delivered an album that feels downright malicious and undeniably human, and it’s one of the best records I’ve heard this year.
Undir skyggðarhaldi is out now via Mystiskaos, and is available for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.