There isn’t a single location on planet earth churning out more creative, exciting, and blisteringly intense black metal than Iceland. With a population dwarfed by many of the world’s mid-sized cities, it’s hard to fathom just how good the bands coming out of this small country have consistently been over the past several years. It seems mathematically impossible. Yet here we are, once more touting the latest and greatest release from a micro scene making a macro impact. Bands like Misþyrming, Sinmara, Wormlust, Svartidauði, Naðra, Rebirth of Nefast, and Zhrine have become household names for acolytes of the underground, and the ranks of high quality Icelandic black metal just keep growing. Which is where Helfró comes in.
Before we go any further, let’s just get to the tl;dr of the thing. Helfró’s self-titled debut is a frost-bitten monstrosity. It’s all ice, steel, and sharpened knives dripping newly spilled blood in audio form. The band’s promotional material touts the album as an “aural attack” that “channels the hopeless and empty feelings of those wandering through frozen wastelands”, and for perhaps the first time in my time writing for this blog I completely agree with the hype print. This is a sensational album that you should absolutely listen to at your earliest possible convenience. But in a year engorged with premium black metal releases, such praise may seem rote at this point. So let’s detail why this nightmare of a record deserves your coveted listening time.
From the slowly building ice wall of guitars that introduces opening track “Afeitrun”, it’s fairly clear what you’re getting yourself into. This is black metal that worships at the shrine of the second wave while injecting melodies memorable enough to be hummed hours after your initial spin. The principal riffs, delivered here and throughout the record with expert precision, are loaded with dramatic passages that elevate the ferocious proceedings to an epic scope that keeps the music from feeling overly stuffy or suffocating. This well-defined balance of violence and wonder is bolstered tremendously by Stephen Lockhart’s fantastic mix, which allows each of the instruments bombarding listeners on this track to breathe and be heard with impressive levels of clarity. Not a single note gets lost in the chaos, allowing us to relish both some fantastic songwriting and expert instrumental execution without the brickwalled treatment music of this intensity too often receives.
If the album’s opening remarks aren’t enough to convince you of the trvth, follow-up track “Ávöxtur af rotnu tré” will gladly dispense with the niceties and simply beat you into submission instead. Its scorching opening moments are enough to convert even the staunchest of non-believers. But true to form, it wouldn’t be Icelandic black metal without a surprise or two. In this track, that surprise comes in resplendent passages of clean singing, performed with relish by Gisli S. The melding of sheer intensity with moments of blissful, powerful clean vocals is a secret weapon that Helfró wields with immense power and effectiveness throughout the record (particularly here and on the equally effective “Hin forboðna alsæla”), keeping listeners on their toes without ever losing sight of the most intense aspects of their sound. Each track on the album contains moments of exceptional quality, with the first two tracks offering an accurate taste of the fiendish delights to come. On performative, compositional, and aesthetic levels, Helfró’s debut is a black metal triumph.
In a year overstuffed with exceptional black metal releases, it takes a truly special album to elevate itself above its worthy and diverse competition. But Helfró’s self-titled debut is one of the most balanced, vicious, and magisterial releases of the year in the genre, and sticks out like a sore thumb as an album that has true staying power. No one really knows what dark magic flows through the waters of Iceland, but whatever they’re drinking, black metal fans across the globe are reaping the rich rewards of their distinct style of musical insanity. This is a premium album by a band that I have no doubt we’ll be hearing much more from in the future.
Helfró drops April 24th via Season of Mist, and is available for preorder on Bandcamp.