It is interesting that the most controversial thing about Settler is its spacey album cover. It’s actually the reason Vattnet Viskar’s latest album was brought to my attention, framed as the brunt of a joke by a friend for looking a sight less conventional by a black metal rubric. Of course, the means are justified by the artwork’s concept; inspired by a photograph of astronaut Christa McAuliffe in training shortly before dying in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. She looks happy in the photograph. Of course, anyone who sees that photograph knows more about her fate than she did at the time. With that, there is little wonder a single image could stir mixed, complicated feelings in anyone. That is the fundamental basis of melancholia, and I think looking at the artwork not for what it is, but what it represents, ties well into the feelings we’d hope to hear a band like Vattnet Viskar stir up.
I’m not interested so much with whether Settler constitutes proper black metal, so much as that it is good, and that it nonetheless explores a darker range of feelings I would look for in black metal. Cursory listens to their debut Sky Swallower a couple of years ago were enough to put them on the radar for me, and it is good to hear them develop into a band who are driven largely by their fascinations. For whatever good describing them as sludgy post-black metal does (and that does peg their sound well) I distinguish their music, like the art, for what they’re trying to evoke with it. Vattnet Viskar are in awe of the universe, and my enjoyment of Settler stems in part from the fact they make me feel that sense of wonder while I listen to it.
Settler does not evoke space in an overt manner as with the cases of Darkspace or Mare Cognitum, but the fact that the music evokes the appropriate feelings is more than enough. Vattnet Viskar may not have changed the game they are playing with this album, but I always have time for an album that is elegantly written and passionately played like this one. I’ve heard scores of albums like Settler, and it’s easy enough to combine sludgy riff-centrism and black metal without raising much suspicion. Where I think Vattnet Viskar succeed where others struggle lies in their songwriting. Settler isn’t eclectic by any means, but the songs distinguish themselves on emotional grounds. If we’re to look at Settler as a single body of work, these songs could be seen to represent different stages of awe. Given the complexity of the album’s source image, it wouldn’t make sense to be painting exclusively in shades of darkness; the same applies even moreso to the blackgazing new guard who draw near-exclusively from the light side.
For Vattnet Viskar, they acknowledge the best way to evoke feeling is through contrasting different emotions against one another, like a subjective show-and-tell. These emotions range a great deal from song to song, but their songwriting is not beyond splicing feelings within the same track. Take “Colony” for example, which bursts open with liveliness, only to devolve into a plodding darkness at some point in the latter half. The different moods are often more apparent between songs. “Dawnlands” sounds appropriately optimistic, and it serves to give the slow-building tension on “Yearn” or the longing on “Heirs” a new context.
I really like the fact that Vattnet Viskar are a band who sincerely feel for the things that inspire them, not to mention their ability to translate that material into an appropriately vast range of emotional experiences. Emotional variety is something rarely attempted—let alone accomplished—within the black metal sphere. I may be less enthusiastic on other grounds however. “Heirs” and “Colony” are both self-contained masterpieces for what they are, but other songs don’t come close to the same sense of awe. For an album dealing with almost metaphysical revelations, it’s disappointing the album more or less peters out on “Coldwar”. The fact that armchair critics are so hung up on the artwork over the music is somewhat telling as well. Settler is relatively safe for what it is, and I’ve heard bands in the same style go a lot farther to push their own boundaries. When all is said however, the criticisms don’t mean near as much as the good things Vattnet Viskar have going for them. They’re clearly driven by a higher purpose, and if they can’t be accused of reinventing the wheel, their sense of daring to be emotionally diverse gives them an identity of their own.