Kampfar has always been one of the most individual and underrated bands in the black metal pantheon and the impossibly high benchmark by which I judge all things pagan and folk metal. I’ve put the first four albums so high on a wolf skin-covered pedestal made from blood-soaked spear shafts that I freely admit I probably put my relationship with the band in an unsustainable position. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in that sense of utter reverence, so, when Dolk decided to do a little creative reframing he had his work cut out. The issue was how to move Kampfar onwards and upwards while keeping his artistic horns sharp as, well, as sharp as hell. With 2011’s Mare he set about doing just that: slowly tearing Kampfar away from its melodic, folk-infused Viking past and a handful of albums which are seen by many core fans as nothing short of legendary. Those mid-paced forest-dwelling rhythms were supplanted with a classically-tinged licks and a thematic presence that, if anything, were probably even darker and more brooding than it was before, in absolute terms at least. The band’s driving concept continued to be steeped in dark Scandinavian folk imagery but the driving theme shifted towards something which was less of the proud warrior and more of the spirit-haunted hills, blighted fields and plague-filled village.
The exploration has been an interesting one with its female-centred symbolism that is forever, in folklore at least, bound to oscillate between witchcraft and an all-encompassing fertility. If anyone needed telling Dolk meant business as he ploughed his new furrow (sorry, but I’m afraid puns are inevitable here) they only needed to look at Mare’s cover. The blood red against the cold white, background and the mysterious four figures of unknown origin certainly jarred after the wilderness scenes of previous efforts. In many respects, the transition, which undoubtedly began in smaller ways on Heimgang, was now bracingly complete. Mare was a great stand-out album in some ways. The sound was grander, denser and Kampfar clearly still had the ability to write some cracking tunes that helped stock up the live cannon and churn out those characteristic, insidiously melodic hooks. But I must admit I found myself underwhelmed in others. It felt to me like the album lacked the adventure of previous efforts. Almost a little too workman like in its track-by-track approach. Maybe it was me struggling to keep up with the direction the band was now heading in. But it was like I could see clearly round every dark corner rather than being pulled in and enveloped by the atmosphere. Was it an album that had been too quick to take on the new challenge and not done enough to bridge the gap with the past? Had it pressed ahead on its bristling, evil path without maintaining that capacity for encapsulating, eerie, primal darkness – and even subtlety – as Heimgang had done?
With Djevelmakt I was hoping I could regain some of the lost ground with the band. I was hoping for a record I could happily recommend as classic Kampfar alongside those much-feted few. Not much to ask then? Well, I’m relieved to say, that right from the outset Djevelmakt blares its shadow-cast intent in answer to all my concerns and misgivings over Mare. The swarming riffs and thundering symphony of Mare are back but it also absorbs in its rabid march the dark adventure of earlier efforts as well as the mesmerising skill of classic Kampfar which looms out of the darkness to seize you with both claws. Djevelmakt is undergrowth-thick with the kind of addictive melodies that you begin to take for granted when listening to Kampfar while some of the tracks are nicely stretched to let the effects of creeping nightfall wash right over you. The opening salvo of Mylder is more a statement of intent than the album’s flying banner. It’s immediately followed by the darkly atmospheric Kujon and the driving Blod, Eder og Galle. After a seething first round the album begins to spread its leathery wings during the second half with De Dødes Fane, casting a glance right back to Kampfar’s hypnotic classic Troll, Død Og Trolldom, before the brilliant standard Svarte Sjelers Salme and the album’s anthemic closer Our Hounds, Our Legion.
The imagery continues in the same witchy vein as Mare but this time everything is brought together on a landscape that reaches to the horizon and not the end of each track. Do I miss the old days? Sure I do. But, in many ways, Djevelmakt feels like the most rounded, complete effort Dolk et al have produced to date. Building on what has gone before, it takes Kampfar’s legacy of producing some truly spellbinding, velvet melodies wrapped in a pounding, barbed, iron glove. But it is confident with it as well as being an album you can get truly lost in like some ever-winding, smoky conjuration. At times you can even hear the old magic. But this is an album from the all new Kampfar that doesn’t feel the need to separate from the past or to claw its way back to it. This is Kampfar taking on a new darker form as it comes back to haunt us with a bitter vengeance.
(9/10 Reverend Darkstanley)