Thursday, June 4, 2015

Vardan - Winter Woods [2015]

I've yet to delve into Vardan's tremendous backlog of releases, averaging 3-4 records a year in the last few years, but immediately becomes clear that the man's productivity is no moot point. With so many records already under his belt and a few extra projects like Nostalgic Darkness running smoothly, the man aspires to be the Italian black metal equivalent of one Rogga Johansson, with his own immersive logjam of calculated Swedish death metal carnality. Just about six months into the year, and there are already five albums to his name, each, no doubt, like the one at hand, haunting exercises in rabid, scathing cold and wintry despondency. Of course, haters are gonna hate, and the whole bedroom black metal mentality has over the years acquired such an edge that most bands have seamlessly dissevered themselves from the outside world for the sake of recording in their own forsaken basements and whatnot, usually with mixed results: it can decidedly be hard to adapt any stringent attitude towards the trend, because my one half screams hallelujah at the advent of bands like Darkthrone and Leviathan while the other half yearns to pull out all the hairs on the top of my head in dismay that so many modern black metal have ended up as broken eggs while going for bedroom black metal omelette...

Thankfully, ''Winter Woods'' veers more towards the former camp. If you're familiar at all with your Burzum, Darkthrone or Forgotten Throne, you know what this sounds like, harrowing waves of mourn and broken lines of cruel, frozen melody piercing your eardrums with unruly monotony. Vardan IS a riffs man, with some cool Transilvanian Hunger-esque tremolos cascading with spiking anguish, but the range of riffs on the album are admittedly not too varied: we're definitely not talking about something on par with ''In the Nightside Eclipse'' here. With the rustic/seasonal cover art and the initiation of the opener, ''Winter Woods Pt. 1'', it's certainly not difficult for the listener to have at least some idea of the underlying contents of this disc, that is rustic and depressive black metal solaces being funneled down your ears, yet Vardan somehow manages to capture a few instances of true grief and captivating dolor without sounding too repetitive. The pace certainly me reminds me of their more well-known and notoriously suicidal countrymen Forgotten Tomb at their peak, circa 2002-2004, since Vardan never altogether rushes into gaits of unbridled Norwegian ferocity, like, say Carpathian Forest of 1349. To add, the sense of longing here is magnified by the high proportion of doom-y entanglements and slower moments, bleak sequences of linear clean guitars where that resonant despair of Vardan simply enclosing himself in a toilet and slashing open his wrists while seated in the bathtub becomes all the more vivid. Certainly, I could cite 2-3 instances here where the unfolding of the fuzzed electric guitars after a prelude of cleans eloped me almost entirely with sheer pang and melodious regret, like on ''Cold Night of My Soul'', and indeed those are the best moments in the album.

But let's not entirely be deluded. This obviously isn't the next best Leviathan record, and maintains a startling simplicity. There are moments where ''Winter Woods'' doesn't feel like a far cry from the Hungarian mavens Forest Silence with their lurching, despondent atmospheres, though Vardan at once feel grittier and less bombastic. For one, I wouldn't have minded some ambient effect, because for the most part Vardan's 'eerie' clean guitar sequences drone with too discolored a sound. And this surely isn't the easiest pill to swallow if you're ears aren't trained for the gritty and the ghastly. I also have little appreciation for the drums, which are hardly professional. Granted drums aren't too significant in black metal, but Vardan never lowers their volume too much, and the constant open hi-hat abuse occasionally pangs the consistency of the recurring tremolos and dense ambiance. That said, I can say I've enjoyed Vardan's vocals enough to make 2-3 spins worthwhile, as he howls like a haunted cacodaemon in the shivering cold of the night, echoing with dismay. For sure, Vardan could ramp up his proficiency in the riff department: considering all his other albums follow a similar path to ''Winter Woods'' he must be running short on riff-supplies, and the ones existing here aren't the most inventive ones either, especially with artists like Jute Gyte who can put the grit and creativity of most other black metal musicians to shame. Rawness is key here. Blunt winter tapestry for minimal absorption, with guaranteed lacerated wrists if overdosed. Not the best black metal I've heard recently, but sufficiently engulfing if your tastes lie in Burzum, Darkthrone, Forgotten Tomb, Ulver, or the like.

Cold Night of My Soul
Uroborous Black Circle

Rating: 65%

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