What is even more shocking than Iceland’s recent rampant assault on the black metal scene (yes, we’re all still going on about it) is that it took so bloody long. I mean, sure Norway has the fjords and the mountains, Sweden has the icy lakes and snowy forests and Finland has learned that the best form of defence from surly, expansionist neighbours is to keep acting as mad as a jar full of wasps – and has developed its own brand of black metal music to match. But Iceland was made for black metal – it’s dark and bloody freezing most of the time, it was one of the last places in Western Europe to convert to Christianity and the landscape looks like the very definition of the edge of the world, rather like Surtur and his giants use it for fireball practice. But what a good thing they have found their rasping voices because if not we’d never have even head of Svartidauði, Carpe Noctem, Misþyrming and, now, Almyrkvi.
Umbra is pretty much the definition of cosmic black metal – dark, dissonant and expansive like the universe itself. Or, perhaps that should be, the universe in books written by those with an overactive imagination and who can’t imagine a void without stuff in it. A universe that thunders with the sound of distant drums and speaks to you in only-just perceptible volcanic tones. A universe where demonic forces lurk in the darkest of spaces and where sheer, unadulterated bliss awaits those adventurous enough to seek it out. Umbra is DarkSpace meets Blut Aus Nord with the progressive tendencies of Enslaved ushered stealthily into the fringes – especially during the sparsely utilised ‘clean’ vocals which are in this context used so well and with such restraint as to be a perfect example to anyone who’s interested or in any doubt how much tenor-pitch clean singing should be used in extreme music unless you really have a good excuse.
The album opens easily enough with a decent but fairly unremarkable riff and then introducing those clean vocals early on with a nice catchy, circular hook. But after a few minutes of hurtling pleasantly through space like this, the force of Umbra slowly begins to dissipate, and then mutate into a darkly satisfying and ever changing trip. I have to say, I liked Umbra the first time I listened to it but the true spectacle only begins to take hold after a few listens. On one level the influences can be enough to distract – at points I can’t get DarkSpace out of my head and at others it’s the grinding and doomily melodic Ruins of Beverast. And of course, so much of this stuff never quite escapes the long psychedelic shadow of Pink Floyd. But Umbra seamlessly incorporates them all, just as it does its transitions from its black doom bombast to spiralling shoegaze, dizzying solos and then the wide open spaces of reverb and keyboards (again, thankfully, minimally used, letting actual music and sound do the work rather than drifting ambient nonsense). So well, in fact, that its easy to forget that making it look this easy isn’t, well, easy.
Umbra is the swift follow up to the band’s debut demo by Bjarni Einarsson and Garðar Jónsson (both of Sinmara and Slidhr). Pupil Of The Searing Maelstrom, as it was called, set the band off down the road with an almost industrial edge – still more than evident here amongst all the other ingredients. The pounding symphony was possibly even a little darker than this as Umbra instead gives Almyrkvi the space and time to spread its ethereal wings into the maelstrom and find new shades of black.
The final, tribal rhythms of the last 15 minutes are as enjoyable as any you’ll find in the realms of blackened space metal (if I can even use that phrase, and I can’t really believe I have) splicing the final two tracks together so tightly and with so many ideas bursting forth from the stellar winds that you’ll neither know nor care that you’ve passed from one into the other. Eventually, it all disappears into the final dot like your consciousness being collapsed into the nearest black hole. Listening to Almyrkvi, it’s easy to forget that you’re listening to music at all, or just floating inside some freely forming, constantly communicating, nebulous organism after someone in the last pub slipped something into your Guinness. Well thank them and thank the waking gods of Iceland later – because black space has a new inhabitant and you’re staring right into it.
(9/10 Reverend Darkstanley)