How is it that the Scandinavian Peninsula generates so much heavy metal? Only twelve million people call either of that peninsula’s three nations their home, and still the Encyclopedia Metallum lists almost ten thousand bands out of Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
Surely this phenomenon owes something to workhorses such as Øyvind Kvalvågnes, who has sat in or toured with a good ten bands over the past five years and still managed to turn out two full-length releases from his own studio project, Kvalvaag. The second of these, Malum (2016), shows that Kvalvågnes isn’t one to just show up and crank it out but brings appreciable skill and creativity to his labors as well. This second release includes drummer Carl Telal, now a full-fledged member, which graduates Kvalvaag from solo project to two-piece.
Malum also represents a graduation in the band’s sound. It does bear some lo-fi edge, but it is far less nasty than Kvalvaag’s previous album, Noema. The application of keyboards and a few interesting breaks orient the album, at times in a surprisingly poppy direction. This pop-esque approach reaches its peak on the sixth track, a cover of Troll‘s “Naar Solen Blekner Bort.” There is a keyboard line in the original version of this Troll song that provides a whimsical accent that, by way of contrast, enhances the song’s menacing tone. Kvalvaag, however, punch up the other instrumentation to fortify the keyboard line, emphasizing it so that it begins to function as an actual hook. Meanwhile, as Kvalvaag’s version benefits from much better production, there is a richer feel to it and greater dimensionality.
The Kvalvaag track could, of course, never be confused with a pop-metal release. Still, it is a good distance from the scathing piece of nastiness that might be expected. The pleasant flare of “Naar Solen Blekner Bort” seems also to have a contagious effect on the rest of the album. The pipe-organ keyboards and cathedral-esque backing vocals that run throughout Malum do as much to make the music fun as they do to make it grotesque, gothic, or frightful.
For a black metal album, sounding fun or poppy might count as a negative. On Malum, though, there is still more than enough nastiness. Most of it comes by way of Kvalvågnes’s growled vocals and the tachycardial pace of the recording overall. The instrumentation is all done with skill and wit, and nothing in it is frivolous. The amusement of the music is just an added layer of sophistication on an already more-than-competent work, as it signals that Kvalvaag’s song-making skills are not bound to their chosen genre.