Horse-kicked by the gatekeeper of hell with nowhere deeper to fall Avesta, Sweden-based stoner/doom metal trio Hästspark take their first serious steps beyond the cave and into distinction as this sophomore full-length constitutes a leap into professional render, performance and songcraft. The result of generally stepping it up beyond a modest, beginner level pandemic swaddled debut ‘Ostiarius Inferni‘ has more than the required pulse driving its wares but rather an incensed daimon-guided soul within its bluesy, roaring heavy rock swagger which showcases much more than the usual quick study of forms. These young folks bring some inspired feeling into the greater descent of this admirable second portal and do so with serious left-hand style in mind.
Hästspark formed in central Sweden as a duo circa 2020 between vocalist/guitarist Leo Lyckholm Rehné and bassist Joseph Nordström who’d appear to have gotten right to it with their songwriting and quickly recorded an album’s worth of songs. I’ve no real information to go on here but it seems those original recordings weren’t as professional as they’d have liked, those sessions were only generally preserved within the ‘The Wolfman‘ (2020) single which you can find on Spotify. Otherwise by the summer of 2021 they’d added (now former) drummer Casper Inered and re-recorded the entirety of their debut, soon releasing it as ‘Jötunn‘ in 2022. Though I doubt their intent was as intentionally designed or conceptual as it’d appeared I’d definitely gotten a whiff of the stoner and retro rock upswing circa 1994 in their sound, an ere where many extreme metal musicians began to chunk away at Sabbath grooves or start side-projects inspiring by stoner music, the era of records like Paradise Lost‘s ‘Icon‘ and death n’ roll sidled next to Spiritual Beggars and such which all seemed relevant but hey, to be fair their debut was still rough as a demo-level conception even when re-recorded. It’d been nonetheless ambitious, impressive as a first strike, even featuring Henke Forss of Dawn on guest vocals, adding to the variety of gruff and growled vocals alongside Witchcraft and High on Fire influenced pieces. Nobody’d blame you if you’d taken a quick earful of that record and quickly moved on, it was a starting point at best.
The well of souls has animated Hästspark after about three years of work, that is to say that this second album has a certain assured conviction to it which is decidedly Swedish in the tradition of ragged, ballsy and bluesy heavy rock with a doomed spirit to its movements. The appeal of their sound is not limited to style but the easiest way to “read” their intent and forceful delivery is a blend of 70’s sighted 90’s heavy rock underground and the umpteen generational swagger developed beyond, be it the desert rock dusted daze of Dozer or the the woodsy earthenware of early Witchcraft we arrive upon some basal level of the Sabbath groove and dynamic under heavy meditation given a bit of a swing and an almost southern rocking tip as the slow, steady and brilliantly heavy roll of this second full-length album takes its first few stabs. For an aging dolt like me this first takes me back to picking up records like ‘Another Way to Shine‘, the first Terra Firma LP and even Blackshine in the late 90’s while also listening just as closely to ‘DCLXVI: To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth!‘. There is a bit of that death n’ roll darkness in their movement even beyond the sandpaper hang of the vocalist even if they’ve eased on the extreme metal growls slightly, saving ’em for when it counts (see: “Earths Cliff”).
This new existential dread fits like a glove. — Of course vocalist Leo‘s growling and grizzled delivery isn’t going to directly line up with any such point of interest exactly, nor does it catch the sludge-sided spectrum of stoner music, but there is a fire-dragged soul to his diction and a story of damnation in these lyrics which interact in such a way that a beautifully doomed affect develops quickly as this record strides along. No doubt they’ve at least some taste for the post-‘Wolverine Blues‘ reveal of L.G. Petrov‘s barked vocal style per Entombed‘s road to heavy rock dragged aggression on through ‘Uprising‘ and this expresses most clearly as we examine the vocal patternation of Side B standout “Depths of Despair” and the rousing roar of album closer “Memento Mori”. Of course the comparison is not one-to-one but it should be said that this fellowe is quickly arriving upon a point of distinction which compliments the stoner/doom tradition and blues-rocking tilt but has a certain righteous heave to its action that the world hadn’t heard ’til Sweden had piped up a couple of decades ago.
Whereas the whole heap of ‘Jötunn‘ relied on brusque charm and a stroke of potential-ridden songcraft this time around the professional recording applied to ‘Ostiarius Inferni‘ doubles the multiplier they’ve applied to their songwriting skill up in the years since, not only do we find Hästspark more seasoned as performers but we’re getting a sharply edited, enriched and best-realized boom from their engineering/production digs. That is to say that the rhythm section absolutely growls alongside the vocalist, just as mean with its bass-forward render and high-set thunderous drum placement which provides more than plain foundation for the sort of folkish, on-a-yarn lyricism of the vocals and their cadence. It all strikes hot enough without even mentioning the molten overdrive of the rhythm guitars and their bulbous fuzzed dual-toned grind, a huge sound that’d brain-slugged my skull from the first listen of opener “Iron Horse”. Though the aesthetics and production values are much, much improved they’ve only been effective so much as highlighting that this is big, heavy rock music with a bit of grinding and aggressive persistence behind it’s stoner metal aperture.
The full listen considered as two sides (since it’ll be primarily released on vinyl at the end of this summer) does a fine job of differentiating each piece with simple arrangements which are tuneful, often easygoing but brutally heavy doom metal riff infused slow-swinging groves. “Sleeping in the Graves” is sort of the signature piece to start which shows the greatest improvement in focused songcraft beyond the prior LP and it also has a bit of that death n’ roll sized crisp to its guitar work that’ll have some strong crossover appeal. They’re just as well capable of upbeat burners, faster and trotting heavy metal pieces with an indica-charged energetic level with “Shadow of Voices” being the main anthemic moment on the first half, “Earths Cliff” being the doomed n’ organ stoked mid-album hinge point, and the title track serving the descending burn on the second half of the record. Every song here is noteworthy in the sense that if you were on board with any given preview song you’ll likely ride with the rest of the record. That might only apply to folks who appreciate Swedish stoner rock/metal history and sensibilities as well as the classic Sabbath-grooved traits which Hästspark lead with. These folks have taken a serious leap beyond their debut and should absolutely lean into the instincts that brought them to the graven blues of ‘Ostiarius Inferni‘. For the stoner metal, stoner rock and stoner/doom metal fan it will serve an experience which is both fittingly over the top and bold-faced in its expression and likewise readily accessible within readable, often catchy and engaging pieces. A high recommendation.
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