In previous times, Northern went by the name ‘Cold Northern Vengeance’ and although I have a couple of their albums, they didn’t really hit my radar. However, I was interested to hear this new incarnation, especially with the press release describing them as “North America’s number 1 Viking Metal band”.
I have to be honest and admit that I struggled with this review. At 71 minutes there is a lot to digest and it is fair to say that the album covers a lot of ground. It is not an easy listen, nor an “immediate” album, but neither is it supposed to be I suspect. It is challenging, almost confrontational and requires some work to appreciate the intricacies on offer.
The album opens with a short track with chanting vocals over simple instrumentation bringing to mind images of remote forests or perhaps an ancient pagan blót. This leads into ‘Fall of Winter’, an 11 minute colossus of sweeping vocal lines over simple yet haunting melodies, conjuring up images of desolate windswept lands. As the song builds, so does the intensity and towards the back end of the track there are strong black metal elements coming to the fore.
The momentum is kept up by ‘A Wolf’s Angle (Abraxas Trance)’ which has a blistering intro before settling into its hypnotic rhythm. This eventually gives way to an atmospheric interlude before the aggression is restored for the finale of the track, which is ultimately brought to a close with a spoken word excerpt of Charles Manson talking about the Gnostic Deity Abaraxas leading into track four ‘Alaskan Ice’. This is more plodding in nature, but is brooding and creates a sinister atmosphere before the anthemic ‘Woden’s Revenge’.
Another spoken word interlude leads into Burzum cover ‘Spell of Destruction’. While it was interesting to hear this version, to my ears it lacked the necessary anguish of the Burzum original, although it is always good to hear a band put their mark on a cover version.
‘Live Free or Die’ is likely to become a live classic with nods towards the hardcore/oi! scene and the repetitive “Live Free of Die” chorus. Towards the end of the track, “Fuck Anti-Fa” is bellowed, which is repeated for good measure at the end of track making a clear statement. With such a brazen statement it is perhaps worth including some of the press release explanations of the lyrical content….. “Northern take a strong political stance standing up for Liberty, freedom of speech and Individuality (Over conformist mentality)…..Northern firmly take a stance for the true ideals of American Freedom!”
Exaltation from the Graven clocks in at over 16 minutes and for me is the culmination of the album pulling all of the strongest elements together into one black metal opus and would not be out of place on many contemporary black metal releases.
The album is brought to a close with ‘Fall into Winter (Neo Folk Version)’. This an abridged atmospheric, folk tinged version which to my ears is more powerful than the original. It closes with a shortened version of Hank Williams’ track ‘Alone and Forsaken’, which is abruptly cut short by a gunshot so that all that remains is the sound of a crackling fire.
Overall this is a complex listen covering a range to styles. At different points I was reminded of Dissection, Tyr, Winterfylleth, Panopticon and early Enslaved amongst others. While this may seem like a good thing, its diversity occasionally makes it seem as though it lacks focus. Having said that it is an ambitious release and there are numerous highlights that make it interesting and worth a spin.
(7/10 Andy Pountney)