Let’s do a little word association. When someone shouts “90’s black metal” at the top of their lungs at you, what are the first things that come to mind? Satanism, for sure. Certainly minimalistic production values, dark lyrics and dense atmosphere. How about acoustic guitars, clarinet and bouzouki? No? Well, maybe you should start associating those things more strongly. Wÿntër Ärvń, the French neofolk one-man project turned duo, are back with their second release Abysses, and on it they take everything that you would expect from classic second wave black metal and turn it completely on its head.
Wÿntër Ärvń is both the name of the musical project and the principal songwriter and primary figure behind said project. On his first album, 2018’s Au Devant Du Gouffre, it was just the main man handling everything, but Abysses marks the debut of clarinetist and composer Vittorio Sabelli, and with that introduction comes a huge stylistic change for the band. The core substrate is still neofolk, classical guitars and sparse percussion, as heavily influenced as you can be by the French black metal scene of the 90s without any distortion. The real dramatic change comes from the addition of the clarinet, which functions in a very vocal-y way that is very much different from anything the band has done in the past, and certainly far away from anything any of the duo’s contemporaries are cooking up. It doesn’t quite seem like it should work, but because of the subtlety present in the songwriting, it actually ends up being quite a pleasant and immersive experience. It’s not cheesy, it doesn’t sound like a gimmick; it’s just another texture layered in a swirl of hypnotizing acoustic guitars and delicate lead lines, and it doesn’t overshadow any of the other instruments. What’s more, it actually doesn’t detract from the black metal vibe that the duo espouses. Black metal has always been known for taking risks and doing the unconventional, and this is just another means to that end. There’s still plenty of that familiar melancholy, somber energy and thick, transcendental atmosphere to make any purist feel secure knowing this is just as TRVE KVLT as anything. If you don’t believe me, just know there’s an honest to god Xasthur cover here, and it rules.
I guess the best place to start talking about the music is the clarinet. Sabelli doesn’t just add unusual textures to the songs by way of his instrument. He really shows off his technical skills with lots of striking melodies and fleet-fingered runs. Take “Sentiero Dell’Eternita” for example. Wÿntër Ärvń lays down meditative layers of classical guitar motifs, blending fingerpicked chords with simple lead lines, but when Sabelli comes with the clarinet, he not only plays off of what Ärvń puts down, but he takes it and runs with it. On “Aux Aurores,” he shows he knows when to play back and support the guitars, and in that case some cello courtesy of one of a handful of guests that play on the album, all of whom are from the black metal scene in France. The front half of the album really is about letting Sabelli shine. The back half is all about Wÿntër Ärvń’s compositions and really letting the black metal influences come through. The title track, the aforementioned Xasthur cover and closer “Quand Tombe le Jour” all feature more aggressive guitar playing and more dissonance in the music, and the latter even goes for broke with harsh vocals. Again, you would think it all sounds out of place, but there’s something to be said for the way the duo brings it all together in a cohesive package that makes sense, even if it doesn’t look like it should on paper.
More like this please. Obviously, I’m a sucker for really good neofolk, and I don’t always need it to push the boundaries of the genre, but when a band manages to do that and makes a really great album in the process, well that’s just icing on the cake. The only complaint I have about Abysses is that I almost want to see them get weirder with it. If they’re going to keep going down this road, I hope their next album takes everything, all the orchestral elements and the outside-the-box arrangements and turns it up to eleven. I’m sure whatever they have up their sleeve will be suitably brutal.