Written by Kep
Úlfúð – Of Existential Distortion
> Black/death metal
> Releasing March 17
> Dark Descent Records
Five-piece black/death metal band Úlfúð seem to have some things on their side before you even get to the music itself. For one, they’re born from the Reykjavik scene in Iceland: perhaps the most overlooked trove of amazing black metal on the planet, it’s the home of acts like Svartidauði, Misþyrming, and Vosbúð, and its seemingly incongruous combination landscape of glaciers and volcanoes inspires much outstanding music. Then you consider that the outfit’s first and only prior release, the EP First Sermon, came out back in 2018, and that this debut full-length has been in the works since at least late-2021, when they shared a promising album teaser, and it becomes apparent that Úlfúð are the kind of act that isn’t worried about forcing music out. They’ve taken their time getting to this point, and their patience is as intriguing as the influence of their homeland. And let me tell you, once you dig into Of Existential Distortion, those things show in the music.
The album is a tour de force of beautifully produced, outstandingly written deathened black metal (not a real subgenre but go with it). The band blends melancholy with pride, pain with rage, and grim desolation with explorations of existential meaning, creating songs with enough depth and substance to fill an ocean. The record is absolutely packed with the sort of riffs that rip, yes, but that also feel meaningful, full of darkness and introspection and bursts of blinding fury. There’s compelling force to it; the tracks that make up Of Existential Distortion are powerful, innately somber yet carrying real life and vigor in them.
Opener and sole single “Where Strange Lights Dance” is the tone-setter, its soaring main riff a paean of grim triumph that’s tinged with the warmth of nostalgia—if you enjoyed the sort of melodic work that often highlighted moments in this year’s Leiþa album, you’ll dig this. The opposing passages race ahead, driven by strong running double kicks from Sigurður Jakobsson, flying forward at a breakneck pace but always in control with razor sharp accuracy and a palpable discipline. These two musical ideas in 4/4 eventually break open into an immense 3/4 that carries us to the title lyrics, frontman Breki Danielson Imsland’s throaty, mostly mid-range screams a captivating centerpiece. He requires little to no studio magic to feel dynamic, and his delivery is never short of fervent.
Úlfúð show off an unbelievable level of polish from start to finish on this record. The playing and production are superb, with not even the barest hint of sloppiness to be heard and consistently robust tone quality from guitarists Birkir Kárason and Eysteinn Orri Sigurðsson and bassist Hannar Sindri Grétarsson. But it’s the songwriting that most impressively shows a burgeoning group of musicians who have already honed their craft. The songs ebb and flow in the most organic ways, never wearing an idea out and returning to memorable themes just when your ear wants to hear them. Take the vicious asymmetrical riff that opens “Mockery Theater”, thrashing about in 7/8 like an angry serpent, and how it gives way to a theme that feels almost considerate in comparison, chords lifting gracefully into the ether, before returning in the final stretch to fiercely pitch toward the end. Songs like “The Gods Left Behind” display a deft hand from a less directly aggressive approach, too: it begins with a gorgeous full atmospheric black metal sound and features strangely reverent clean vocals layered into its texture, then eventually moves through passages with a wending repeated melody played with a searing sawtoothed tone a la classic melodic black metal.
There’s something captivating about the way the guitars move one and out of harmony with one another in “Questions”, unison and then at intervals over and over again, mesmerizing and strangely measured as the vocals scream frustration at an unanswering sky. The intensity of that song perfectly sets up the record’s high point, moving and mournful penultimate track “An Elegy to a Paradise Out of Reach”, which is the longest as well at a length of 8:33. The song dooms into being, all spacious rhythms and ringing melancholy chords gradually falling, a meditation on unattainable peace. It takes well over two minutes to reach something truly aggressive, but it’s oh-so-satisfying when that darkly swinging triplet riff kicks in and Jakobsson starts blasting beneath it. Again, they seem to always know just when is the optimal moment to return to an earlier motif, when to pull the floor from beneath you and let you fall into an abyss of swirling darkness, and when to punch you straight in the gut with an extra thrust of emotion. Here the vocals are pushed to the limit as they rides the song‘s waves of intensify, wailing desperately at times in a way that sticks in the mind, and the extended guitar solo near the end feels something like a begrudging acceptance of that which we cannot change.
Once Of Existential Distortion has reached its harrowing denouement in stunner “Leviathan Dreams”, you’ll be ready to spin the whole thing again. Rarely does an album of this type end and leave me saying “Wait, it’s done? Run that back,” but the 45 minutes here speed by due to that songwriting craftsmanship. It’s a consuming listen, alluring despite how haunting and shadowy and full of the pain of isolation it is, and you can’t help but want to return.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Of Existential Distortion is an outstanding listen and one hell of a debut full-length from Úlfúð, who should be known to any fans of underground metal after this. Rarely do years-long writing processes result in something that lives up to expectations the way this album does. Don’t miss it.