A certain oddly passionate type of Norwegian teenager in the late 80’s and early 90’s would spawn in droves across the country thanks to makeshift networks providing access to underground music. It was specifically the high-impact world of Quorthon and the inspiration of his Bathory project that brought so many Scandinavian kids earnestly towards black metal and a select few would dive headfirst into viking metal. Members of Enslaved would appear to have dedicated their lives to black metal before they’d hit puberty and several cults of young viking/black metal purveyors would form bands soon after. Islands of inspiration formed in Haugesund (Einherjer), Stavanger (Forlorn, Twin Obscenity), and Oslo (Storm) but in those early 90’s it was Bergen where the heaviest and most steadfast viking, black and folk metal hybrids would create strong bonds and weather themselves for the decades since. The trajectory is similar for many of these bands and it’d be most clearly exemplified with Enslaved as a pure form of complex black metal rhythms and viking themes would soon give way to progressive black metal approach that’d in turn slowly move towards complex rock influenced modern metal by the time the millennium had passed. Hades would follow a similar path from a wholly different angle with mixed results but the major outlier of interest today, Helheim, were perhaps born completely off-center of it all. In remaining dedicated to the spiritual aspect of the music, much like Kampfar, they’ve modernized and experimented in glorious and celebrated style across the last twenty years without alienating the goal and the spirit of the musics original intention. Now on their tenth album since forming in 1992 Helheim operate within broadly accessible strokes, touching upon modern Scandinavian rock simplicity without losing the pagan/viking metal affect that remains a part of their identity despite several massive changes since their first album in 1995.
For a band with so many releases and such a long history of recordings and live performances it becomes necessary to section their discography off into what are admittedly somewhat arbitrary eras of stylistic focus. The first era would last throughout the 1990’s as the band worked with famed producer Pytten (Burzum, Enslaved, Immortal, etc.) as their brand of shrieking black metal and rhythmic viking metal would merge into one style best exemplified by ‘Av norrøn ætt’ (1997) as the relative peak of this period. By the time ‘Yersinia Pestis’ (2003) released it’d seem the band were no less strong but defined by a manic bass-forward bout of compositions that were neither mired in the past or meaningful to the future, it was an odd point of stasis that they’d recover with on the out of character ‘The Journeys and the Experiences of Death’ (2006) a blackened death metal record similar to Enslaved‘s ‘Mardraum: Beyond the Within’ and perhaps influenced by V’gandr‘s ongoing presence in Aeternus‘ death metal centric phase. If you are a fan of later Dødheimsgard it is well worth checking out, it was my introduction to Helheim and still reads as one of their strongest ‘unexpected’ moments. This’d mark the beginning of the band’s relationship with producer/engineer Bjørnar Nilsen who has been instrumental in popular Taake, Blodhemn, and Vulture Industries releases since. ‘Kaoskult’ (2008) marked a higher watermark for Helheim but it’d be fair to say that ‘Heidindomr ok motgangr’ (2011) marked the end of their more brutally achieved, noisome viking/pagan metal phase.
The third and perhaps most inspirationally grounded phase of Helheim‘s body of work is where we are today, three albums deep into increasingly clean-sung ‘progressive’ and folkish pagan metal with naturalist and fantastic Norse poetry as the guiding message. It’d seem that though the line-up hadn’t budged since 2008 (or really 1992) with the addition of Reichborn (ex-Syrach) on guitars creative and sporitual limit was reached in 2011. I’d thought the band was surely over during the four year wait, and the quiet reception for ‘raunijaR’ (2015) in the states might’ve suggested many thought the same. Despite the odd choice of the backwards title it was a major musical success and perhaps the strongest creative turn among their peers since Enslaved‘s ‘Below the Lights’ a decade previous. ‘landawarijaR’ (2017) polished the clean vocals of the prior record and elevated the spacious feeling of the production, more or less making good on a refinement of the prior work but with an even darker, doomed feeling underpinning its expressive style. I would eventually count that album in my best of 2017, from there ‘Rignir’ was highly anticipated on my end knowing that Helheim weren’t likely to sit in the same place for long. In 2019 they haven’t rested on those redeeming changes as this follow-up finds the band at their most poetic and meditative.
The third phase of Helheim‘s career is undoubtedly the most fulfilling as their goal to connect the dots between Norse heritage and modern life in a meaningful way makes increasingly profound headway with each release. Named for the rain and focused on the imagery of the natural weather systems characteristic of Scandinavia ‘Rignir’ is almost entirely meditative as a listening experience though each song kicks up dust in some dramatic fashion; The black metal aspect of Helheim‘s sound is not lost but very controlled and profoundly atmospheric. The closest meaningful comparison is perhaps a cross between the modern style of a band like Primordial (from a distinctly Norwegian perspective) and the lush atmospheric harmonization of post-90’s Falkenbach. This description may not fit entirely well as you first approach the album but, by the time you’ve soaked in it beyond “Snjóva” it’ll make more sense. There is of course plenty of familiar ground covered in that these are clearly the same folks who wrote and performed ‘landawarijaR’ a couple of years previous but, this time the modern rock influences are amplified beyond previous work. This’ll be a difficult change to imagine considering how broad ‘modern rock’ could become so, think along the lines of Sólstafir‘s ‘Ótta‘ with a viking/black metal basis. How ‘Rignir’ doesn’t come across as pompous and too oddly esoteric is some sort of achievement but it will undoubtedly read as a singular and often fairly subtle experience to the dedicated modern black metal fan. Without the context of their prior two albums it’ll seem somewhat alien for better or worse.
A full hour of meditative modernist blackened atmospheric viking rock should sound a bit scary no matter what direction your mind would head in but, the vital missing piece part of that description is Helheim‘s own distinct musical personality. I’d suppose that’ll be a challenge for folks who aren’t so initiated with the arc of their discography but for those already well familiar and inspired by their previous five or six records should find this almost too mature progression gratifying. ‘Rignir’ is such a chilled and contemplative record that I did feel like I was missing out without a lyric sheet and did end up purchasing a physical copy in the hopes of connecting with it beyond the sympathetic notions of its tone though whatever internet based translation I’d mustered doesn’t convey the nuance of the language. It all makes sense in this form as the point is still a meaningful connection with Norse heritage though I found myself wanting some additional insight beyond intuition. The full listen really has no dips in quality though it does trade the fiery jolts of pagan metal instrumentation for a more relaxed almost post-rock style of nuance that doesn’t ever betray the Nordic folk roots of the band but feels unashamedly modern at the same time. I found myself listening about two times per day for several weeks and generally always happy to return to the record. Much of the songwriting is generally similar in pace and performance so, there was the tendency for the full listen to feel like a hymnal with a few kicks into post-rock and prog-metal dramatics as it progresses. The value I found in the listening experience was meditative and with some admiration for the often skillful performances. For my own taste and years of experience with the bands discography I found ‘Rignir’ easy to approach and joyful as an addition to their sort of ‘third phase’ style and I’d generally give high recommendation for the full listen. If you don’t get exactly what you want out of this record I’d suggest that Helheim have nine others to try out in the meantime, each with the potential for some sort of interesting paradigm shift. Highly recommended. For preview I’d suggest the duo of “Snjóva” and “Ísuð” as the most exciting peak of the album and the title track as the tone-setter for much of the remainder of the record.
Melting together like shadows. 4.0/5.0
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