At the time that Unknown Totems was recorded in 2013, Vlk was an obscure black metal duo from Chicago featuring Jonathan Shank of Et Nihil—a new neofolk project with B9 InViD, formerly of Luftwaffe—and one Ryan Bast. While these two gentlemen remain as the core driving force behind this band, rumor has it that at least one other has joined their ranks. There is no label behind this debut EP and, as far as I can tell, the only physical edition of this release has been limited to a painful thirty copies (although it can also be found in a digital format on Vlk’s Bandcamp page). Needless to say, it’s releases like Unknown Totems that are at the heart of Heathen Harvest‘s underground fixation.
At a mere eighteen minutes, Unknown Totems is relatively short even by EP standards, especially if one considers that the last track, ‘Echelons’, is a For Against cover. Yes, you read that right: the American post-punk/dreampop band For Against, a cover-song match-up that you’re not likely to see across genres again any time soon despite the recent rise of ‘blackgaze’. While this may initially sound like a strange match, it is actually quite complementary to Vlk’s essence, since the duo clearly play their black metal with a lingering punk/post-punk vibe. There is nothing particularly new about that, of course; hell, one could even go as far as to say that the whole Finnish black metal scene does nothing but make punk music even more raw, darker, and more aggressive, for instance.
Still, Vlk have a stand-out uniqueness about them. The raw production, organic rattling drums, and traditional buzzing guitar work convey that all-too-familiar ‘grim’ atmosphere, of course. It is, however, interesting that Vlk do not just blast through the six tracks featured here, working exclusively with a sense of aggression and rawness. No, they also opt to walk the path of atmosphere, utilizing haunting melodies (‘The Hated Seed’) and even clean guitars (‘–‘, which actually is actually more of a basic, incredibly brief interlude than an independent track). With the noted cover, which is perhaps the clear gem of this EP, Vlk successfully converse the track—which was understandably quite melancholic and hazy originally–into their brutish lo-fi sound (especially thanks Bast’s vocal performance). Yet, at the same time, one can somehow still hear where the track originated.
Lyrically, it’s not a simple task to go about trying to understand what Vlk are all about; their band logo consists of a somewhat complex bind rune, featuring an Algiz rune intertwined with an inverted Laguz and Othala. The name of the EP—Unknown Totems—hints at some connection to ritual or shamanistic themes. However, when taking a look at the rest of the song titles as well as the lyrics of their version of ‘Echelons’, one cannot find many references to the aforementioned topics.
All in all, Unknown Totems is a rather mysterious debut release which is actually both interesting and vague enough to successfully raise interest in coming musical creations from the project. If you find yourself requiring the name of another project to compare Vlk to, one could utter the name of the Transylvanian wolves Wolfsgrey as adequate transatlantic sonic brethren; these Romanians make music in the same vein as Vlk. Fans of punk-infused black metal should give Unknown Totems a listen; it shows potential and could prove to be an interesting addition to the Chicago underground in the coming years, especially considering the project’s immediate ties to post-industrial music.
02) Dead Air Lingers
03) The Hated Seed
05) Unknown Totems
06) Echelons (For Against Cover)