There are very few things that are certain in life, but, at least for the last decade, a new Skálmöld record every other year has been one of those certainties. Since their 2010 debut album “Baldur”, every two years the Icelandic band has dropped a new chapter in their personal musical journey into Vikings, battles, sagas, and everything fascinating their motherland history and folklore has to offer.
So, like clockwork, this year brings us their fifth full-length studio release, “Sorgir” (the Icelandic word for “Sorrow”), a release at the same time in complete continuity and in strong opposition with both their discography at large and its direct predecessor in particular, 2016’s “Vögguvísur Yggdrasils”. Actually, both records show a mysterious character, back turned, on their cover, but while Vögguvísur’s has red as the main color on the background, in Sorgir’s cover everything is im-mersed in snow, as a white counterpart for the blackness of the hooded human figure, bearing a torch.
These elements can be found in the music – the most important thing, of course – as well: while Vögguvísur compositions were more “chaotic”, like the battle scenery on the cover, with the man holding a spear, the music was very diverse as well, like a cauldron of different styles and di-rections; in Sorgir, on the other hand, the juxtaposition of white snow and black shadows is ech-oed in the record, since it’s very structure.
The album is split in two parts, of four songs each. The first four under the name of “Sagnir” (Stories) and the latter half named “Svipir” (Ghosts), but this is probably more a thematic division than a merely musical one. The initial Ljósið kicks off the record in a very NWOBHM style riffs, almost Maiden inspired, the galloping bass of Snæbjörn Ragnarsson contributes in pacing an epic song, with the distinctive, solemn choir counterbalancing the raspy voice of Baldur Ragnarsson.
The epic sound is still there in Sverðið, first single to be released from the record, that has its peak after the 2:30 minutes mark. In which after the choir, the track opens in an almost “doomy” passage, reminiscent of the more recent wave of stoner/doom bands (Dopethrone and Khemmis over all), an element definitely not out of place in this kind of composition, that gives yet more depth to the song and to Skálmöld’s sound in general.
The production on this record is spot on as well, giving the right space to each instrument and to the various voices as well, rather than pumping the main voice way above all other instruments, like many modern producers have sadly decided to do. So in this first couple songs in many passages the voice stays in the back, with the sharp guitar riffs pushed under the spotlight: as if the marching men chanting are facing a snowstorm, encompassed by the cold and relentless guitar strings.
The central part of the record is maybe its weakest, the two songs completing the first part and the first two of the second, far from being bad songs, simply don’t put anything particularly new to the plate, and there’s no significant change of sound or register between track 4 and 5, with the most notable part of these tracks being the screamed tirade at the end of Skotta.
To listen to something really outstanding and different, we have to wait for the last two songs on the record. Since its opening riff, a classic doom number that could have been featured on any latest My Dying Bride record. Móri stands out, and the slower, dark rhythm of the song is enriched by a female vocal hauntly harmonizing, right before an explosion of both instruments and screaming male voice. All functional to the story, yet again from the Icelandic folkore, about a star-crossed couple of young lovers, in which the boy, possessed by the ghost of Móri (the female voice we hear in the song), ends up killing his loved maiden.
The final track Mara is the perfect way to sum up and culmination of the record, and with its length of more than 8 minutes is the longest track as well. Opening with a fast rhythmic section, with Jón Jóhannsson hitting his drumkit harder then ever, just to slow down in its mid section, but only for a brief minute, before a grandiose guitar sets the scene for the conclusion of the song and the record as well, leaving us happy and pleased once again with the epic journey to the Land of Ice we’re at this point used to, but not yet bored by.
Run Time: 54:19
Label: Napalm Records