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Börn Loka

Napalm (2012)
Rating: 7/10

Iceland’s Skálmöld is back with their second full length Viking metal release, Börn Loka. The band’s name translates to “age of swords”, and the album title means “children of Loki”. What you’ve read so far should prepare you for what to expect from this addition to the Skálmöld catalogue.

If there is such a thing as playful death metal, Skálmöld provides it. Whereas many of their contemporaries in the Viking metal / folk metal genre use folk instruments and regular melodic breaks, Skálmöld prefers to use guitars to create folk song structures delivered in a death metal package. Take all the pretty out of Eluveitie and you have something close to what Skálmöld delivers.

On first listen, Börn Loka is a different kind of release. There is a sense of melody in the instrument arrangements that is often lacking in death metal, and an odd absence of those folk instruments that have become common among practitioners of folk metal in recent years. Beyond this, the band’s triple guitar attack is thick. Vocalist Björgvin Sigurðsson and guitarists Baldur Ragnarsson and Þráinn Árni Baldvinsson all provide guitar work, resulting in a wall of rhythm guitar that dominates the mix, creating an atmosphere of power on every track. Add to this a capable rhythm section (bassist Snæbjörn Ragnarsson and drummer Jón Geir Jóhannsson) and a keyboardist (Gunnar Ben) and one can easily describe the sound created on Börn Loka as dense.

The opening track, ‘Óðinn’, is a bit deceptive, as it doesn’t prepare the listener for what’s to come. Operatic vocals clash with death metal growls and a cascade of guitar and keyboard harmonies. This track is truly beautiful, ending with a lone oboe that brings the listener to the old school death metal sound of ‘Sleipnir’. Where the opening track is heavenly, the following piece bears some resemblance to the more furious moments of Mercyful Fate. Gunnar Ben’s keyboard works surprisingly well as a replacement for the expected folk instruments that are conspicuously absent on a release in this genre. ‘Sleipnir’ is a good example of how the band uses the keyboard to offset the defiant tones of the guitar, resulting in an almost orchestral sound.

Skálmöld’s use of electric guitar to replace folk instruments is a game changer. ‘Gleipnir’ and ‘Narfi’ have a folk structure, and a lead guitar melody that would generally be played on a pipe or flute. The substitute of distorted guitar for folk instruments gives the album a consistent heaviness that many of the band’s genre contemporaries can’t boast of. When the tempo comes down for a break mid-song, ‘Gleipnir’ remains metal to the core, and returns to form with a blistering guitar solo, eventually returning to the folk motif that sets Skálmöld apart from standard death metal fare.

Skálmöld is very much a band that lives between two worlds. The classic death metal of ‘Fenrisúlfur’, including dueling death metal growls and black metal shrieks, sits beside a section of the native music of the band’s homeland. The band moves between both styles seamlessly, but is at their best when mixing genres. ‘Miðgarðsormur’ features a dark, slow guitar riff that hearkens back to Black Sabbath while using a vocal melody, which is itself an anomaly in this equation, rooted firmly Norse mythology. The result is astounding – heavy, melodic, and impressive of scope. This is particularly obvious when Börn Loka comes full circle, ending on ‘Loki’, a nearly 10-minute piece that begins as full-out metal and transitions into the operatic theme that opened the album. The opening and closing tracks bookend this release with powerful pieces that blend fury and beauty to create a sound that is unique to Skálmöld.

While there is much good to say about Börn Loka, the primary shortfall is in the mix. Part of this is due to the thick sound created by three powerful guitars. The guitars overshadow the mix, often making it difficult to follow the bass or even some of the finer drumming going on in these songs. Skálmöld has presented a set of well-crafted tracks that put the metal in Viking metal. The songs are heavy, and have a victorious aura that makes them fun. There is a lightness to Skálmöld’s style that pushes away the dark clouds of death metal. Now if only this was mixed by the right hands it would be damn near perfect.

Jim McDonald

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