At its core, black metal is about the passionate expression of emotions. When you peel away the layers of aesthetic, mythology, pretense, and history, you find a genre that’s dedicated to the deep, honest, and sometimes harsh world of emotional extremity. Make no mistake, those layers are not incidental to the genre nor are they divorced from its core. That’s why outsiders trying to understand the genre have a hard time, often leading to ridicule. It’s because, without understanding the “ground bottom” level of the style and the psychological alacrity it tries to convey, the rest of its manifestations are hard to understand. Out of all of the sub-genres of black metal, this is perhaps most true for DSBM. Even the sub-genre’s name, depressive suicidal black metal, seems melodramatic and immature. But, like the rest of black metal, DSBM arises from a need to communicate, wrestle with, and perhaps attempt to exorcise real human emotions, however extreme they might seem.
On Gryningsvisor (“Ballads at Dawn”), Ofdrykkja attempt just that but also something more: to find a path out of the darkness. In many ways, in tone and in aesthetic, Gryningsvisor is a “classic” DSBM album. The fuzzy chords, obscured almost beyond recognition, the extremely abrasive and drawn out vocals, the forlorn guitar lines, all point to the experience and literacy of the band within the genre. However, in a certain shimmering which boils beneath the surface of the music, in the choice of name for the album, and the musical direction which ultimately guides it, Gryningsvisor is also an attempt to see beyond the haze, to move past the depression and crisis which so categorize the genre within which it operates. Make no mistake: it is a very sad and morose album. But it also has an interesting quality of hope which makes it stand out from the crop of its (now somewhat defunct) sub-genre.
Interestingly enough, this album also heavily features folk music and specifically the folk music of Sweden. It is sometimes utilized alongside the more modern elements of the band’s sound, like on “Swallowed by the night”, where it plays before and “above” the extremely fuzzy electric guitars which make up most of the instrumentation on the album. On this track, as well as in other places, the folk instruments serve the same role as the vocals; they’re like gilding etched into the reverberating guitar chords, like a hand playing with its own reflection in a pool of water. The contrast they create with the deeply melancholic vocals is one of the strongest ideas of the album. This is true for both the harsh vocals of Drabbad and Pessimisten and the exceptional work of Miranda Samuelsson. Elsewhere, the folk compositions stand alone with Samuelsson, like on the following “Ensam”. Her beautiful timbre and excellent inflection amplify the instruments’ more classic nature and create beautifully soothing and chilling melodies. In these melodies lies that hope we mentioned earlier, that sense of power and promise that percolate powerfully in the background of the album.
On the other hand of the spectrum lie the tracks which wholly embrace the black metal roots of the band and bring forth derisive, powerful and, frankly, depressing sounds to the front. A good example of this is “As the northern wind cries”, a track which centers the drawn out guitars and painful vocals for its momentum. Here, the vocals undermine the sense of hope radiated by the more acoustic elements of the sound, teaming up with the electric guitars to make you wonder if it really is all worth it. Like all good black metal Gryningsvisor is anything but easy to digest or easily understood; its message is more complex and uncompromising than “everything is terrible” or “things will be OK”. Instead, it explores the tension between night, day, hope, despair, old, and new. The result is an album that might not be something you’d play on just any day. But when you’re in the mood for it, when you want to tap into the emotional extremes that black metal is so good at describing and channeling when done well, this album will become a touchstone for years to come.
Gryningsvisor releases on November 29th. You can head on over to the band’s Bandcamp to pre-order it.