Music is cyclical. Beyond the obvious patterns of write-record-release and press runs and tours and merch drops, there is an unspoken undercurrent carrying it all aloft. Good music, or what is perceived as good music to each individual listener, tends to come in waves. For example, 2020 had its share of great releases, but on the whole, I preferred 2019’s offerings better. There were a ton of records that came out two years ago that I still revisit regularly, and they’ll likely stick with me for a longer time. Something about that particular bunch of musicians writing those particular albums at that particular time in my life all clicked. And this happens every couple of years. Not to disparage the massive onslaught of creative endeavors 2020 brought us, but there only ended up being a few albums that really stood out and resonated with me, and that’s fine! All that signals to me is that this is the year the pendulum swings back and delivers releases I’m more attuned to – like the fifth offering from Swedish post-death juggernauts Humanity’s Last Breath, Välde.
This should come as no surprise based on my lede. HLB’s last album, Abyssal, was released in 2019 among the score of other records that still hold Best In Class commendations in my mind. It was a solid offering, but it brimmed with that all-too-familiar energy bands give off when they start reaching a certain age: was this the last of the gas in the tank, or will they catch a second wind through adaptation and evolution of their sound?
Humanity’s Last Breath are no strangers to being lumped together with similar-ish bands, even while carrying a consistent sound their entire careers. Exploding out of the European school of thall as the sister act of Vildhjarta in the years that saw djent, deathcore, and ultra-heavy beatdown (affectionately dubbed sludgewave by some) all mingle and thrive put HLB in bed with acts like Uneven Structure, Black Tongue, and of course, Meshuggah. Oppressively heavy out of the gate, their chaotic tech flourishes and willingness to slam your head through wall after wall of different passages betrayed other influences like Ion Dissonance and underrated contemporaries Circle of Contempt. All shades of a whole, however; the band carved out an impressively unique sound in a saturated space through apocalyptic mid-tempo devastation, mindbending flair, and killer production.
Each successive release has managed to get just a little more brutal, a little more pernicious, a little bigger and bolder and badder, turning their carved out niche into a cavern tunneling straight to the heart of the earth. That specific of a sound only has so much room to grow before it begins to decay, though. Abyssal saw a little experimentation with blackened textures and beefed up bass, but it remained much the same as their prior releases. With Välde, however, one thing has become abundantly clear: Humanity’s Last Breath is not content fading out on the wings of a tired dream.
Välde, which translates to “empire” in English, is exactly what its cover implies. Painted by the highly renowned Mariusz Lewandowski (who has supplied art for such bands as Fuming Mouth, Bell Witch, and Psycroptic, to name just a few,) Välde’s cover reflects its essence distilled – in this case, a titanic black monolith through which souls are disappearing. Classic Lewandowski fare, sure, but he famously creates artwork based on how an album affects him, and the painting in turn reflects the work back. I too can think of no better visual metaphor for this album than something massive, imposing, alien, and cold. Something that has its own gravitational pull, likely to collapse in on itself once it has stripped reality of its material value. These aren’t just visual metaphors, either. The idea of “empire” and this vision of a monolith swallowing everything around it tie directly into the lyrical content of the album as well. Allusions to the world under late-capitalist decay through a nihilist’s lens paint bleak portraits of humanity given up, reduced to materialists and addicts, two sides of the same coin at empire’s end. The overwhelming oppression of such a world-state and the feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and utter existential despair it nurtures are given center stage alongside Välde’s increasingly dense, claustrophobic composition. The conclusion of “Spectre” provides perhaps the most succinct summary of the album’s crux: “It’s taking over me / It’s running through my veins / I can feel the void transforming me.” And transforming it is.
The blackened textures from Abyssal have blossomed into fully grown passages of eerie, anxiety-inducing tremolo and blast beats. The thicker bass shines in broken breakdowns, carrying the grime and tempo as guitars screech in and out of dissonant harmonics and cruel, syncopated bursts. On top of these fully fleshed out additions, Humanity’s Last Breath have expanded their sound even further. Whatever devils awaited them at the center of the earth bestowed a great and terrible gift in the form of cleanly sung lamentations and a demonic symphony to bring the overwhelming evil full circle. Both elements are used sparingly, but each visitation results in unforgettable passages like the aforementioned “Spectre” or “Descent”, which resolves in a surprising ode to French composer Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Much how that piece was assumed a eulogy for Fauré’s mother, “Descent” is an epitaph for the natural world as we know it.
What struck me the most about this album was its constant subversion of expectations. Most tracks begin like any other HLB song you’ve come to know and love, but over the course of the next few minutes, evolve into something else entirely. There is a sprawling, overarching narrative driving Välde, and lulling the listener into a false sense of passive-listening security before blindsiding them is one of its favorite tricks.
Välde is Humanity’s Last Breath at their absolute best. It’s their heaviest release to date, which seems incomprehensible, but it’s also their most progressive, most melodic, and most thematically cohesive. You can truly feel the devolution taking place as the album wears on and closes in on you tighter and tighter. Lead single and finale “Vittring” is a triumph in this regard, communicating the sensation that all is truly lost as the voice in your head leads you on one final death march. The void has consumed your soul (in this case, a metaphor for addiction) and all that’s left is to pass through the monolith at empire’s end. I did tell you this album was bleak, right?
2021 is already shaping up to be a phenomenal year for metal, and Humanity’s Last Breath have notched an early AOTY contender in Välde. This is a formative work in the continuing evolution of death metal that you would be sore to miss.
Välde releases today, February 12, 2021 through Unique Leader Records.