Norwegian avant metal mini reviews

These bands seem to have two things in common (other than country of origin): one, almost all of them started out playing “traditional” black metal (low-fi, super fast, shrieking evil lyrics, etc) and migrated toward music that embraces many genres all at once. Two, there’s a substantial amount of musician crossover between bands, seemingly more than other scenes outside of the jazz world, at least based on my early impressions and investigations. Here are a few mini-reviews of interesting bands from "the scene":

1. Ved Buens Ende. I’ll start with these folks because I’ve listened to the amazing “Written in Waters” for the last five or six years already. I’m not that excited about the “traditional” black metal sound, so I somewhat avoided bands associated with the genre until the good Pfloyd turned me onto VBE. And I was hooked from the first minute. This music is haunting, meditative, and exhilarating all at once. Unlike a lot of black metal projects that don’t even have electric bass, the bass is a prominent element of this music. The guitar tones really grab me, too—there are a lot of up-picked arpeggios with a really nice dirty tone, not too distorted, and maybe a touch of chorus. I love that sound. And the drums are incredible, too. There are a few moments of somewhat intense aggression on the record, but for the most part the music walks a really compelling line between metal, rock, and a bit of a gloomy jazz feel. It really grows on you too. VBE broke up after one full-length album, but their style (mostly) lives on through the new project Virus.

2. Dodheimsgard (also known as DHG). I’d heard one track on the “The End” comp proj was dishing out, but digging in further, this band is phenomenal! Two Ved Buens Ende members are in DHG, including the primary singer/guitarist. His guitar style shows up pretty clearly in spots on these albums. But this band goes in many more stylistic directions than VBE. I think VBE is more successful in establishing and maintaining a certain mood, but DHG is great at slipping all over the place (totally different musical goals for each project, I’m sure, but both are done with total excellence). They’ve gotten some criticism for being “unfocused,” but my idea of good is letting the music go wherever it wants, and they do this incredibly well! Hard to describe, as they go in so many directions, but highly recommended.

3. Ulver. I heard Ulver’s “Blood Inside” album a few years ago, but hadn’t gotten around to investigating them any further. Like many of these bands, their early career was much closer to trad black metal, but starting with “The Blake Album,” they’ve included the whole world in their musical arsenal. “Blood Inside” has long reminded me of a sort of gloomy Beach Boys sound in terms of vocal harmonies, mixed with various dance, postmetal, 20th C. classical, and industrial elements. Other albums also work with these styles and more, and every album is a world unto itself.

4. Solefald. This is my favorite of these Norwegian bands (maybe tied with DHG). Solefald followed the BM to avant-weirdo path, too, and in a much more obvious way than the other bands from that scene, they’ve incorporated a bit of humor and conceptual self-awareness into their approach. Lyrically, they tackle very un-BM issues like American capitalism and consumer culture, which I find really refreshing. And like the others, they’re great singers, who can do the BM shrieks and death grunts along with fantastic and well-conceived vocal arrangements. A painful pleasure you need to experience.

5. Fleurety. This band has only put out a couple of albums, but they’re killers. Of particular note is “Department of Apocalyptic Affairs,” an album that features myriad genres, zillions of vocal styles including great trip-hop style female vocals, and guest appearances by almost every other band from Norway or Sweden on this list! Great work.

6. Lugubrum. Another relatively early BM band who have managed to retain the very raw and sometimes low-fi aesthetics of trad BM while integrating various world rhythms, some horn playing, and passages reminiscent of rock, folks, and minimalist classical music. In terms of vocals, though, this is pretty BM-y, and the production is stark, though not necessarily “bad.” This is an interesting in-between phase in terms of sonic evolution between trad BM sounds and the places bands like Ulver, DHG, Solefald, and Fleurety have gone.

7. Ram-Zet. Off all of these Norwegian bands, I hear Ram-Zet as the most “commercial,” for whatever that’s worth. But they’re still very good. Not as experimental, a ride with RZ will take you between some BM textures and some industrial/edgier dance territory, with some violin flourishes in tow.

8. Arcturus. Many info sites label Arcturus as some kind of post-BM “supergroup” or something. I checked out “The Sham Mirrors” several years ago, and didn’t really get into it. However, in the course of this new-to-me music investigation, they came up many times again, so I decided to give them another chance with “La Masquerade Infernal.” I like this considerably better than the “Sham” album, but something about this music is uncomfortably close to the self-titled Mr. Bungle album for me. I used to love that album, but of all the Bungle albums it clearly aged the worst, in my opinion. So this carnival-metal atmosphere with Arcturus also gets feels kind of dated and adolescent to me. It’s very well done, though, with more of a BM feel than the s/t Bungle. Really good if you can get in the mood.

Bonus Scandinavian bands: Sweden!

Heading just East of Norway for the next four bands, the first three of these are connected to Norway’s Arcturus through the multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/producer genius Dan Swano…

9. Edge of Sanity. This band started out as a more traditional death metal outfit, rather than all of the black metal beginnings of the bands we’ve explored so far. For the purposes of this survey, though, I want to focus on two of their albums that incorporated much more experimental/prog elements: “Crimson” and “Crimson II.” Both albums feature Swano, both are essentially one composition instead of albums of multiple shorter “songs,” and “Crimson II” is notable for featuring Swano on the full range of rock ‘n roll instruments: guitar, bass, drums, keys, and singing. These albums remind me of the later period Death albums, but to me they’re considerably more thoughtful and varied. These are probably closer to what I’d describe as “prog” than all-out stylistic mashups like many of the above, though.

10. Pan.thy.monium. Another Swano project, this music is mighty gloomy, relatively slow tempo stuff with some BM influences and occasional horn parts that remind me of part playing in some early dark-prog/RIO bands. To tell the truth, I wasn’t too excited about these folks at first. Many online reviewers have described them as some kind of a black/death/jazz fusion band. The horn parts that creep up on occasion aren’t what I’d call “jazz” at all. But after several listens, I’m liking them more and more for what they actually are—mostly black/death stuff with occasional melodies taken on horns, occasional moments of (good) prog, bits of folk music, etc. Actually pretty impressive for what it is, once I got past the setup from some imprecise reviews.

11. Diabolical Masquerade. Swano is more peripheral to this project, acting as a producer. This is good. I hear tech, prog, death, BM influences at the core, with forays into various other directions. The synth sounds aren’t my favorite, but they’re quite serviceable, and the performances are really good—everything is played by Blakkheim, another talented multi-instrumentalist and composer.

12. Diablo Swing Orchestra. This is considerably different from the other bands listed so far—stylistically, this fits in nicely with bands like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Stolen Babies, etc. This is more along the lines of what I “usually” listen to, if that’s any indication. No real BM influence, here, but lots of aggressive rock mixed with great chamber-orchestra sounding arrangements. Love it!