I have been following the development of Anders Karlsson‘s solo-project, Hermóðr, from the days of its infancy in 2012. Admittedly, I am a slave to the melancholic and ambient shades of black metal, and I had a hunch that Hermóðr had a knack for the all-too-rare enchanting melodies that are capable of transporting his audience to his wintry Northern lands. In the past three years, Karlsson has crafted and released dozens of albums, not only as Hermóðr, but also with countless others. It’s easy to see, with all of the above in mind, how he can remind one—myself included—of artists like the German Christoph Ziegler and his project Vinterriket, which to this day remains as one of the most famous examples of a prolific artist releasing consistently high-quality ambient black metal. It goes without saying that it can be dangerous to release too much music. Not only can the listener become over-saturated with the same approach, but if one can’t keep the quality high when releasing virtually their every song, then the proverbial sword of Damocles may hang precariously over their reputation.
Released via Poland’s Wolfspell Records, What Once Was Beautiful is Hermóðr’s third album. Over the course of nearly seventy-five minutes, Karlsson tries to convince his audience that the modern world is essentially a miserable place. At least, that is the message the song titles convey; read, for example, ‘The Burning of One’s Dreams’, ‘Sea of Emptiness’, or ‘When There Is Nothing Left’. The cover artwork—a vintage photograph of a stranded small boat during low tide—as well as its inlaid companion photograph of a long pedestrian bridge leading into an endless sea of brushwood, underlines the depressive focus on a once-small world lost to an era of consumerism, exploitation, and destruction.
The music works within the same themes and stays true to the well-known compositional formula that artists of the depressive and ambient black metal field have already long defined. Featuring long-winded, trudging passages, the duration throughout the album’s nine tracks is usually exceptionally long with over half of them breaking the nine-minute barrier. Helping to avoid a sense of prolix is the fact that Hermóðr primarily create their depressive scenery with rather varied guitar riffs and leads. There is impressive variation between the use of distorted, harsh, and clean guitars in order to make the album more diverse as a whole.
It’s worth noting that in ‘The Burning of One’s Dreams’, for example, Karlsson uses rather unorthodox guitar sounds for depressive black metal in the central movement. These riffs have more of a classic heavy metal vibe to them. Something similar can be said for the beginning of ‘Marshland’, which is unusually harsh and direct, having some resemblance to the albums of the classic Darkthrone trilogy.
Regardless of these relatively diverse notes, Hermóðr does work firmly within the scope of the genre. Softer and harsher songs can be found on What Once Was Beautiful, but due to the fact that Karlsson mainly uses classic rock’n’roll four-piece instruments, only a very generalized rawness and darkness are conveyed within the nine tracks. Hermóðr also uses classic black metal screams to spread his message, though there are some moments—for example, on ‘From the Light to the Darkness’—in which he changes his approach and uses hymn-like clear vocals. Since he doesn’t overuse them, this stylistic element strongly stands out and gives the track a unique atmosphere without coming off as cliché. That’s perhaps one of the most impressive parts of What Once Was Beautiful in general. The level of pathos is really quite low.
One can criticise What Once Was Beautiful, however, from various other angles. Karlsson has already proven that he can write better material with past efforts especially on the debut, Vinter, and the split-single with Leben. Secondly, the aforementioned duration of the album is simply too drawn-out. There is nothing to say against long and depressive songs even if they are occasionally generic, but the whole thing shouldn’t be overdone. Instead of the grueling seventy-five minutes that the album clocks in at, it would have been advisable to cull at least twenty away from it.
Hermóðr offers some nice tracks on What Once Was Beautiful, but the third album really is only something fans of the depressive black metal genre would want to have in their collection. Karlsson’s talent is undisputed, but What Once Was Beautiful simply doesn’t live up to his skill level.
01) The Mountain by the Lake
02) The Escape
03) What Once Was Beautiful
04) The Burning of One’s Dreams
06) From the Light to the Darkness
07) Sea of Emptiness
08) In My Realm
09) When There Is Nothing Left