Friday, 29 October 2010

The Mistress and the Icelanders

The Mistress...

Not satisfied with having given birth to the forefathers of drone - Earth; one of the most inspirational black metal bands of the 21st century - Wolves in the Throne Room and a splendid little arty blackish metal band in Fauna, Olympia, Washington has decided to honour its majestic landscape via an unholily awesome blend of Diamond Head, Thin Lizzy, Jex Thoth and Witchcraft! I'll be damned to a purgatory of enforced neverending exposure to Massive R 'n' B Hits if their debut album Agony & Opium is not one of the best albums in any genre of 2010. Lead singer Christine Davis takes her vocal cues from such disparate artists as ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Witchcraft's Magnus Pelander and dame Diamanda Galas. In a recent interview for Asgard Root Issue 3 (which is a long term project I'm afraid folks - but will be something to look forward to!) she confessed to smoking kitten fur before singing - a fantasy of course, but one that can give as apt an idea of her enchanting voice as any blow by blow account. Added to the charming yet forceful ebullience of Mistress Christine's sultry, whiskey drenched vocal chords is the band's uncanny ability to forge riffs and hooks that weave their way into your very being and demand you (in my case) to make the considerable effort to get off your arse and return the needle to the start of the record and get on the Agony and Opium train for yet another intoxicating ride.

The Icelanders

Árstíðir lífisins, or to you and I 'The Seasons of Life' is the debut album of an Icelandic collective brought together by a deep respect of Iceland's fascinating history and an urge to document it through the medium of music, and more specifically a 70 minute blackened 'folk' metal masterpiece that makes a mockery of its 'first album' status. Major praise must go to the designer of the artwork and booklets, which as you can see are nothing short of spectular and in containing text in both Icelandic and English are no less informative. Founder Stefán's astounding vocal display is a real highlight, spanning the deep reverent Pagan-esque baritone to howled depressive black metal malcontent with supreme efficacy. Unlike the rather popularised accounts of Iceland portrayed by the 'Viking' metal hordes, Árstíðir lífisins' stories tell of the subtler and yet harsher truths of the settlement of their great country prior to 950AD.

'It will not be long before the cold creeps around our homesteads. We freeze and we starve...Nobody comes, nobody helps. We are alone facing the giants and the waves of cold death. Heavy waves attack our little wooden boat, saving fish from being caught. Hunger drives us out to sea, not knowing what lays behind the dark waters. Nothing.'

Of the nine beautifully composed tracks, each a chapter in the band's sensitive and heart-wrenching retelling of the settlement story, it is hard to pick out the stars as each shines brighter than any band could hope for on a debut album. Tracks iii and iv however, are as good as any to showcase the band's unbelievable range - the former a sprawling, epic account with such diverse elements as acoustic guitar, clear baritone narrative, ghostly female backing and seagull field recordings as well as the staple metal footing. Meanwhile the fourth piece is a harsh, black metal affair (albeit with some clear vocal moments) that conjures an atmosphere of pure hopelessness and despair that the likes of Silencer would be proud of. Above all, these ten (yes 10) Icelanders have laid down a stormer of an album and the benchmark against which all future heritage black metal (why should the term apply to England alone) records should be judged. The Filosofem of heritage black metal if you like. Congratulations must go to Van records for releasing this extraordinary recording and for creating such a beautiful product. Heilsa!

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