Pop culture’s outrage of the week has been the revelation that Kanye West is a weird dude. Unless you’re an abject dumbass, you probably figured this out long before, if not from the bastardization of Nina Simone’s painful paean to old South lynching, “Strange Fruit,” into some navel gazing corniness in 2013’s “Blood on the Leaves” then from his 2016 concert meltdowns where he ranted about Beyonce betrayals and the like. More than a few allegedly woke fans have excused West’s deeply flawed worldview and gross misogyny since even before 2008’s colorless 808s and Heartbreak because of his creative production and iconoclastic style. Up until he touched the political third rail and defended President Donald Trump, West’s eccentric personality and even more erratic output have been virtually unquestioned. Not anymore. It is almost certain that Kanye West will never cross paths with Andreas Vingbäck, better known by his stage moniker Heljarmadr. Yet, on Väsen, the new album from Grá, Heljarmadr’s Swiss-born black metal juggernaut, there are lessons in integrity that many performers, including West, could learn from.
West may be one of the most humorless examples of someone who so ruthlessly pursued the spotlight, only to be melted by it in many respects. Fame comes with expectations, obligations and moments that force an artist to decide who she or he truly is, and where compromises can be made. Being faithful to one’s own vision, even when one carries the hopes and desires of others, peers and fans, without wilting is a feat very likely few of us could pull off.
Heljarmadr is now renown as the vocalist for black metal pioneers Dark Funeral, but his credits are quite extensive. In a genre of hyperbole aplenty, where everyone is a legend, as the voice behind one of the second wave’s core groups, Heljarmadr has achieved a status few may ever attain. Songs like “Nail Them to the Cross” are Dark Funeral classics on the heft of his distinct vocal attack. This tier of audience from a music community thus cleaves attendant ears curious about what you do. Far from shrinking, Heljarmadr responds with a release that is at once primordial as it is futuristic black metal.
As a quintet, Grá has been ambitious in its leanings. 2013’s Necrology of the Witch EP and the 2015 full-length Ending were ensconced in concepts and particular mythological arcs to forward the musical narratives the band thrust ahead. With its 2018 return, Grá eschews sprawling storylines in favor of standalone primal experiences. Starting with “Till Sörjerskorna,” the polemical atmospheres created in the band’s wake are a masterpiece to behold. If this band feels pressure to do singular performances due to its reputation, it does not show anywhere on Väsen.
Moreover, what becomes most intriguing on this recording is there is ample opportunity for poaching from the Dark Funeral blueprint – harsh, distorted guitars, gruesome lyrics and animalistic rhythms at many turns. Instead Grá vacillates into tracks that are certain to satisfy black metal fans enamored with a more punishing pace (“King of Decay”) as well as those who enjoy slow-burning entries (“Hveðrungs Mær”). Where the group is at its best is, of course, with Heljarmadr’s spellbinding vocals front and center. Songs such as “Krig” use a pensive churn of guitars as a bed for the blizzard of utterances Heljarmadr lunges at you with. “Gjallarhorn” employs a similar formula, where the guitars take a (dense, contemplative) backseat to the seismic singing. For seasoned fans, this is evocative of classic first/second wave black metal, and it is flawless.
The final third of Väsen concludes with a trio of cuts where feverish arrangements orbit Heljarmadr’s cavernous wordsmithing. Insistent riffs bash themselves into walls of rhythms on “Dead Old Eyes.” The unvarnished lyrics of “The Devil’s Tribe” teem with menace as a slack tempo marches you into a wasteland of languid chords. With the title track conclusion, Grá provides a signpost for artists inclined to let fame consume their identities to the point of lampooning them: just don’t. Over eight tracks and about 40 minutes, Heljarmadr and company show artistic vision and status are not mutually exclusive. Väsen shows the way for ascendant and faithful black metal.