SERPENT ASCENDING – Hyperborean Folklore (2022)REVIEW

The lasting hypnotic effect of the ancient yarn in epic form shouldn’t be underestimated even when it seems the apex of modern storytelling is well past us in an era of reference-strangled attention deficit meaning-lite. Epics detailing mythic creation or parable the follies of mankind characterized by the fickle, tragedian and corrupt gods fumed up in their image still greatly benefit from the negative space the storyteller must leave to the imagination of their audience. The eldest cultural artifacts we possess, yet most often ignore due to the blindness illiteracy creates, feature longform narrative which’ve managed to escape naiveté in hindsight for the sake of the holes the mind each generation must fill… a great muse which has much longer served precedence for the artistic breakthrough than any plainest hunger for actualizing either origin or originality. Helsinki, Finland-based progressive, epic, extreme and heavy metal project Serpent Ascending trace the point of personal origin back to the ethereal and imaginative realm of ancient folklore for the sake of a ‘best’ self here on their second full-length album. A dark underground ‘epic’ of ethereal extreme metal progressivity aiming to capture the magic air of tall and impossible tales, ‘Hyperborean Folklore‘ is a graceful and almost eerily earnest trampling of past-set expectations as it unfolds into a glorious, sweeping set of four outsized movements.

Officially manifested into singularity circa 2008, Serpent Ascending represents the personal spiritual evolution of musician Jarno Nurmi beyond his long history with traditional Finnish death metal, being best known for stints in elite groups Nerlich, Slugathor and Desecresy. The purpose of this group becomes most apparent when experienced holistically, cumulating as an experiment of personal capabilities and presenting music which is not strictured by a too-clear pigeonhole of sub-genre. The larger focus of the artist instead focuses on invoking moods, intensifying them, and in the process expanding the artist’s oeuvre into occult, blackened, ‘epic’ and generally experimental death metal-built forms. Because of this foundational modus being amorphous in seed it becomes trite to view the project’s path as linear in stylistic development, though it is clear that Nurmi becomes more skilled with his compositional standards and vision for each piece over time we cannot connect the dots from point A to B to C without specified context for each release. From my point of view this is the antithesis of “progressive” music, since the steps taken are space by enormous shadows in between plateaus rather than a logical progression from recording to recording. So, while I will express some appreciation for the worlds built by Serpent Ascending in the past it is worthwhile to regard ‘Hyperborean Folklore‘ up front as a new world and musical language developed in the space of about five to six years which will not depend upon expectations and established boundaries to mystify.

With that said, if you are a fan of Finnish death metal who’d been starved of anything but fiddly keyboards and melodeath-shred guitar + bad groove metal out of the country’s fading death metal base in the late 90’s we can count this artist as one who’d grown out of the ‘new old school’ that’d cropped up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s; You’ll find this association makes sense if you’re a Desecresy fan who’d followed their world beyond the Slugathor cessation (see: recently released ‘Crypt of the Ancient Fire‘ which bridges the gap) as you step into Serpent Ascending‘s self-titled first demo (‘Serpent Ascending‘, 2009) and its inventive almost Aeternus-esque follow up (‘The Mournful Pilgrimage‘, 2010) both of which were compiled a year later as ‘The Enigma Unsettled‘ (2011). At that point the eerie vibe of Nurmi‘s compositions was yet very much immersed in what he’d been fostering as part of Desecresy but alas those new songs had more of an earthen, folkish trundle to them which wasn’t so far from the ‘The Karelian Isthmus‘ realm of dramatic yet pulverizing death metal exposition. Those formative recordings were still very much musing an ‘old school’ death metal mode yet evolving per release. This was not the unbounding movement the artist should be known for just yet but a beginning of walls thinning, a dissolution of boundaries which we’d find in full crumble on their full-length debut, ‘Aṇaṅku‘ (2016). What we’d find there was a death metal album with some strong use of deadpan, layered clean vocals and riffs that’d venture on almost in opposition to the very concentric and repetition-dependent mode of Desecresy.

Think of that first album as an avant-garde bullion of what’d made records like ‘…And So the Night Became‘ special but in a condensed, vignette form where a bit of Bathory and the heaviness of blackened death metal granted a fusion well capable of narrative and chunking loud guitar grime at once. With ‘Hyperborean Folklore‘ the theme of the album and some additionally ‘epic’ heavy metal intent has directed all expression away from the typified death metal rhythm without losing the voice of the project entirely, crafting expansive 8-10 minute pieces which breathe and toil for the sake of immersion and evocative landscape-style painting of grand scenic vision. A bigger picture dealt by way of bigger music is how I’d describe this evolutionary leap, and this’d be the right time to consider Serpent Ascending ‘progressive’ metal in the sense that the large multi-tiered worlds illustrated by 70’s progressive rock have clearly inspired this album’s structure to some degree, if only by way of appreciation for classic early 80’s epic heavy metal. It might take about twenty minutes to achieve to this revelation, somewhere nearby halfway into “Stállus Hideout” over on Side B, but the intent of the artist becomes most transparent in the more intimate stride of said piece.

In exploring these freshened rhythms and forms I’d suggest that musical value and distinct perspective arrive in truth with ‘Hyperborean Folklore‘ in terms of Serpent Ascending‘s discography, the passion of the project is revealed in this album by way of easily achieved immerse alongside the coagulation of theme, steady-riding heavy metal rhythms and performances which feel specific to the artist even if they will be considered amateurish by some accounts. All of this lingering meaning and the unusual step away from death metal-centric rhythm make for a surreal, almost psychedelic rush of extreme atmospheric levels which are befitting of the equal spread of Finn, Sámi, and Norse (or, Fennoscandic) folkloric traditions which feature as the main inspiration for each of the four major scenes depicted. Here a far more spiritual and loose form fits beautifully upon Serpent Ascending‘s bones, feeling organically achieved and far from the bluntest edges of earlier recordings on the title track (“Hyperborean Folklore”) in particular where the lead guitar melodies fully blossom in the midst of the final third of the piece, this paired with the aforementioned “Stállus Hideout” represent the sort of peak revelation available to listeners willing to put the time into this album.

Though we have no reason to consider modern production standards for this or any other heavy metal record, especially with consideration for Serpent Ascending being a personal outlier best presented to exploratory niche-enjoyers, I will say that the homebrewed feeling that you might expect to pervade the full listen as opener “Growth of the Soil” extends its weirding bass-driven opening grooves isn’t quite so prominent beyond what are potentially programmed or pad drums. Nurmi‘s vocals aren’t especially tuneful or trained to any professional level but they convey a morose and serious mood well enough. Your results might vary in this sense, as this sort of register doesn’t cheese it up and well, this is coming from someone who regularly sits down with records like ‘Nordland‘ without complaint. Where I could see this record losing some folks is its admixture of beauteous, transcendent progressive rock influenced movement and the strange form of slower, more deliberate heavy metal influenced sound which might only hit for folks who enjoy obscure progressive death metal yet still recognize the core confluence of melodic 90’s metal and classic 80’s heavy metal. I’d personally found the dual guitar arrangements spellbinding and the long strands of rhythmic play served by the ‘epic’ heavy metal trait of ‘Hyperborean Folklore‘ both something out of the norm and enchanting as a listening experience.

So, I’m in a weird place with this record in terms of a recommendation since I’d personally find it to be one of the more readily immersive records I’ve heard in a while and I so greatly appreciate Serpent Ascending having not at all delivering upon the expectation of what thier second record might’ve been with ‘Hyperborean Folklore‘ yet I know general audiences simply won’t get it unless they are patient enough to let a grower, grow. In this sense I might recommend this fine album as a ‘obscure Scandinavian atmospheric metal epic’ rather than even mention death metal nearby as it’ll muddy the waters away from the major result of sitting with and reverently absorbing the somber mythos of it all. It’d taken me about three listens to really fall in line with this one but I’d imagine it being a challenge for the instant gratification addicted among us. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (77/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Hyperborean Folklore
LABEL(S):I, Voidhanger Records
RELEASE DATE:June 17th, 2022

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