Written by Kep
Kvaen – The Great Below
Black/speed/pagan metal from Sweden
Releasing March 25 via Black Lion Records
Let me take you back almost exactly two years, to late February 2020. The 28th and penultimate day of the leap month was an uncomfortably anxious time; COVID was spreading like wildfire, a couple of weeks from shutting down the entire planet, and the anxiety was palpable. People were looking to escape a disquieting reality with something that would transport them to another place and time. It was also, by coincidence, the release date for The Funeral Pyre, the debut by one-man project Kvaen, and that album rose to the occasion in a way that few could have. It was ice and fire, all windswept northern war and violence and worship and ferocious heart. It’s now March of 2022, uncertainty is still everywhere and we’re still seeking an escape. Could it be any more appropriate that another Kvaen effort, sophomore LP The Great Below, is on the horizon?
Like The Funeral Pyre before it, The Great Below is a rich tapestry of layered threads that weave pictures and storyscapes, mastermind Jakob Björnfot funneling a black metal-based sound through the filter of a number of influences. There are scorching speed metal fireworks and hostile thrashy fretwork built into the DNA of nearly every song—the title track is an excellent example, with its whirlwind thrash-based verses and ultra-melodic galloping chorus—and the ever-present pagan atmosphere dominates all. Moments like the clean vocal chorus at the end of “Ensamvarg” and the synth-supported rustic chord progressions in the bridge of “Cauldron of Plagues” scream of that wintry sound we associate with pagan black metal, despite the record never really reading full-moon pagan the way Havukruunu or Kampfar do. There are also several moments in the guitars that feel like they could’ve been pulled straight from a melodeath track.
Central to everything is Björnfot’s stellar guitarwork, an absolute masterclass in riffs that serve the song first while consistently feeling infectious and alive. Melodies whip across like chilly northern winds whistling through the dead branches of an ancient forest, some spurring you to charge into battle while others demand you behold the glory of the gods. Whether calmly ruminating in clean tone like in the quieter moments of “In Silence” or scything mercilessly through driving black metal vehemence, his playing is focused and his riff design is memorable. Björnfot’s solos are also remarkable in that he can shred through what feels like a thousand notes without ever losing a distinctly narrative feel, creating lyrical lines that spray blood into the snow with slashing technique—the one in “Sulphur Fire” had me literally stopping in my tracks to listen. And the tone has goddamn teeth, viciously sharp tremolo-picked lines in songs like “Your Mighty Has Fallen” slashing through the texture like a freshly whetted blade and chunkier passages crunching satisfyingly like a mace on bone.
The Great Below also features a number of guest spots from extreme metal veterans. The two most notable: Jeff Loomis delivers a superbly lyrical solo in “The Great Below” (better than anything he’s gotten to play in Arch Enemy, but I digress), and Vreth of Finntroll adds an instantly recognizable performance in exceptional closer “The Fire Within Him Burns”. Outside of one-off guest spots, Björnfot performs (and quite admirably) on all instruments and vocals except for drums, which are in the capable hands of Tommi Tuhkala. Tukhala, who also tracked two songs on The Funeral Pyre, is killer across the board, ranging comfortably from machinelike blasts to subdued but powerful 4/4 patterns and back again.
Part of what made Kvaen’s debut so exceptional were a ton of jaw-dropping individual moments that stood out within the already brilliant tracks: Björnfot’s bestial “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE, FUCKING FIRE” in “Yee Naaldlooshii”, the unforgettable way the pensive opening of the title track transitioned via sprinting double-bass into that magnificent main riff, and the like. There are moments like that again in The Great Below—the first arrival of the chorus in “Ensamvarg”, the massive blast-beat-riddled opening of “Your Mighty Has Fallen”, and the aforementioned “Sulphur Fire” solo come to mind—but they’re further apart and the album as a whole feels a bit less immediate to my ears.
The track that stood out the most even on first listen, though, was the solemn “In Silence”. It’s a flat-out stunning piece of music, one that is probably the best moment in Kvaen’s discography so far. An intro of atmospheric sounds fades to a muted heartbeat, and then a majestic, understated riff breaks the silence. That theme of underrated poignancy runs deep through the track, its tempo restrained but its storytelling vivid, as Björnfot screams a fervent tale of willing surrender. The solo is breathtaking, singing and crying and shredding in what’s one of the most devastatingly moving things I’ve heard this year, and the outro that breaks a moment of aching silence is the flourish of a songwriting ace.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Great Below is another unassailable triumph from Kvaen, a delightfully desolate and ferociously wild 39-minute escape to war-torn northern shores. Jakob Björnfot’s style-blending approach to riffing and songwriting is as impressive as the first time around, and there’s not a mediocre track to be found. It’s a worthy successor to The Funeral Pyre, and though its slightly more mature take might take a touch longer for some to connect with, it’s sure to be a popular end-of-year list choice come December.