VALLENDUSK – Heralds of Strife (2021)REVIEW

Here should be perfect sympathy, a single end and aim. Where either seeks his own advancement at the expense of the other, there is discord, hell, eternal death.” Berthold Auerbach, Edelweiss

Inspired and unflinchingly determined to be an artist from the age of sixteen, German (and later French naturalized) painter Theodor Alexander Weber‘s dedication would eventually land him a small yet celebrated and museum-enshrined mark upon the art world for the sake of the functional importance the French Naval Ministry placed upon artistic documentation of historical events. Remembered for his realistic yet movement rich depictions of naval wrecks, battles, and representation of late 19th century maritime military austerity the artist thrived within his commissions to the point of mastery. Why then, would the artist have etched a drawing of a man hanging from a cliff, clawing up some Alpine reach with such determination? The random bit of work likely salvaged from his earlier days is almost too intimately staged with his more famous body of work in mind yet, through a deepened understanding of the mythos attached to the flower the man is reaching for we have access to leagues of context important to 19th and 20th century European history and heritage. For the sake of its favored altitude the wooly and white edelweiss has long been a symbol of resilience and noble stature amongst civilizations beset in alpine regions, with similar resonance for those seeking to conquer; The symbol itself persists on a massive scale between 19th century romanticism and through lasting mementos of 20th century wartime and in the case of Weber‘s depiction, simply titled Edelweiss, the intent was to depict the lengths a man would go to show their dedication and love for another. The image is curiously reframed to depict struggle and persistence itself by Jakarta, Indonesia-based atmospheric black metal band Vallendusk on this their fourth full-length album ‘Heralds of Strife‘. With the object (the flower) cropped out of sight what was once a personal, romantic and distinct image within a long-forgotten artists body of work now narrows into thought on singular perseverance, though similarly concerned with the potential individual gain from surviving hardship. As we approach the music that bears this deeply symbolic piece reframed for today the ‘epic’ melodic black metal album that rises to the occasion within begins to obviously intend to inspire and rouse the listener despite the constant death and societal collapse occurring the world over. It is an oddly repurposed collage of thematic grandeur to start yet the experience ultimately sinks in with some great value.

Formed in 2011 as an atmospheric black metal project between members of Kekal-esque avant-black act Fromhell and a less serious project Valefor, Vallendusk weren’t anything to get too excited about unless you were heavily entrenched in the overbearing presence of post-black/atmospheric black metal in the early 2010’s. Their sound was basically “on trend” for the time with the England and United States based indie and post-rock influenced atmospheric black metal of the era clearly influencing their imagery and guitar work. You will see a lot of comparisons to early Saor, Winterfylleth and Fen during these earlier years starting with the first album ‘Black Clouds Gathering‘ (2013), an unsophisticated record with poorly mixed and likely programmed drums overtaking the listen and similar results on their second album (‘Homeward Path‘, 2015) which’d featured more progressive and folk influenced moments, changing their tune along with the notable acts of the time. I don’t necessarily mean to blow through these works in review because they are of value but, largely for the completionist in hindsight. After more or less putting Fromhell on hold after 2016 some proper focus was aimed at Vallendusk‘s recording fidelity as their alliance with Northern Silence founded a larger reach amongst the European press, which found their third album (‘Fortress of Primal Grace‘, 2018) celebrated for its realization of the potential the prior release had presented. Stronger modern metal elements, better layered guitar work with far fewer rote movements, and incorporation of triumphant, crescendo-shoved melodramatic post-rock movements made for a notable atmospheric black metal album among said fandom. Nothing I’d have been interested at the time, or now if I’m being entirely honest. So, why cover ‘Heralds of Strife’ today, then? Well, this album is different in every way conceivable while still managing to sound like Vallendusk.

If we can roll back time to notable melodic black metal “late 90’s” enough that it bears viking/folk metal influences that’d maintain appeal to the Wacken attendee crowd, enough crispy fidelity to appeal to the atmospheric black metal revisionists, and enough spiritual gall to appeal to the early 90’s elitists alike our choices are generally limited to Windir. This is a tough nut to crack into in terms of creating this sort of melodic black metal because it requires such a specific melodic voice and an emotionally guided hand concerned with its own informal statements rather than a too-rigid cleanliness which ends up resembling a glossy, plastic toy version of Valfar‘s early work, such as Cor Scorpii. Vallendusk present a rare work here more along the lines of Mistur, Galar or even Gloosh if we consider their own muscle memory for landing atmospheric black metal crescendo condensed into sharper statements while still balancing catchiness and grand, never-ending melodic black metal pieces. The leap from forward-thinking eclecticism to hyper-traditional nostalgia might be jarring at first but as referential as some of their travels are along the way, all is forgiven as this lofty keyboard enriched and oft uplifting hourlong sojourn presents its implied theme of perseverance. And truth be told, this is achieved by sheer attrition if we consider its engaging ~65 minute length is spread between seven songs. The effect of the full listen is more than likely personal in response — Perhaps an initial bout of glorious escapism, respite into nostalgia, and the hope is that this eventually transforms into internal resolve beyond these graceful strokes borrowed from other worlds.

In choosing to elaborate this tightly wound set of works I’d had to come to terms with there being far too much to convey with consideration for the high level of detail and songs that are pieced together in chunks of similarly evocative statement. Every melodic progression is drilled into the brain via a set of at least four or more variations all presenting a motif that hovers in the mind as “obvious but never complete” until they’ve sewn each frayed end in summation; “Towards the Shimmering Dawn” being the most shining example of a piece that feels fragmentary and flustered until it finishes. It is an odd application of what are entirely consonant and triumphant compositions, performed largely without the crestfallen movements the band were previously known for blending into even their most uplifting works. Save for the impressive opening track (“The Last Soar as the Feathers Fall”) many of these songs feel like two separate beings fused in reference, as if two songs influenced one in alternating tarantella of forms. The effect is maze-like and inelegant in a satsifying way, stretched outside of current modern melodic black metal’s low standards, where half-formed ‘Storm of the Lights Bane’-isms is all most acts can manage. Vallendusk impress in the sense that they’ve landed a sort of early Moonsorrow level of heaviness but packed each song to the brim with riffs that would likely strain (and well, perhaps bore in some cases) the arm and memory of even the most strident when tasked with this level of expression. Folkish moments are used throughout the album to emphasize the anthemic shape of at least half of the pieces here with “Ethereal Echoes Of Devotion” and “Immemorials In Eternal Slumber” being the most forcefully applied events. Where I’d felt album does this best at this while sinking in fangs similar to those of Mistur and Cor Scorpii was on “Marching Ballad of the Unsung Ones”, which feels like a very direct point of reference and a nod towards the major influence directing the experience. I cannot imagine writing this song without hundreds of hours of stewing with Valfar‘s work in ear.

The danger in doing something outside of the progressing momentum of three prior albums is that it will feel formative versus the more stately, eclectic prior release and this is the case if we can be most objective in the face of ‘Heralds of Strife’. “Epic” does not necessarily have to mean a nine minute song if there is only one quite simple consonant melody guiding its entirety and elaboration of idiosyncratic guitar-voicing for these melodic statements (see: Havukruunu) is going to be key if Vallendusk continues down this path. If we can suspend the ideals of originality, proportional complexity, and any frustration with atmospheric black metal’s emphasis on repetition it’d be easy to reduce this albums value to its emotional resonance and nostalgic qualities above all else. This isn’t such a crime, I found taking a scalpel to ‘Heralds of Strife’ and needling through its fiber only placed blinders on the obviate appeal of the sprawling-yet-detailed event it proposes. In weighing the joy of listening versus the too-referential appeal of the full listen I’d ultimately give a moderately high recommendation of this one.

Moderately high recommendation. (75/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Heralds of Strife
LABEL(S):Northern Silence Productions
RELEASE DATE:May 14th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Atmospheric Black Metal,
Melodic Black Metal

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