We are not here to be amused or entertained by mere whimsy. No sir. So wipe that smirk off your face and pay attention because this is Helrunar – brooding and heavy as a pile of scrap metal falling from upon high – and a single chord or rumble of reverberating vocals should be enough to convince you that there is nothing in this snivelling world to laugh about. The music of Marcel Dreckmann and Co. has become something of a black metal institution – although black metal in its broadest sense these days. Reliable of output and steel hard in demeanour and doom-laden chords, Helrunar – whose front man also helps drive saga-obsessed Icelandic project Árstíðir Lífsins – has a sturdy back catalogue that reaches from its very earliest pagan-cloaked releases of last decade to the last almost-too-dour-to-bear 2015 album, the mighty Niederkunfft. If it wasn’t absolutely clear where things were heading from that point it was obvious things weren’t about to get any more light hearted – far more likely that the whole project might simply fold in on itself in an imploding orgy of stony-faced, Spartan severity.
As we might have expected, Vanitas Vanitatvm continues the evolution into a volcanic combination of death metal brute force with the deft touch of blackness to shape atmospheres that twist in the mists of chunky riffs and drifting refrains that echo from the band’s blackened past. And, as usual, Helrunar does not tend to give its morsels of pleasure up lightly. Sure enough the old ‘pagan metal’ tag has become even more battle worn and faded with time but still evident in the band’s use of multiple acoustic instruments portioned into gloomy avenues and folk-driven spoken word passages that fit so well with its foreboding sound (the poetic excerpts are only really sparsely used except in grandly introspective eight minuter Nachzehrer).
At other times, Dreckmann – aka Skald Draugir, whose other talents include teaching Old Norse at Munster University – uses his considerable vocal talents to fire out crisply delivered lyrics that could punch holes in slabs of granite while guitars hammer out percussive riffs that pound so hard they seem to assume the drummer hasn’t bothered turning up. There’s undoubtedly a Germanic element to Helrunar that sounds familiar to anyone that’s encountered the likes of Secrets of the Moon, Farsot and Eïs. But, even compared to those bands, Helrunar can at times seem austere in its approach as if to test the listener and turn away any flighty humans among us whose attentions are too casual and unworthy.
First track proper Satvrnvs kicks off with a building doom intro which then opens up into a classic Helrunar sound storm with Dreckmann’s vocal licks cracking through the wall of noise like stabs of black lightning. The sudden arrival of acoustic guitars in the middle of the track lands like the quiet in the eye of the storm before returning to a bass-heavy bludgeoning riff and then back into the maelstrom. It’s a sure sign we’re back on firm Helrunar territory with the band in finely honed and more confident form than ever.
Helrunar is dark and at times bleak. The lyrical themes, although mostly sung in German (and I’d hazard that some understanding of the language would open this album up considerably) now focus on humanity’s inadequacies and frailties. The album’s lesson, which covers topics as wide as Homer’s Odyssey to the plague, is to instruct us on that most pointless and pathetic of human emotions – vanity. It all makes the cataclysmic blasts and the brooding doom atmosphere’s the perfect accompaniment to the condemnation of human folly. The opening few tracks all serve to set the scene nicely for Helrunar’s own brand of metal – tracks like ËùôïöÜãïé and Blutmond display variation and ability to manipulate sound than most bands achieve over several albums, even though I can understand why some might be put off by Helrunar’s sheer die-hard and at times dogged and unrelenting approach.
I’ve become a big admirer of Helrunar and Dreckmann over the years and there is no denying the poetry and artistry involved in his work – there to be appreciated if not loved, perhaps. Drilling tremolos sometimes have a tendency to sound a little too elementary. But it’s those and the and freely soaring solos that gracefully let souls and spirits soar from whatever earthly hell the band creates in each track. But discovering the subtleties in Helrunar’s unrelenting gloom can be tough going. While the forlorn swing of Da Brachen Aus Böse Blattern, Am Menschen Und Am Vieh grips with insidious repetition, the album gets deeper and more demanding as it goes along.
The extended tracks always seem to me to be where Helrunar really flies. Of the final four proper tracks, its nine-minute closer Necropolis that seems to give us any quarter and allow a bit of respite in what is a thickly woven and solemn piece of work that that requires stamina to complete the several listens it will take to appreciate some of its finer points. Helrunar is recommended if you have time to devote to appreciating its musical forms and are willing to forgive some of the indulgences and imperfections to discover the mourning cries of the heart and soul within. Those unworthy should just pass on by.
(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)