VALKYRJA: UNPRONOUNCABLE, ALSO UNSTOPPABLE ON CONTAMINATION
If black metal is known for anything, it’s its predilection for intimacy over broad heaviness (see: Burzum’s jagged, fuzzy riffs; Drudkh’s folk-inspired melancholic dirges; Darkthrone’s bees-in-a-mason-jar tremolo picking on Transylvanian Hunger) and almost complete lack of groove (which is to be expected from music made by the whitest people on Earth). So it’s often a pleasant surprise to hear a band borrowing from black metal’s hallmarks to make a gargantuan, riff-centric album. Swedish upstarts Valkyrja have the big, groovy black metal formula down pat, employing stadium-sized guitars that manage to nod to black metal’s origins but not collapse under their own bloated weight. Like a good black metal album, it’s got wonderfully constructed, haunting songs as well as velocity; like a good metal album, it’s heavy as fuck. If you think you’d enjoy the genre’s minor key doomsday riffing if it had a little more balls to it, well, Valkyrja’s Contamination is the album for you.
Borrowing liberally from all corners of the BM spectrum – from mid-to-late period Immortal- and Satryricon-style gigantism, Watain’s anthemic streak, Deathspell Omega- and Merrimack-inspired blankets of chordal dissonance – Valkyrja’s mixture is a well-simmered one. It manages to be as chilling as their peers’ best material, and yet sounds as if it’s completely out of the basement and instead terrorizing Northern European cities. Whether employing blistering speed (like on “Womb of Disease” and “Welcoming Worms”) or a rich tapestry of grooves – the nod-evoking kind on “Catharsis (Contamination of the Earth)” to a rare phenomenon I enjoy thoroughly (black metal two-step) on “Oceans to Dust” – the band, like fellow grim Swedes Shining, know that the desire to create a solid black metal album shouldn’t get in the way of crafting a memorable riff. And Contamination is full of them, even when plunked into their more epic-length tracks. Almost everything about the album is meaty and tangible.
However, one of the album’s greatest assets and weaknesses is its slick production. While it affords the guitars a welcome clarity as well as keeping drummer J. Wallgren and gargling-with-bleach vocalist A.L. democratically in the mix, it also provides a sterility that makes things blend together after a while. Though a more raw mix may have obscured Contamination’s more worthwhile intricacies, a complete lack of grime sucks some of the personality out of the record. But in short doses, Valkyrja prove just how fucking metal black metal can be. In a genre best known for providing atmosphere, the band kick those of us sighing and looking out the window at the white January landscape in the chest. With all there is to be melancholy about, Valkyrja remind us that there’s still no crying in black metal.
(3 ½ out of 5 horns)