2004, Napalm Records
It is perhaps particularly fitting that I should be taking a look at this album this week, what with the news we have just been given that Bathory's Quorthon passed away, on Monday, the 7th of this month, as Falkenbach (and the bands related to it, that is: the bands who fill out the recesses of the particular "folk" or "viking" metal genre) surely would not exist if it were not for the initial stimulation and guiding influence (plus continuing inspiration) that Bathory has provided for musicians who have sought to use this innately conservative (it allows for precious few deviations from its aesthetic pattern) genre for their musical effusions. I am not in the mood right now to trace every single origin point and progression of the viking metal genre, but it is obvious from just one listen to this album that Bathory's "Hammerheart" and "Twilight of the Gods" releases (if not the later viking Bathory records as well) have had a tremendous impact on Falkenbach's solo creator, to the point where he finds himself limited in his stylistic and/or creative potential by boundaries that Quorthon set in stone more than a decade ago.
Having pointed out the limitations that a genre like this imposes, I should also call attention to the fact that such a close concentration on specific aesthetic qualities frees a large amount of energy from the creative process for a basic perfecting of the traits offered in the music. Because the initial blueprint for the music is so traditional and/or artificially limited from the beginning from the musician's unwillingness to transcend genre boundaries and explode the conservative, time-worn, conventional structures or forms that can be offered, it correspondingly allows him/her more time and mental energy to "purify" what is presented on the record and/or concretely capture what he/she is trying to express. There are some musicians who would see that as only being a positive effect, I'm sure. Correspondingly, for the reviewer approaching an album like this, the choice of genre restrictions simplifies the entire "critical process" that would normally be applied to a work. All one has to do is compare this album to Bathory's work, notice/point to the deviations, label and categorize the "improvements", and briefly point out whatever idiosyncratic high points that might exist.
Falkenbach, then, of course follow the patterns/methods/forms of song composition first heard in limited doses on "Blood Fire Death" (the first song and title track) and then explored more in depth on "Hammerheart". That is: acoustic guitar intros or overriding ambient acoustic shadowing of electric power chords, acoustic melody introduction tailed by a switch to the same melodies on electric guitars, thick, stomping power chord progressions in straightforward, overtly repetitive and "trance-inducing" atmospheric form, a mid-paced, marching tempo and simplistic drum figures that pound out the end of bars with overemphasized, basic fills, swelling "viking" choruses composed of layered monotone, wordless voices (just singing notes, not lyrics), sound effects of water and evocative "viking-themed" cinematic additions, etc. All of this was present on "Hammerheart" and all of these things appear here. So, then...how does Falkenbach improve upon (if he does) the Bathory formula?
Well...he doesn't add anything new. If anything, as I alluded to above, he (Vratyas, sole member of Falkenbach) just attempts to clean up some of the stylistic elements found on the fifth and sixth Bathory records, perhaps draw their lines a little deeper, bring out some of the particulars cast in shadow, smooth and out and tone down other segments, etc. In terms of the production used, there is no contest as the rough/ready, sturdy, analog wash of Quorthon's tape machines (the master reels of which, if one believes what the man said himself, were subjected to level upon level of editing) has been left behind for a startlingly clear, sun-filled, crystalline and clean sound that captures the sounds of most of the instruments at their most powerful (at least for Falkenbach) and doesn't create "wavering points" or "crossover" gaps/shadows in the production where song elements can hide their inconclusive unreliability - unlike Bathory. What this also means, unfortunately, is that in this clean-all-too-clean sound a lot of the corrosive passion and heroic tonal strength of the analog has been left behind for a shade-less, sterile plain of simplistic song structures that can not quite meet the level of the "epic". It is as if...mid-period Bathory, simplified and reduced to its stylistic essentials, its most basic ideas, can not stand the scrutiny of the unblinking eye of a digital recording process. Much like what Graveland has been spitting out over Darken's last few albums, the disinfected, barren, almost mathematically conceived (insert riffs A and B into "epic" formula, calculate, record the results) song structures and basic forms of riff manipulation within those greater song types almost seem to call out for a curtain of tape hiss and wavering '80s distorted analog muddiness to cast their most dramatic moments into high relief. This seems to be a lesson learned from "Hammerheart"...and yet, how strange, this archetype of the "heroic" in music that requires, in the sound of its own unveiling, another veil/challenge of a "bad" production for its riffs to climb and clamber over? Art, in this case, mirrors its own delivery vehicle.
Falkenbach, however, are not actually worth - in my humble opinion - the hackneyed ruminations that I am wasting here. I can not understand how a musician can be so obsessed with a single genre form of music that he casts all of his creations (and this is hyperbole, probably misguided...as I'm sure "Vratyas" has two or three projects on the side, these guys always do) into that form and never attempts, outside of a few flourished, vain, inherently pointless asides, to escape the boundaries of that genre or create something new which may or may not reflect his own personality or character. One must remember that the "viking metal" genre was only one of the styles that Quorthon visited, as well...
Recommended only for those who place their dark hearts firmly in between Quorthon's fifth and sixth, or for those who salivate over empty genre forms devoid of genuine feeling or evocative power. Vratyas should be paying a licensing fee to Quorthon's family...