ISENGARD – Vårjevndøgn (2020)REVIEW

Cringe in the flames, smashed to the wall” — In the late 80’s/early 90’s Fenriz would reach a certain level of enthusiasm and skill as a musician that’d allow him to decide between doing what everyone else was doing and adopting some profound divergence from the norm. Outclassing most of the Autopsy-core out of Stockholm with ‘Soulside Journey‘ before changing the focus of Darkthrone to a “work smarter, not harder” ethos was a bold move much of Scandinavia would slowly fumble nearby. Read that as you will, some see it as following the black metal trend and others see it as essentially creating second wave black metal’s first classic, the result speaks for itself as well as Fenriz has spoken for it. All of this is well documented, pondered to death, and needless to say the transparency of the artists involved is refreshingly not self-conscious. What we don’t hear on those classic records from 1991-1995 are a certain number of influences that’d been mentioned in various interviews, reissue commentary tracks, and documentaries — The thrash, punk, heavy rock and traditional heavy metal spirit set aside along the way. Those influences would eventually express within Darkthrone but from 1989-1994 most of Fenriz‘ excess songcraft were well hidden, far out exploration. The mélange of his solo project Isengard begins to make sense when considered as a dumping ground, a series of compilations where the order of release has always been vexing. Enter ‘Vårjevndøgn‘, a second scraping of the archives from 1989-1993 featuring some of the least self-conscious heavy metal the Oslo-based artist recorded in his youth.

Sequencing the events documented via irregular releases becomes vital to understanding what exactly we are getting from Isengard today. Think of it as five years of side-gig recordings done in Necrohell Studios via self-administered and entirely self-performed (incl. a few guests) four track recordings. If you’d like extra context Valhall Studios was basically the same studio deck and at least three tapes were recorded for Valhall between 1988-1990, I’m not sure about the fourth. Tracking down Valhall and seeing their concurrent progression of style is just as illuminating if not slightly less charismatic. As for Isengard, the discography has been parsed in entirely irregular order starting with ‘Vinterskugge’ (1994), a combination of select tracks from songs that are clearly from the ‘Under a Funeral Moon’-era as well as the 1989 demo ‘Spectres Over Gorgoroth’ which are again clearly from the ‘Soulside Journey’ point of view, a blackened death metal experimentation that represents some of his heaviest work beyond that first full length with Darkthrone. In hindsight Fenriz clearly had enough material for a full album on ‘Vinterskugge’ but he’d intentionally grouped together the ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’ influenced tracks and likely come to the very reasonable conclusion that what we’ve gotten here on ‘Vårjevndøgn’ was just too shockingly different. So, at this point it will be pointless to discuss ‘Høstmørke’ (1995), the one ‘proper’ Isengard album notable for its viking/folk metal approach, because not only is all of the material on ‘Vårjevndøgn’ pre-1994 but none of it is in the folk or black metal style.

What is ‘Vårjevndøgn’, then? Epic heavy/traditional doom metal with metalpunk and United States 80’s power metal influences. Huh? Yep, we’ve got some serious record collector nerd shit on order here and all of it is full of wailing, snarling, and howling heavy metal spirit — You get it, there was no other time where this stuff was going to have a chance to land on the “right” ears ’til the metal masses were educated and/or nostalgic enough to receive it with some sincerity. Consider the running order of ‘Vårjevndøgn’ a playlist that reads as a varied and satisfyingly over the top album from a late 80’s heavy metal mutant, borderless and having far too much fun making records. I highly doubt “Dragon Fly (Proceed Upon a Journey)” was meant to open a record yet it insists with its Candlemass-meets-English Dogs‘ ‘Where Legend Began’ thrust and a vocal reminiscent of Scald‘s beloved Agyl. That early Manowar-sized muscle is yet to fully flex before we dive into a handful of high fantasy traditional doom metal pieces “Floating With the Ancient Tide” is the first to add touches of Bobby Liebling (Pentagram) cadence and by the ~2:00 minute mark we’re entirely there right down to the pronunciation of “nightmare”. The fantastic thing is that all of this absolutely works for me and continues to be a good time, these doom metal pieces aren’t so experimental that they lose the same character you’ll find on early Paul Chain and Bedemon classics or recent Python (New York) releases. “The Fright” stands out, perhaps for its stomping groove but also it being a previously released track from the ‘Traditional Doom Cult’ (2016) EP but recorded during the same pre-1994 era as the rest of the album, the A-side of that 7″ is also included on the B-side of this compilation.

“A Shape in the Dark” flips a switch back to United States 80’s power metal, “Slash at the Sun” could’ve been stolen directly from the “First Daze Here” compilation, and you’ve gotten the idea of what the bulk of the experience entails. Catchy mid-paced doom metal and some fantasy metal swingers, all of it catchy and delivered with over the top vocals. The only song that seems to function as padding above the 30 minute mark is the Regress FF song “Rockemillion”, it was about time for a punk number but just, not that one. I’ve no issue with the “Ride the Solar Wind”, it is the sort of weird bit of a Warlord album you’d forget about long after listening; Besides, the slightly hilarious drum circle it provides is fittingly not self-serious. So, how to take in this well-arranged archive of true metal howling yet catchy traditional doom metal oddity? Take it as it is, I mean if you can blur your eyes long enough it all fits together quite well as if a moody set of amateurs set out to make something dramatic and ended up with an unusual heavy metal hybrid (see: The Black (Italy), Flames of Hell, The Mezmerist). Where do we place it on the Isengard continuum? That’d be the hard part as some of this was concurrent with the high ambition death metal of 1986-1991 and other pieces don’t give the slightest inclination due to the high level of normalization provided by Jack Control’s (Enormous Door) final rendering. I’d place this material in between chapters I and II of ‘Vinterskugge’, some of ‘Vårjevndøgn’ is tongue-in-cheek but none of it is brutally naïve as a demo or as doom metal, although of course the vocals are their own brand of insanity.

There is a larger conversation to be had about today’s music consumer and their ability to approach new releases with rabid ignorance. What value does commentary on the general “hot take” reactions to ‘Vårjevndøgn’ bring? I suppose not knowing all of Isengard‘s material coming from a certain period isn’t a crime. I suppose not seeing the bigger picture of how prolific and border-busting the other material was, some of it defining folk/viking metal while absolutely killing Swedish death metal along the way, isn’t a crime either. None of that really matters, this is a goofy lo-fi heavy metal record with a shit-ton of personality that’d have been important in hindsight were it released in the early 90’s, at least if you’re attuned to the weird side of sub-genre; As I said, “serious record collector nerd shit“. I am a fan of weird, over the top heavy metal and traditional doom metal so this compilation was at first fun, then actually infectious with several memorable moments. My recommendation is then largely reserved for folks who’ve heard it all and are always looking for something a bit unexpected and strange, a curio to mull over and appreciate for its odd placement in time and the long hidden years that preceded official release. A sharp archive, probably the cleanest render of Isengard material to date, and I guess an odd stroke of niche for folks who’re thus inclined — A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (70/100)

Rating: 7 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Peaceville Records
RELEASE DATE:October 2nd, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Traditional Heavy Metal,
Traditional Doom Metal,

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