FROZEN DAWN – The Decline of the Enlightened Gods (2023)REVIEW

A fantastical icebound realm envisioned for over a decade now realized in monumental glacial crags, white-drenched forest rallies and warming melodic strikes at the heart of their wintry escape there is yet no cold and distant feeling to be had when one begins to engage with the melodious yet aggressive pulse of Spanish black metal trio Frozen Dawn, who’ve managed a best-yet representation of their vision nearly nine years beyond their previous full-length release. ‘The Decline of the Enlightened Gods‘ comes well informed by a recharged sense of purpose, a sound invigorated by the old gods just short of servitude which elaborates upon their melodic black metal style with death and thrash metal intensity woven deep within its texture. Expect a dramatic telling of their story, a dynamic and nigh long-winded record which proudly wears its fandom as a point of influence but manages its own voice and realm envisioned somewhere in the mist.

Inspired by the Scandinavian black metal affront that’d defined the second half of the 90’s Frozen Dawn formed in Madrid circa 2006 between folks who’d generally been involved in death metal up ’til that point with a tentative line-up eventually producing a demo (‘Winds From the North‘, 2007) which seemed less concerned with cult sounds and more with mid-paced melodic songwriting, as evidenced by the cover from ‘Volcano‘-era Satyricon on the CD-r. This helped the band gain some early traction, soon adding a bassist and different second guitarist (Lord Morgoth) who would play on their first two full-lengths from that point. The sluggish vikingr jog was gone at that point and a Dissection and Necrophobic influenced tautness would soon break through as they re-recorded a standout track (“Cold Soul“) while showing immediate growth for a pre-LP single. Though the band’s core membership were clearly showing influences from Immortal and many other Norwegian groups the album that followed (‘The Old Prophecy of Winterland‘, 2011) ultimately picked a lane closer to Swedish melodic black metal. At this point the band were easily lumped in with what was much more of a rarity back in the early 2010’s, groups like Thulcandra and Black Horizons who managed a mixture of temperament akin to that of Thy Primordial where severity and sentimentality found common slipstream of intense melodic riffs. This was best communicated on their second full-length album, the Xtreem Music released ‘Those of the Cursed Light‘ back in 2014.

At that breaking point offered by the second full-length the signature approach of Frozen Dawn had been well established but the line-up soon fractured down to vocalist/guitarist Grinder and drummer Arjan van der Wijst who’d soon added Antionio Mansilla on bass/lead guitars in forging the new line-up and an updated sound beyond that point. Nearly ten years later they’ve taken their time in aiming for the desired result, the next stage of the band which we find on ‘The Decline of the Enlightened Gods‘. In aiming for a matured version of their sound, a conscious avoidance of redundancy per the previous two records, and a generally more balanced full listen the trio haven’t stepped outside of the niche but instead found an exemplar version of it per their own taste. For the most part they’ve managed a desirable result, this third record reads as indulgent, thoughtfully composed to the point of being just a hair too much for a single sitting. ~50 minutes of heavily layered, lead-driven, weightily atmospheric and always melodic black metal delivered with a level of heavy metal bombast that is well-paired with the ‘Hrimthursum‘-era Necrophobic cover that tops it all off. Their work is nonetheless as advanced in its tuneful spirit and capability as one would expect with a nine year gap between releases.

The arena at the heart of Winterland. — While it will make sense to point to Frozen Dawn and then the “melodic black metal” section of your brain and say “You, go there.” as a natural if not primitive categorization this is only obvious because this record really, really sounds a lot like the work Necrophobic have been doing for the last two decades in their post-Skogsberg work with engineer Frederik Folkare. Built around the blustering fuss of their consonant and lyrical lead guitar melodies heading the charge, each piece here exists atop a basal level of catchy rhythms written for two guitars and performed by at least ten layers. This is for for the sake of aiming for an outsized and dramatic presence which is largely fixated upon the guitar arrangements and their many moving parts. The bass guitar tone is largely reserved while the double-bass prominent render of the drums ensures that this feels like a decisive and driven melodic black/death metal record without any waffling about as to what direction it is headed in. This is an excellent fit for Dan Swanö‘s sensibilities applied to the master, assumedly bringing some additional temperament to the bass tone so that it registered in the midst of the guitars while emphasizing the brutal burst of the drum kit on songs like “Oath of Forgotten Past”. All of this will be easily read by the seasoned Scandinavian black metal fan as a certain sort of record, to the point that some of the nuances may be easy to gloss over within the abundant, perhaps overstated length of the full listen.

For Frozen Dawn black metal isn’t just a matter of creating a recognizable feeling within a composition and extending the moment to a point of radiance, this is certainly the effect of their efforts but world building has always been their primary concern in crafting a well-rounded experience. In the case of ‘The Decline of the Enlightened Gods‘ their realization of this envisioned world, their muse-realm Winterland, can be related to Immortal‘s Blashyrk as the source of mythos which provides lyrical and visual inspiration for the feeling of their music. This is the first suggested step in seeing past what is obvious about their work stylistically and beginning to see the ideal the artist has envisioned through the perceived “step up” that this third album ultimately is. If we deign consider the topography of Winterland then it is assuredly a jagged peak’d and fjord trenched land scarred by cataclysmic tectonic events per the dynamic of the main sequence herein, the running order representing a regular waveform of high soaring dramatism, steady yet twisted grooves, and upward-charging pieces. In practical terms, every third or so song should provide a fresh peak to re-experience the grand vistaes available to Frozen Dawn‘s catchy but admittedly not entirely unique work. Album opener “Mystic Fires of Dark Allegiance” attempts to whip through the full rollercoaster up front in the space of about six minutes and in doing so kicks things off with what I’d consider a mid-album level of detail and intensity, a piece which plays a bit better when the album is left on repeat and the listener’s ear has fully warmed up to their classic yet buttoned up sound.

“Spellbound” is the effective burst into the action proper and serves as the piece to introduce where Frozen Dawn stand out in the perceived sub-genre niche, this will likely be the song to pull in old heads who are most interested in recreating the feeling of mid-to-late 90’s Swedish melodic black/death metal of a specific type, those who enjoy the periphery of records like ‘Storm of the Light’s Bane‘ that explored both melodic and atmospheric tangents beyond that point. “Frozen Kings” and “Oath of Forgotten Past” present the post-millennial aspect of this sound which tended towards rock grooves, bigger melodic hooks. Though these are obvious standout pieces on the full listen the “impressive per today’s standards, above-average per yesterday’s standards” dichotomy persists in the sense that this is an old language revealed, minus the introspective peak of the sub-genre elsewhere (see: Dawn, Sacramentum, et al.) which reads more as a tribute to a greater era rather than the establishment of a new standard.

If you are simply a fan of records like ‘Mark of the Necrogram‘ and want something equally exciting, if not slightly less focused on easily read heavy metal pieces ‘The Decline of the Enlightened Gods‘ will have proven its worth at this point. In fact, I’d say “Cosmic Black Chaos” was the natural cut-off point for my taste, the point in the tracklist where enough ground had been covered to neatly and precisely represent the high standards of the band and their vision for black metal. Some of the compositions begin to reveal melodic redundancies in their dramatic voice from that point on and this leaves the otherwise impressive title track out in the cold, landing somewhat unnecessary as the final touch on the album beyond a classical guitar piece (“The Fall of Aeons”) which’d likely have served its purpose opening the album (or Side B) rather than closing it.

This Mark III version of Frozen Dawn admirably took their time building a solid foundation before adding to the greater legacy of the band’s work thus far. There is the sense that ‘The Decline of the Enlightened Gods‘ had to be something not only bigger and more representative of the trio but that the music should be substantive, repeatable and worthy of a long-time black metal fan’s fixation. In fact this was probably too much pressure to guarantee a pristine result, leading to what I’d consider an excess of pieces which otherwise speak to the exuberance and reverence for black metal which the group upholds herein. Realistically speaking it’ll be the sort of record many will categorize quickly and give a passing thumbs up to but there is yet plenty of detail and engaging melodic value that do well to sustain the die-hard fan of this style. A moderately high recommendation.

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