A whole decade ago in 2011, Sweden’s Vildhjarta unleased their debut album Måsstaden. At just over 50 minutes, the creeping and cinematic record propelled the band to the forefront of the then-burgeoning djent movement and was a critical darling and fan favorite within the same year as Tesseract’s One and Uneven Structure‘s Februus. In the decade since, Måsstaden holds up, unlike dozens of others within the djent and tech metal scene due to their then-fresh sound; sure, the thick guitar tones and ludicrously unwieldy (in the best way) Meshuggah-influenced rhythms were a cornerstone of the Måsstaden soundscape as they were for any other project at the time, but the band’s use of folk-inspired ambient passages, outlandish guitar acrobatics, and propensity towards a more deathcore-oriented sound were a novelty among the increasingly homogenous djent movement.
Since then, djent is nearly a distant memory, with few key acts remaining and relevant to the larger cultural moment wading into the 2020’s. Given Vildhjarta’s inactivity since 2013’s Thousands of Evils EP, the music scene has nearly moved on without them. In their absence, Humanity’s Last Breath pushed that highly specific djent/deathcore sound to heavier extremes and has released several critical acclaimed records in that time, including this year’s celebrated Välde. There’s little sonic difference between the two acts, a fact made all the more peculiar considering shared personnel between them, including guitarist Calle Thomer and drummer Buster Odeholm. With this in mind, is there even a place left for Vildhjarta? Is it even possible to untangle the two projects at this point? måsstaden under vatten may provide different answers to different listeners.
måsstaden under vatten explodes abruptly into action with colossal instrumental track “lavender haze” which marries Vildhjarta’s trademark riffing style with the ambiance and melodic sensibilities of Deftones. The combination feels like a sluggish and off-kilter Loathe, and this specific type of melodicism that feels like a fresh entry to the Vildhjarta playbook. These musical cues bleed into the following track “när de du älskar kommer tillbaka från de döda,” paying off with some pitched screaming serving as an early hook. The track builds with intensity towards its finale, allowing the rhythms to breathe while different sonic textures creep in, a pattern that continues throughout the album. “kaos 2” follows with vocalist Vilhelm Bladin providing a more cleanly sung vocal section which expands the sonic palette of the act further. Early on in måsstaden under vatten, Vildhjarta highlights these new developments in their melodic voice as well as some minor songwriting tricks — like “brännmärkt” and “toxin” opening with drum and bass grooves, or occasional use of synths throughout the record to accentuate the atmospheric sections — to demonstrate some sort of growth and development over the last decade, but it’s more of a gradual development than some stark evolution that ten years could (and should) have brought on, had the band been more active.
The elephant in the room: måsstaden under vatten is a cumbersome record, and while it pains me as a longtime fan to question the volume of new music provided here after eight years since their last release, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to writing an album. Vildhjarta’s idiosyncrasies are what made them such a stand-out act in djent, but the bag of tricks and well of ideas just aren’t deep or diverse enough to warrant this album’s 80 minute runtime. There are only so many ways to slice chunky midtempo grooves, wailing guitars, and plucky ambiance (regardless of how fucking cool they always are), and the new developments simply do not push the envelope enough to make up for lost time. Further, the band’s songwriting style on much of måsstaden under vatten appears through-written, with few repeating parts or choruses to act as hooks within individual songs, exacerbating its length. There does appear to be recurrent motifs which helps the album attain cohesion and direction, but culling the album to under an hour might have made a more poignant statement of their return. Too much of a good thing, as it were.
That isn’t to say that this this record isn’t a welcomed comeback. The record’s centerpiece, “måsstadens nationalsång (under vatten)” is an instrumental medley of the band’s first album, and is a delightful piece of fan service after a decade gone, and surely plays a narrative role in the album’s conceptual world as it recalls some of the most exhilarating and punishing riffs from Måsstaden. The band also takes the opportunity to up the tempo into punkier territory for the opening of “penny royal poison,” hinting at further opportunities for the band to expand their dynamic moving forward, but is presently missed. The energetic guitar licks on “brännmärkt” are invigorating, as is the more apparent appreciation of blastbeats, which were used much more sparingly on Måsstaden.
Sonically, måsstaden under vatten presents a slightly leaner, more feral counter to Humanity’s Last Breath’s Välde, and has a somewhat deeper appreciation for melody, but is burdoned with unnecessary heft. It does however succeed in its conjuring of epic and cinematic sounds, elevated by Buster Odeholm’s stellar production, but could have used some finer curation and some further exploration and development of the possibilities and techniques at their disposal. At the end of the day, hearing Vildhjarta being Vildhjarta does the heart good, and this collection of obtuse guitar technique and thick atmosphere just feels right after being absent for so long. Revisiting the world of Måsstaden has been a joy, and the dark folklore and fantasy aesthetic folded into the context of oddball deathcore is what Vildhjarta does best. Thall.
Vildhjarta’s sophomore LP masstaden under vatten is out October 15th, 2021 on Century Media Records, with vinyl to follow October 29th. Pre-orders are available at this location.