HÄXANU – Totenpass (2023)REVIEW

The enriched will is the sole eternal aspect, null else remains. — The fate of all men is set in death, obviate to some yet no less a cold realization to arrive upon beyond a lifetime of pawed-at scriptures offering guide in passage to the imagined after-life. All piety and memorization affords little more than a persistence of delusion, feeble attempts to wade beyond fatal wounds with dignity. A “newborn” understanding of the quest beyond death affords our protagonist not only frustration but mania in reaction to a lifetime of absurd sophistry and senseless mysticism draining from their spirit, momentarily clouding the task ahead. The animalistic darting of pure emotion, a charged energetic reactivity let loose into the wilderness of the netherworld leads the way as United States-based black metal duo Häxanu expand upon ideation with refinement and manage a near masterpiece in the process. ‘Totenpass‘ tasks the listener with staring into the porcelain face of Dionysian pessimism and finding purpose, accepting not only mortality but reveling in the dance beyond. In most practical terms it’ll serve as an emotional wellspring for those connected to rhythm guitar expressivity and indulgence, or, read as one of the finer modern interpretations of the spiritual prowess found within classic Scandinavian melodic black metal influenced guitar work.

Any reasonably studied black metal listener need only quickly scan the corpus for its major runes here, this is to be A.P.‘s (Chaos Moon, Skáphe, et al.) black metal project, among several others, intently focused upon the “riff” as it pertains to the now veritably dead art of guitar-driven melodic black metal at the very peak of mid-to-late second wave sophistication and dark romanticism. The inkling was more than there a few years ago when the project was unveiled by way of a brilliant debut full-length (‘Snare of all Salvation‘, 2020) which visually and spiritually called to the serious corners of the niche, a feat we haven’t heard of since beyond the perhaps tangential spiritual cousin in Lifvsleda‘s second record. Otherwise a logo and structural ideal referencing Arckanum was plain as day and their riffcraft occasionally refraining into the corridor-thrashing aggression of Sorhin helped make for a brilliant, unforgettable event. Inherently distanced from the melodious voicing of otherwise contemporary acts like Sargeist or Spectral Wound but persisting with similar influence, it was a slick enough feat that these comparisons made sense to many folks at the time. At any rate it’d been one of the most exciting black metal releases of that year for my taste landing as #29 on my Top 100 Albums of 2020 and that’d built momentum enough to send my mind spuming in response to ‘Totenpass‘ as it’d appeared on the horizon.

In and out of the flesh. — The best parts of ‘Totenpass‘ recall the sophisticated rhythmic voice and frantic pace of ‘Far Away From the Sun‘ without blandly emulating the ornate, neatly-rounded phrasal style of early Sacramentum, occasionally willing the core guitar channels to split into lightly polyphonic rapture but only for the sake of calling upon similarly broad strokes of compositional flair. Previews of “Ephòdion” hint at how this influence was instilled into late 90’s melodic black metal otherwise, moments of extreme focus broken up by more sentimental rushes of melody and the eventual dance with keyboards to grant a sense of arrival in the second half. Likewise the pre-release preview offered by album opener and lead single “Death Euphoria” recalls an early Dawn-esque framework for a grand entrance, a patient set of progressions which brace the opening narrative in stirring form. For the well-engaged fan of melodic black metal the body high of the experience has fully set in roughly three minutes deep as the next half hour or so intends to yank the soul free from its corpse and tumultuously steer toward the paradise below.

Vocalist and lyricist L.C. (Lichmagick) is not concerned with the eternal weather forecasting of the past, nor the inner Eldritch fire of 90’s black metal’s best works in the realm of dark fantasy art in painterly, Romanticist depiction but instead focuses on perspective in order to place the listener outside of themselves. This means a third person yet tethered point of view for the narrator at the moment of quietus, our protagonist is freshly dead yet we find no psychopomp arrives to usher him through. Of course this is as much as I can infer, yet even the loosest implication of theme herein becomes clearer in time. With visions of bleak vistae and nocturnally swaying pines out of sight the focus of these pieces rallies around embodying the torment beyond the flesh, passage to the netherworld, and ultimately restates itself as a piece on acceptance of death as a real force of nature and a return rather than a tragedian affliction, my interpretation anyhow. Beyond this, he has improved as a performer, expressing more than sheer horror and aggression as the dementia of the newly dead encompasses the many writhing events he’d dictate.

Allegorischer totentanz. — The most dramatic thrashing given and most stirring piece overall, “Sparagmos”, is the point where A.P.‘s composition has mostly clearly given purpose and affect to L.C.‘s vocal performances. We can hear his voice exploring the range of the character up ’til that point but this is a moment where both musicians are now weilding something bigger, a heightened sense of unison in representing the piece which speaks to the rarest sort of black magick available to the artform. This comes after the journey towards said plateau of action within “Thriambus / Threnodia”, a ~15 minute song which serves as the major body of the full-listen, a flood of slow-built triumphal resonance in praise of Dionysus and a brief tragedian dirge (a melodious knot, mostly) as the piece closes out Side A. The ~25 minutes these two pieces amount to offer the clearest viewpoint to observe Häxanu‘s insight gained beyond ‘Snare of All Salvation‘ heroically applied to this new material, longform pieces entirely focused upon their statement rather than simply breaching touchstones of style. This is also likely to be the most emotionally connective part of the album for those inclined to more than cold observation.

Now in proper context after the greater sojourn has crested upon countless triumphal and tragedian moments up ’til this point “Ephòdion” now reads as a purposeful, solidified stride in passage on the full listen. It is an important piece in sustaining the greater dynamic verve of the full listen, not only its momentum but the lasting impression of the full ~45 minute stretch as it sustains across several listens. Though the album is at no great risk of congestion in terms of sheer riff count overall this is at least one point where the physical act of performance appears daunting, requiring a great deal of focused energumen and this burst of detail is rightfully set in the midst of Side B. There is yet more to reveal in terms of both vocal register and pacing as we press into the finale/title track but this is where the listener might best reach the summit on their own. The gist of it is that the full listen is a complete work rather than a well-built conception, not only has Häxanu realized the potential the first album sported but created an exponentially profound work beyond expectations.

More than a few consistently stirring and/or unforgettable moments help to make ‘Totenpass‘ a wholly redeeming black metal experience and a frankly surprisingly warmed and fully realized work considering the previous record felt like a stroke of magick in passing, a well-informed experiment. This is a very quick and early second point of mastery in the lifespan of Häxanu, an exponential step which’d stunned me in spite of high expectations. Personal or performative, thoughtful or purely felt, there is some uncommon spellcraft whirring within the realm they are conjuring here which grips multiple points of my brain and impresses to no end. A very high recommendation.

Help Support Grizzly Butts’ goals with a donation:

Please consider donating directly to site costs and project funding using PayPal.