HORNA – Kuoleman Kirjo (2020)REVIEW

The mind in reflection is the pitiable curse of waking sentience. This deathlike abyss is represented by the fear you feel in the throes of ignorant wonder, where anticipatory self-preservation prevents you from peering through any dark doorway elsewhere. Yet the other side goes on knowing, never catching you with any certain eye but knowing our seed is forever planted. That fear, that we are watching you, is personified and chiseled into strengthened oppression by an ever-raised whip of the unknown. Unfortunate is the reality that, for most of us, tunnel vision won’t allow a decent view of the arm holding the weapon. We sit and stare at the light of white-walled corners and lead-encased savior(s) until blind, dead or wisened to the strain in the wrist that comes from bearing the crucifix-handled whip and any associated foulest delusion. The dark beyond embodied by black metal is another sort of arm to fear, a weapon that comes with the muscle memory of ten-thousand strikes of the knife and in the form of an idiosyncratic din potent enough to harm the listener within mere minutes of a casual listen. That we live in such a severely mediocre time to be alive only fuels the severity of this music, it is as if black metal would deign become so outrageous and inhumane in response to nullity that it would devolve itself into suicidal non-statement and die via its own perpetually absurd invagination of forms. When speaking to the ever-shifting sands of Finnish black metal quintet Horna as a complete discography we see actions in marvel and tribute of revelatory forms as often as we see modes of timeless infernal creation where the wonder of what is next is never what is expected beyond “black metal.” The tenth angle of Horna‘s craft is ‘Kuoleman Kirjo‘, a coherent wide-band modulation of the Scandinavian black metal spectrum that demands reflection from the listener upon old haunts and a fresh gaze towards all manner of abandoned ruins waiting to be rebuilt.

That is to say that ‘Kuoleman Kirjo’ does seem to be the best (to date) focus lain upon creating a most complete foil for what Horna is, a rope twined of their many threads if you will. As far back as the mid-2000’s I remember folks constantly suggesting this band as classicist black metal and a shapeshifter in the same breath and yes, there are too many albums for most to consider… and yes, they’re all remarkably unique to one another. Of course this is a result observed rather than an evidence or symptom-based theory, in fact the simplest angle is that ‘Kuoleman Kirjo’ is a wisened reversion to the early 90’s black that’d first (and perhaps continues to) inspire Horna‘s modus. Their earliest material, which notably featured vocalist Nazgul von Armageddon (Satanic Warmaster, Werewolf Records) from the second demo ‘Hiidentorni‘ (1997) through their third full-length ‘Sudentaival‘ (2001), found Horna‘s modus entirely centered around the aggression of the early Norwegian black metal scene with an appreciation for a certain key area of Bathory‘s discography as well as riffs resembling the glorified verve(s) of Emperor, Gorgoroth and Satyricon. Of the odds-and-ends of this era the ‘Perimä vihassa ja verikostossa‘ (2000) EP is my favorite, for its nigh commercial sounding viking metal guitar tone and melodic sound, we will hearken back here sooner or later. This brings up an issue fairly unique to Horna in the sense that we’ll soon realize the additional context of demo and EP releases is vital at random intervals, each representing either a one-off stylistic venture, a sign of a coming paradigm shift, or a chance to test out a major line-up change. At this point we can say Horna are prolific but their restless approach to variable stylistic ventures begins roughly beyond ‘Haudankylmyyden mailla‘ (1999), and yes the project have yet to release the same record twice. To document each stunning morph and how each side project would influence changes to the Horna sound would take more time than I’ve set aside, needless to say the more you dig into the maelstrom the sooner the mind begs to simplify this wealth of gems with blanketing statements.

The Mark III era of the band, if you count time spent as Shadowed as Mark I, featuring Corvus (Korgonthurus, ex-Totalselfhatred) on vocals was restless and tentative while Sargeist was more-or-less taking up the mindshare and essentially redirecting the flow of Finnish black metal evolution entirely. This meant the project’s fifth (‘Ääniä Yössä‘, 2007) and sixth (‘Sotahuuto‘, 2007) full-lengths were initially seen as somewhat minor releases to some, certainly the most awkward point to approach the band as each record arrived under odd circumstances. ‘Ääniä Yössä’ was originally a shelved demo from 2004, one of the wildest forward-thinking spitballs from their discography that was essentially a Sargeist-level idea and ‘Sotahuuto’ offered a truly inspired tribute to Bathory, one of my favorite Horna records. Discovering both of those albums in 2007 meant I’d needed the context of going backwards into their discography for a few years but the band would move towards developing their own signature blend of oldest and newer black metal affect from that point on. In terms of the last decade of the project guitarist/songwriter Shatraug has primarily focused on his remarkable achievements in Sargeist and split various other ideas between roughly 9-10 other side projects. Horna‘s most recent full-length, ‘Hengen Tulet‘ (2015), was a spiteful reverb-drenched sinkhole and a truly miserable (in a good way) peak for the sound the band had developed with their third (and current) vocalist Spellgoth, whom you’ll recognize from Trollheims Grott, since 2009. I would consider this current era of the band (from that point and including now) as a period of professional grade output, essentially the leverage of strong lineage and consistent releases taken seriously. None of this provides any reasonable context for what Horna‘s tenth album, ‘Kuoleman kirjo’, is including the nearby boon of activity during 2018 as a new line-up formed and old recordings revived.

Hell, it is a new decade and Horna‘ve added another member (each) from (both vastly underrated) Phlegein and Trollheims Grott to their ranks. Even still the bigger change here appears to be a collaborative songwriting process shared between Shatraug and longtime guitarist/ex-bassist Infection (Ajattara, Bythos, Sotajumala, et al.) who find new pathways to auld black metal and some black/folk influenced pieces that serve as a secondary trait vital to justifying the ~70 minute length of ‘Kuoleman kirjo’. So, we are a decade into what is essentially a two year modification of a Mark IV configuration which finds that band at peak professionalism presenting an album that recalls Horna‘s early years via Norsk influence and folkish tirades. Will it provide a refreshing blast of cold opus or, uh, be the most typical release from the band to date? I would suggest that you would feel the latter before the former and that both sensations are inevitable. What’d stood out to me while walking and listening to ‘Kuoleman kirjo’ was surely “Elävänä, Kuolleena” and its major bout of serpentous, sliding n’ coiling mid-to-late 90’s Emperor-esque riffs, later noting that “Veriuhri” reprises this style with a similar motif. As a listener these sorts of pieces are both a signal that the artist is still very much enthusiastic about classic forms and that there is some belief that the inertia of those forms is eternal. If we were to superficially halt right there it’d be fair to say we’d revisited the spark of ‘Haudankylmyyden mailla’ and sure, quaint idea and a cool record, but if we wheel back a few paragraphs and recall that this album is a quest for identity — What is old ruin and sacred memoria is only one part of the greater animal.

Opener “Saatanan Viha” is doctrine revived, a tongue full of venomous hurl launched in the name of Satan and its writhing, skin-peeling main riff couldn’t be more invigorating a dance. Instead of wallowing in this first piece the pace of this extra-long album is immediate and brisk as the start of “Elegia” is woven from the end of “Saatanan Viha”. Parsing influences and regional invention becomes less important once in the thick of the knowable experience available, instead I would suggest that the variety here on ‘Kuoleman kirjo’ is the most appropriate accolade to start with. Tones are set and shifted, styles bloom into view and fade, and we are left with an painterly blend of modern semi-melodic black metal timbre and the biting rip of the second wave’s enthusiasm for evil. “Uneton” is the embodiment of these statements (reinforced via “Kärsimysten Katedraali”), and perhaps a very clean example of what a Finnish black metal ideal should look like circa 2020. “Sydänkuoro” is the first piece to incorporate what I’d consider a viking chorale into the vocal work, “Haudattujen Tähtien Yönä” uses them in an entirely different way (and ends up being one of my personal favorite pieces on the record) and “Ota Minut Vastaan” uses these multi-tracked vocals of varying tonal moan to introduce the closing piece to great effect; This hymnal Bathory-esque feeling strengthens upon repeated listens, providing classicist texture and preventing the listen from dragging via revitalizing peaks that maintain momentum. They haven’t necessarily revived the sound of ‘Perimä vihassa ja verikostossa’ but I do believe some of that earthen early Moonsorrow vibe, sans keyboards, translates here in a very muted, controlled way. By virtue of having done so many things under one umbrella the possibilities of what constitutes a prime Horna record is vast, this allows ‘Kuoleman kirjo’ to include three or four states of mind and combine them in multiples for one outsized and engrossing full listen.

Suffice to say that these were inspired sessions brimming with freely woven ideas and ever-solidifying ideals, yet Horna‘s vast discography remains a bit unconquerable in terms of summary and I’d be blustering a bit if I said this album collects the “best” of traits expressed since ~’94. If anything they’ve demonstrated proper linkage between the progenitors of second wave black metal in connection with some of the key ideas we find in Finnish black metal supremacy today. Because of this I’d suggest ‘Kuoleman kirjo’ is informative as it is artistic, an unholy revelation that justifies this sense that Horna have outlasted others by virtue of remaining curious of the great beyond, unafraid to peer through any darkest doorway ahead. My listening experience began nonplussed via a cursory listen and I’d been enchanted once I’d lived with the album a bit, walked with the cold winter air in my lungs, and dug deeper than the thrill of “Elävänä, Kuolleena.” In revisiting the band’s entire discography I’d found this album had some unprecedented values, a certain touch of varietal focus which you don’t find on the average Horna album, which tend to be fired off within a central idea with steadfast tunnel vision. Perhaps this is a matter of collaboration but what matters most is that we’ve found the band in the midst of reinforced identity and fluidity at once and this magick flux is somehow brutally satisfying to revisit. Also, if it greases the wheel a bit I’d say fans of Sargeist who’d not yet dabbled in Horna will find this one of the easier entry points alongside ‘Ääniä Yössä’. After digging through their past and setting myself neck deep in the present I feel comfortable giving high recommendation of ‘Kuoleman kirjo’ as one of the better Horna releases.

High recommendation. (87/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Kuoleman Kirjo
LABEL(S):W.T.C. Productions
RELEASE DATE:December 8th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Black Metal

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