Alright, so, there’s pagan black metal, there’s folk metal, and then somewhere in between you get Árstíðir lífsins. With a name that translates to “seasons of life”, the personality behind this band is immediately apparent. Aldafǫðr ok munka dróttinn is the German/Icelandic trio’s third full length release since their inception in 2008. Released last December internationally, it’s only just making its rounds in North America, so this review may be considered somewhat late. But the fact is, it’s good enough to warrant a full write-up now.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know I’m a fan of the black metal scene that has emerged from Iceland. And that I’m a fan of, well, pretty much everything that has recently emerged from Germany. The two regional styles are quite distinct, and you definitely get them both on this album, so we’re off to a good start. Additionally, this particular project features members of Carpe Noctem and Helrunar, so with these musical minds at work, you know we’re going to get something unique. In fact, trying to formulate coherent thoughts about this album has proven difficult. Maybe it’s the bourbon, maybe it’s the music. Either way, it’s an incredibly ambitious two disc release that covers… just about everything.
The first thing noticeable on “Kastar heljar brenna fjarri ofan Ǫnundarfirðinum” is the onset of deep, choir vocals coupled with a slow, ambient cello before the percussion and leads pick things up in a full-bodied, penetrating way. The leads are crisp while the rhythms and percussion hold a burdensome amount of weight as they march along. Get used to this type of progressiveness; similar transitions are consistent through the nine tracks at play here. Yes, the architecture of the songs is diverse. But the instrumental work is as well, featuring cellos, pianos, viola, and other less-common elements. What really makes this entrancing, though, is the way a harsher, rattling growl couples the bellowing choir—a juxtaposition the band uses frequently here. I’m not sure if any two songs better emphasize the varying styles than “Knǫrr siglandi birtisk á löngu bláu yfirborði” and “Þeir heilags dóms hirðar,” which feature all of the above as they wander between acoustic interludes punishing cadences filled with echoing war chants and crushing riffs.
Honestly, I could spend hours trying to peel away the layers of this sound…which I won’t do. But, for as dynamic as this is, it does occasionally retreat to more familiar themes, just with a continued folk grandiosity. The rhythms and blast beats used toward the end of the first disc, specifically on “Úlfs veðrit er ið CMXCIX,” speak to this. This is pagan black metal, but with Árstíðir lífsins’ own unique atmosphere. We get a recurring melancholic dissonance to break things up, but the traditional elements become more prominent. It allows their sound to hold a sense of familiarity, while still challenging the listener. And to think I’ve only cover the first of two discs…
I need to mention the duration. I know the complex intricacies are ambitious, but this has an 80-minute run time. It helps that it’s broken up, but if you’re going through this in one sitting, it’s easy to lose focus at the outset of the second disc. What doesn’t help is the fact that the opener of disc two, “Tími er kominn at kveða fyrir þér”, is eight minutes of acoustics and choir vocals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s gorgeous, but it definitely runs long at this stage. Thankfully, the next track, “Tími er kominn at kveða fyrir þér,” brings back more of the intensity and structure we found on disc one, except consolidated into an aggressive six minutes. (This’ll probably be the only time I describe a six minute song as “consolidated.”) The rest of this album gallops along steadily enough from here. We continue to fall back on neofolk interludes to break things up and provide respite, which keeps the tracks individually interesting. All appreciated, considering the average track length is about nine minutes. We eventually close with “Sem lengsk vánar lopts ljósgimu hvarfs dregr nærri”, which covers about everything experienced in the preceding hour. And the way the last few minutes of this track play out…very powerful. It’s probably the highlight track for me. A fitting end to an absolute voyage of a listen.
Aldafǫðr ok munka dróttin is memorable on many levels. It’s a powerful, epic sound that maintains a familiar darkness and intensity, serving to highlight the styles of the two regions that went into its creation. As such, it’s easy to become inspired by its encompassing atmosphere. It all makes for an empowering listen, equally impressive in feel and sound. While long, it’s one that’s worth the investment in time, as there’s much to be discovered once you accept immersion in the layers of sound. It all leaves me curious to eventually explore the thematic context held within the lyrics and artwork. It’s an album that’s truly monumental in stature, and it’s an absolute voyage of a listen.
“Ein Bier… bitte.”