Album Title: The Great Below
Label: Black Lion Records
Date of Release: 25 March 2022
It was February 2020 and I was on the long train ride home, heading back from a meeting with a client in Edinburgh. On the headphones was a debut album from a band called Kvaen, entitled ‘The Funeral Pyre’. Oh, how the world has changed since then. As it turns out, it was one of the last trips I made before the lockdown in the UK, and over two years later, I am still yet to make a return to Scotland. But at least that final voyage was made with quality music in my ears because I found myself highly taken with ‘The Funeral Pyre’.
In a much-altered world, I am now faced with the sophomore full-length release from Kvaen. What hasn’t changed here, however, is that Kvaen remains the baby of Jakob Björnfot. As such, Jakob handles the vast majority of the instrumentation himself, as well as the vocals. That said, for this sophomore release, ‘The Great Below’, Björnfot has enlisted the help of drummer Tommi Tuhkala in the studio. In addition, there is an impressively long list of guest musicians that feature, creating extra depth and interest in the music on this album. The guests include Mike Wead, Jeff Loomis (Arch Enemy), Sebastian Ramstedt, Angus Norder, Nephente Fridell, and Finntroll’s vocalist Vreth.
I’ve said it countless times over the years, but you can have all the guests you want on a record – if the album doesn’t contain quality music and engaging compositions, their presence is for nought. Happily though, Björnfot understands this and has spent the last couple of years ensuring that his songs on ‘The Great Below’ are as powerful and positive as possible.
Stylistically, this new album is similar to its predecessor, meaning that if you like your heavy metal of the blackened death variety, but with elements of thrash and speed thrown in for good measure, you’ll enjoy ‘The Great Below’ as much as ‘The Funeral Pyre’. In actual fact, having had the company of this sophomore release for a good couple of weeks or more, I’d go so far as to say that this new release is even better than the debut. Given how good the debut was, that’s quite a statement, but it’s true and not just unnecessary hyperbole.
Firstly, at just 39 minutes in length, it’s a tighter, more honed release. There is literally not an ounce of fat to be heard on ‘The Great Below’. Nothing is extraneous, nothing is unnecessarily present; instead, Björnfot has laced this album with a surprising amount of variety, whilst ensuring that there is absolutely no chance for the listener to lose interest, or for the mind to wander. Personally-speaking, I feel engaged and enthused from start to finish.
The explosion of ferocity that’s unleashed at the outset of opener, ‘Cauldron Of Plagues’ is a sure sign that Björnfot means business here. Snarling screams accompany sharp, fast-picked riffs and thunderously fast and precise drumming. This is pure blackened death metal of the highest order, distinctly reminiscent of the genre’s best. But the song has an elegant side, as well as a deceptively melodic underbelly. There is even some lovely galloping groove at points where the foot is removed from the accelerator just a touch, as well as a dark, sinister atmosphere. The more I listen, the more addictive those subtle minor melodies become too, providing an intoxicating and thrilling opening salvo.
By contrast, the title track is even faster, introducing a speed metal dimension, as well as a greater thrash attitude. The song rips along as if the lives of Björnfot and Tuhkala depend upon it, frenzied and nasty in equal measure. The pace slows later in the track to allow space for a couple of twisted thrash-like solos to emerge to great effect, as well as a little drum flamboyance too. The chorus within this song is even more catchy than that of the opener, and gets stuck in your head easily, so consider yourself warned.
One of my favourites on ‘The Great Below’ is ‘In Silence’ which follows the extremely brisk paced opening duo by offering something completely different. Not only does this lumbering behemoth underline the variety on offer on this record, but it takes over seven minutes to weave its magic across an unforgiving soundscape of black metal, doom, and pagan metal. The pace does vary, meaning that it is not exclusively mid-tempo, but more impressive is the way in which it captivates me in whichever guise it chooses. The melodies, the atmospheres, the ebb and flow, the sections of haunting minimalism; it all comes together seamlessly to beguile and impress at every turn. So much so that I often cannot believe that the song is quite this long because it’s over in what appears to be a flash.
There’s absolutely no let-up in the quality over the remaining five tracks either. ‘Damnations Jaw’ is an almost perfect blend of blackened death and stunning musicianship, especially in the lead guitar breaks that descend in the track’s second half. However, for me, I just love the majesty of the track that’s created by the melodies that sit alongside the metallic tumult. Dissection who?!
‘Sulphur Fire’, with its simple, repetitive chorus and chanted choral vocals is a catchy little sucker that leaves a big impression in less than four minutes, whilst ‘Ensamvarg’ surprises with an overt detour into pronounced folk metal realms, complete with what sounds like an accordion buried somewhere in the mix. But the melody that accompanies this sojourn is so ridiculously arresting, that I love it, more so with each and every listen.
That leaves just ‘Your Mighty Has Fallen’ and ‘The Fire Within Him Burns’ to round out ‘The Great Below’. The former is a scorching and highly aggressive thrash-infused blackened death metal romp where the vocals are particularly spiteful and caustic, more so than elsewhere in fact. It’s also chock full of stunning lead guitar work, but then that’s pretty much a consistent ingredient throughout this record. The latter begins with a dark and opulent piano-led intro, very Gothic sounding in some ways. From there, it gallops along at a fair pace, delivering a final accomplished slab of elegant blackened death, littered with more lead guitar embellishments, and closed out by a dramatic, piano-led outro that feels like the perfect way to end.
If ‘The Funeral Pyre’ signalled the arrival of Kvaen on the blackened death metal scene, then ‘The Great Below’ is a sure statement from Björnfot that he is going nowhere. In fact, this sophomore release goes one step further, suggesting that Kvaen are not only here to stay, but that they could be one of the forces within the genre to reckon with over the coming years. ‘The Great Below’ is a lithe, spirited affair that is a pleasure to listen to, full of great individual performances as well as an incredibly strong songwriting prowess. The fact that it’s heavy, aggressive, and nasty as hell, just means that it’s a sinister joy to listen to. Kvaen could become really quite special in the years to come.
The Score of Much Metal: 94%
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