CIRKELN – A Song to Sorrow (2022)REVIEW

An exploration of heroic Scandinavian atmospheric black and folk metal tropes that has ultimately cut towards epic heavy metal influenced atmospheric/melodic black metal, Cirkeln formed in 2019 by way of Stockholm, Sweden-based musician Våndarr whom has remained largely anonymous throughout the project’s short run thus far. Evolving considerably with each public release per the convenience of immediate digital response today, the project has writhed a bit in finding a comfortable standard to present their intended signature sound with as the target shifts under each more-capable stride the musician makes. ‘A Song to Sorrow‘ is yet admittedly a bit of smoke-and-mirrors, a simplification of past overt ambitions which nonetheless lands some substantial hooks and bears its warrior soul just enough upon return.

On their first demo release, the digitally released ‘Cirkeln‘ (2019), Cirkeln were piloting a fairly average ship with limited resources and a sort of usual mix of atmospheric black metal muzzling and too-subtle ‘epic’ melodies, today’s known qualities only really surfacing within the otherwise mediocre “Swords to Slay Evil”. From there a complete shift in fidelity, delivery, and identity seems to take place with the ‘Stormlander‘ (2020) EP a year later, garnering comparisons to Isengard‘s viking/black metal side and pulling some very direct riff progressions from Quorthon‘s viking metal saddlebags by way of a couple generations of self-averaged folk metal (see: “Hammer High”). Without necessarily refining the fidelity of recording beyond that first EP the first full-length was not far behind less than six months later wherein ‘Kingdoms that No One Remembers‘ (2020) had a ton of ideas to unpack within a huge hourlong debut, a true epic that’d only suffered for its too-tall ambition of a full-ranged opus. An admirable progression for an artist still finding idealized connection between their vision and capabilities, landing a serious debut full-length with an explosion of ideas was certainly nothing to sneeze at but I believe there is good reason we see the reigns pulled back in for this more refined, wisened second album.

Without directly naming the too-obvious -musical- comparison of Summoning off the top of your head and having to eat your words later, most will note that Cirkeln‘s work thus far resembles a similar approach to high fantasy affected epic atmospheric black metal station in approach of this particular record. The named influences of this album are otherwise somewhat absurdly vague in implication of proto or first wave black metal acts, and perhaps the age of the artist, with of course the major note being a consistent ‘Nordland‘-era Bathory influence. This doesn’t quite line-up as we find second wave guitar tropes and even a bit of folk metal melody enhancing this ‘epic’ black metal style the artist has managed herein. The sort of saving grace beyond the overall slightly superficial feeling this album grants is of course the strong use of synth/keyboards and nowhere is this more obvious than the epic heavy metal influenced main riff of the title track (“A Song to Sorrow”) which is evocative enough to start but when paired with the elevation of the keyboards its digital reverb muffled dry atmospheric values land far less plainly. This doesn’t necessarily work in every case to salvage the full listen, though. Just as ‘Kingdoms That No One Remembers‘ struggled with rhythm guitar timing and more than an implication of songcraft at times so does ‘A Song to Sorrow‘ (see: “Vandraren”) yet the best pieces are packed up front in the listen and most listeners will likely have fallen for the charm of the record before it begins to wobble a bit, and in this sense there is no crime that there are some amateurish or unpolished edges to several pieces here.

This ‘halfway there’ sense of self sets Cirkeln in the realm of groups like Emyn Mull for my own taste — Spirited and idealistic in their aim and making fine work which doesn’t yet escape its own well-set borderlines, arguably leading to an unsubstantial or unfocused -musical- result. This is echoed in the lyrics which, despite the ‘anti-fascist’ tag given to their personal ideologies, tend to simply focus on the usual power fantasies of conquer, sojourn and sword & sorcery using references to The Lord of the Rings and some reference to Michael Moorcock, which for us high fantasy novel fans used to getting lip-service from metal bands tends to mean references to the Elric of Melniboné featured novels and likely just the ‘main’ ones. Though it is a minor note on my part, I feel like bands like Mystras have gone the extra mile to include their well-stated stance on social issues within their music in various ways and seeing a band like this simply wear the tag rather than present the ideology within their craft seems more like marketing than ‘walking the walk’. Black metal is, in my mind, a space to be as bold as is humanly possible and administer (or befoul) the soul fearlessly — I don’t see any such application of theme and purpose here beyond otherwise inspired arrangements.

If not for the volcanic winds that precede them, the quaint flutes bouncing about with their presage of the melody which leads “The March” unto its strong opener status will likely have triggered a bit of Falkenbach-esque glimmer in the ear of said fandom. A bright note of playful yet not too droll fantasy tenor to introduce this far more direct-to-ear presentation from Cirkeln. Thought the vocals and their studio effects are still a bit pointlessly bouncing off of their imaginary walls via too-wet reverb their louder caw does an strong enough job to meet the energy of the instrumental beneath, a good start that sweeps right into what is perhaps the biggest hook of the album, the aforementioned title track and its Maiden-esque opening lead. The sense that this fellow is doing as much as possible with limited resources rather than lo-fi crushing his sound is refreshing enough yet I don’t think the amount of (again) reverb does anything forgiving enough for the intro to “Vaults Beyond Vaults” an otherwise strong use of another memorable heavy metal riff hook, a simple and relatively well-circled lead guitar thread which pairs incredibly well with the movement of the album thus far. Things admittedly get a bit more directly Swedish melodic black metal voiced on perhaps the major standout piece on the album “Hills of Sorcery” and this is where I’d become more ‘sold’ on the catchy heavy metal aspect of Cirkeln, even if I remain torn on the cursory black metal voicing of experience and its choppy render.

From that point on rudimentary heavy metal guitar hooks are traded for slightly more elaborate melodic black metal song structures, leading to a few rousing ‘epic’ moments beyond, such as the eased middle portion of “Natassja” and its dungeon synth break in the last third. Where I believe this claim that “Quorthon would be proud” which is a bit of an asinine thought to begin with, is the last couple of songs on ‘A Song to Sorrow’, hitting just the right patient yet involved setting of “Vandaren” and the sort of rocking stomp of my favorite piece on the record, closer “Thine Winter Realm Enthroned”. For all of the jabs I’d freely give to the listening experience here most arrive with a sort of reverence for the major influences of a band like Cirkeln and it is worth something that this is yet another major movement in the very fast progression of skill and concept from the artist over the course of just a few years. It won’t take any drastic modulation to find a great work within the balance of earnest jank and heroic commune with the listener afforded here but the feeling of adventurous, substantive arrangements would do well to reinforce this promising project’s next approach. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (70/100)

Rating: 7 out of 10.
TITLE:A Song to Sorrow
LABEL(S):True Cult Records
RELEASE DATE:March 25th, 2022

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