Vintersorg is a band which I would love to have been introduced to whilst I was still in the nascent years of my experience with the “extreme” end of metal. Regardless of the era you’re looking at, they’ve always allotted melody to surge to the forefront of their craft. The familiar warmth and Jungian nostalgia of the viking/folk style was an easy sell to me in my younger years, and though clean vocals comprise Vintersorg’s characteristic lifeblood, there has always been an echo of the extreme in their music. They frequently allude to the tone and aesthetic of black metal, but never mean to grasp the common extent of the genre’s extremity and abrasion. From a purely stylistic standpoint, this solo project of Borknagar‘s Andreas Hedlund might fashion itself a perfect gateway to black and folk metal alike.
It is with some consternation, then, that I’ve had such mixed luck listening to Vintersorg. Cosmic Genesis was a fine piece of Nordic progressive metal, and Solens Rötter still lingers in my memory as an excellent record by any definition. Other classic albums of theirs–namely the crowd favourite, The Focusing Blur–I remember as being anaesthetic and generally inconsistent. The biggest disappointment however came on the coattails of Solens Rötter; after a four-year break, Vintersorg unveiled Jordpuls, a bland folk metal album stripped of the surprise and ambition that made the band potentially interesting in the first place. Three years and two albums later, and Vintersorg have had to get themselves out of that rut. Naturbål is an album almost entirely based around the merit of its vocal melodies, the likes of which sound sadly contrived and stale. Hints of Vintersorg’s ambition and quality remain, but I’m finding it difficult to paint the album as anything but another misstep in a growing line of disappointments.
As early as Hedlund’s mid-90s days with Vargatron, he’s advocated for a strong presence of clean vocals in black metal. I like to imagine Naturbål was crafted with that bold stance in mind. When you stop to realize that the genre of black metal has been spliced with virtually every style under the sun (hell, there’s even a KFC commercial out there, capitalizing on all things grim and kvlt), it’s actually quite surprising that we haven’t seen more artists write black metal around clean vocals. All puritanical delusions of keeping the genre limited to its roots aside, I’d argue there could be a great case made for this choice. Vintersorg, however, is not that great case, nor is it anywhere near convincing in this regard. I’ve always had a bit of this problem with Vintersorg, but with Naturbål and the work since Jordpuls especially, it seems like the vocals have overwhelmed the sound, thereby marginalizing the rest of the instrumentation. Both in the uneven mixing and songwriting on Naturbål, Vintersorg have invested every hope in the vocals. The abundant folk passages are relatively full-bodied and unscathed, but the actual metal instrumentation often falls back on predictable cliché and simplicity, buried somewhere underneath the vocals.
Again, there is nothing inherently wrong in Vintersorg’s choice to have placed such weighted emphasis on the vocals themselves. It’s much moreso the fact that the vocals themselves aren’t particularly compelling. Andreas Hedlund’s voice is admittedly pretty good in and of itself. He has a rich timbre to his voice that meshes nicely with the style, and hearing an entire album sung in the Swedish language is always a welcome exception. Although Vintersorg’s black metal influence has been further marginalized on this album, Hedlund’s occasional harsh snarl (close in sound to Grutle Kjellson of Enslaved) is fairly strong as well. My internal debate still rages as to whether Hedlund’s clean singing voice is truly strong enough to be worth an entire album’s showcasing, but the real problem with Naturbål has to do with the songwriting itself. Listening to the album, I feel a hazy recollection of my consistent ambivalence for the two albums that came before Naturbål. The album is saturated with upbeat vocal melody-upon-melody, but the hooks are rarely ever memorable. “Själ I Flamma” closes the album with some strong melodic writing, but most of the songs blend together into an uneven mess. In most cases of this marginal success with hooks, a band would fall back on their instrumentation. Sadly, the unbalanced, vocal-centric way Vintersorg have written and recorded Naturbål robs it of that opportunity.
Vintersorg isn’t so far down the path that they’re beyond the merit of redemption, but this is the third time in a row that I’ve been let down. Even from a technical standpoint, Naturbål sounds downright mucky and amateurish compared to Solens Rötter. The songwriting is dry and lacks dynamic, and the stylistic drift appears intent on reducing the band to the status of a less catchy Tyr. To add insult to injury, Andreas Hedlund is indeed a good songwriter; he’s probably better than most within the folk metal sector, but I’m not hearing much evidence of that. My apathy for post-2007 Vintersorg has only been consolidated with Naturbål. For what it’s worth, I hope we see a change someday.
01) Ur Aska och Sot
02) Överallt och Ingenstans
03) En Blixt Från Klar Himmel
04) Lågornas Rov
05) Rymdens Brinnande öar
06) Natten Visste vad Skymningen Såg
09) Själ I Flamma