“Hjørleifsljóð,” the self-released debut of the one-man black metal project Askrinn, begins so suddenly that I was taken quite aback – I wasn’t sure if the disc might have skipped, so abruptly does it plunge into its pagan metal, double-kicking and tremolo-picking groove. The brusqueness of this beginning is indicative of the album’s mindset – comprised of five tracks with a running time just a shade over half an hour (including the cover of “Hymn to the Forgotten Pagan Gods” by Hungarian black metallers Bornholm that closes the record), this is strictly a lean, no frills affair. The manner of “Hjørleifsljóð” is very much that of a self-released debut – robust in its execution despite being modest in its ambitions, playing more like a means to get in and establish a foothold in Askrinn’s chosen genre than an attempt to reinvent the wheel or make a definitive artistic statement.
Well, actually that’s not being entirely fair – Valenten, the mind behind Askrinn, exhibits a passion and a depth of knowledge of Scandinavian lore that informs the concept for “Hjørleifsljóð,” and if nothing else, his commitment to verisimilitude is impressive. The four original tracks that make up the bulk of the album are inspired by part of the 14th-century Icelandic Hálfssaga, a dramatic tale of the life of the sea-king Hjørleif and his conflict with Hreiðar. The lyrics are relayed entirely in Old Norse, giving the content a primeval remoteness from the listener which is reinforced by the hazy, reverb-heavy production.
This atmosphere of historic distance adds a layer of intrigue to music that is, to be perfectly frank, mostly black/Viking metal boilerplate. That’s not by any means a bad thing: Askrinn negotiate the constructs of the genre mapped out by the likes of Arckanum and Winterfylleth sure-footedly without attempting to transcend them. The frosty, brittle tremolo-picked riffs successfully convey unease and tension in “Bjarmalandsfør Hjorleifs konungs” and “Frá spám Marmennils;” they’re simplistic and repetitive enough to fulfil the generically proscribed sense of primitivism, but the arrangements are varied enough that they never become a slog. Askrinn’s sound also benefits from a clearly audible bass guitar plugging away at its own minor-key lines, adding to the tension and preserving a feeling of depth in the mix.
“Hjørleifr mægðist við Hreiðar konung” switches things up a little with sections of sharply-plucked acoustic guitar, and includes a bridge midway through of mid-paced, epic-doom inflected chords with luscious leads and bass lines layered over the top – a welcome insertion of heroic steadfastness into the fray of blastbeats, although the transition is handled a little crudely. “Frá konungum, Hjørleifi ok Hreiðari” toys with tonalities more melancholy than the tracks preceding it as the saga depicted in the lyrics winds to a close.
Nothing particularly wrong here, then, except that it’s all rather safe. Valenten’s vocals, mid-range rasps for the most part, are sufficiently fierce and virile without doing much of anything surprising. The exact same could be said for the drums. It adds up to a listen that’s engaging enough while it lasts, but isn’t likely to linger in the mind for long afterwards. Above all, “Hjørleifsljóð” feels like a tabula rasa, a starting point from whence more ambitious artistic visions may in the future grow and flourish. Askrinn has proven its mettle in terms of musicianship and conceptual integrity, and that’s good – I’d like to see them deployed in service of something more adventurous.
01) Bjarmalandsfør Hjorleifs konungs
02) Hjørleifr mægðist við Hreiðar konung
03) Frá spám Marmennils
04) Frá konungum, Hjørleifi ok Hreiðari
05) Hymn to the Forgotten Pagan Gods (Bornholm cover)