This is a sentiment I repeat over and over, but Iceland is producing some of the best metal the world over right now. While still a relatively new name in the global game, the artists condensed into the tiny country are pushing the boundaries of what black metal can be in ways that others have only hinted at. This year alone we have a split from Sinmara and Misthyrming, another standalone EP from Sinmara, and a new Svartidaudi EP keeping the scene in cultural focus, and capitalizing on that momentum is Almyrkvi, who are releasing their debut full-length album Umbra.
Almyrkvi is the brainchild of Garðar Jónsson, who also plays guitar in Sinmara, and while the band revels in much of the familiar darkness as their fellows in the Reykjavik scene, Jónsson’s approach to his own craft features elements that give Almyrkvi a singular voice among the collective. ‘Atmospheric’ seems to be the name of the game when it comes to black metal about black holes and the depths of the cosmos, and Umbra succeeds in delivering on that promise. The album makes prominent use of spacious instrumentation, airy melodies, and clean vocals delivered in a refreshingly confident and clear voice. There are sections of Umbra that feel downright majestic, quite far removed from the almost suffocating claustrophobia of the music of their peers in the scene.
This isn’t to say that Almyrkvi’s music is all shimmer and shine, though. These moments of grandeur exist as a counterpoint to the album’s weighty backbone. Much of Umbra, like parts of the band’s debut EP Pupil of the Searing Maelstrom, forgoes blast beats in favor of more industrial tinged rhythms. On songs like “Forlorn Astral Ruins” and “Cimmerian Flame,” drummer Bjarni Einarsson bangs out an almost Godflesh-esque stomp, which lends a heft to the riffs that would be lost if juxtaposed with frantic blast beats. Every hit feels deliberate, and the driving force of the drum work and heavy, down-tuned rhythm guitars provides the anchor necessary for the keyboards, lead guitars, and clean vocals to stretch off from.
Umbra feels almost like hymns of worship to the cosmos, venerating the majesty of the night sky, but also fearful of the terrors that lurk in the corners of the universe we have yet to understand. The whole experience is a perfect reconciliation of opposites, neither heavy rhythm nor light melody taking complete sonic control, but instead accentuating each other’s strengths in total harmony. This is a late contender for some of the best black metal you’ll hear all year.