At the time of writing these lines, southern and central Europe is experiencing one of the most intense heat waves of recent decades. To deal with the situation, some folks decided to have drinks by the pool and listen to cheesy “Norwegian” reggaeton hits, while others stayed focused on more serious aspects of the Scandinavian peninsula. Among the latter is EREB ALTOR, the viking metal quartet from Sweden, that’s on track for the release of its eighth full-length album, “Järtecken”, which turned out to be a pretty damn good one. There I said it; now let’s get into the details.
It’s interesting how viking metal ended up being an actual term. What does it mean anyway? How do vikings sound like, or do they sound different compared to other historical civs when it comes to metal? Does it have to do with the lyrical theme, the stage clothing and make-up? Or is it just an easy way to say to people “Hey, these guys sounds like BATHORY?” If you ask me, all of the above are nice-to-haves, but the keyword we should be looking for here is immersion. Thanks to history and pop culture, we have a pretty good idea on what it means to “be a viking” nowadays: misty, snowy mountains, runes, pagan rituals and legends, dragonships, and of course, warfare. However, more than anything else it’s the feelings evoked by these things. If you manage to get the listener to experience these, then it’s game. This is why Quorthon was immortalized for, and that’s what folks in EREB ALTOR are set to do with “Järtecken”.
The album commences with “Avgudadyrkans väg”, a mournful chant-like tune that slowly, but steadily, turns into a grandiose opus. The lyrics are sung in Swedish – quite typical of the band – with vocals staying on the clean side, while ominous melodies and heavy guitars set the tone for the rest of the album. “Queen of the Seas” kicks in and I can’t help but think of PRIMORDIAL as the introductory acoustic guitar resembles the style of the Irish band a lot. But that’s where the similarity between the two ends. It’s one of the lengthiest tracks of the album and whether we’re talking about the epic or the blackened side of the coin, the variations in tempo and style add depth and prove to be the best canvas for the band to paint its stories on. It’s the kind of song that compliments their songwriting the most, as it provides the much needed space for everyone in the band to do their thing; the same goes for “Hvergelmir”, “My Demon Inside” and “With Fire in My Heart…” which are the lengthiest of the album. Just pay a listen to the middle part of “Hvergelmir” and you’ll get it. The unexpected turn in melody and rhythm – along with the highly emotional vocals – that evolves into a blackened metal mayhem speaks for itself.
Clean vocals tend to be the protagonist throughout the album, and it feels like a lot of work went into writing the songs with them in mind. There are moments where the instinctive vocal melodies meet melancholia and as a result they bring epicness to a new level. This is something Crister Olsson and Daniel Bryntse have got us used to from the very early days of FORLORN, but of course it’s done in such a great manner that you never really get “used to” it. This is what sets them apart from everyone else and has become their signature trait over the years. Finally, this was my main source of immersion as I listened to “Järtecken” over and over and over again; powerful, emotional, melancholic, and sincere vocals.
Apart from the lengthy and epic tunes there’s also a few tracks were black metal influences are more evident. These songs tend to be faster and more aggressive, with harsh vocals being the main driving force, whereas clean vocals are used mostly as a mean of climax; “Alliance in Blood” is a good example of such practise. Drumming on these songs really helps convey the message and anyone who has witnessed Tord (aka Jonas Lindström) performing live should know by now that this guy’s a beast. To be honest, I prefer their epic side more than their black metal one, but these songs add diversity and really contribute to the seamless flow from start to finish.
EREB ALTOR have come a long way and I think we can all say they have strayed from their early, heavily BATHORY-influenced days. Over the years they’ve forged a more personal and distinctive sound and have established themselves as one of the powerhouses of the so called viking metal scene. In the end, if you see beyond the tags and the sub-genres, it’s just metal that kills and that’s what matters the most. “Järtecken” proved to be the perfect companion for these days, and along with ISOLE’s “Dystopia”, it’s definitely one of the best metal moments of the year. March on!