DRUDKH AND WINTERFYLLETH: SAD SONGS FOR SLIGHTLY COLDER WEATHER
I’m not a folk metal dude, usually. To my ears, the bands involved typically trample over that fine line between brilliance and novelty, using their folk roots as a gimmick to differentiate themselves from the general clusterfuck of new metal bands that come into being each year. Like power metal, the cheese factor seems so high that I can’t get past it most of the time. But contrary to popular belief, I’m not made of stone, so every now and again, a couple of guys weaving their humble folk roots into their metal manages to charm the shit out of me, and I can’t stay away. The biggest and most shameless of these is Drudkh, a Ukranian blackened folk metal band that have managed to, on the vast majority of their ten (!) releases in the last seven years, cut to the absolute core of me. There isn’t a lot of music, let alone metal, that so readily conveys melancholy and sorrow like these guys, so on the fairly regular basis they release new material, it’s cause for celebration. Well, up until recently, at least, when the band took a turn for the weird.
That turn began on 2009’s Microcosmos and continues on this year’s Handful of Stars. Up until that point, Drudkh had basically been good for one thing: long, mournful dirges composed of post-Burzum walls of guitars with mastermind (because it wouldn’t be black metal if there were more than one guy behind it, I guess) Roman Saenko snarling over it. In theory, if you’ve heard one Drudkh song, you’ve heard ‘em all: each one is based around a sad-sounding chord progression that goes to its breaking point, then shifts over to another one, then possibly one more before it fades out. But the thing is, it fucking works. Granted, the band have offered slight variations on that approach over time (2004’s Autumn Aurora was relatively synth-heavy, 2006’s Blood in Our Wells was folkier, 2007’s Estrangement was guitar-heavy, and so on), but when they weren’t throwing it all out the window and making an acoustic album (2006’s Songs of Grief and Solitude), that warm veil of guitars soothed whatever ailed you almost as well as booze and/or drugs. But Microcosmos featured a jarring difference: the guitars are stripped way back, featuring only about half of the distortion, and thusly sounding sharp, angular, and unsettling. It isn’t a bad record or a Crack the Skye divisive/shark-jumping moment, but something still felt off and more unpleasant than usual.
Of course, when listening to Handful of Stars, I can’t help but think this is, in my case, that old “we don’t want our favorite bands to change” ideology, a personal attachment to the band being a certain way. Drudkh aren’t doing anything WRONG on the album; they’re just approaching what they do differently. The songs are still unquestionably epic, and the melodies are as evocative as ever. Some additions, like the occasional David Gilmour-esque solo, actually add things to the proceedings. But having the band sound like 4-5 guys playing in a room together instead of a random dude in the Eastern European countryside summoning a mythical guitar miasma is jarring instead of soothing. There’s an urgency that had never been there before, and it works to the band’s advantage (this may be the first Drudkh album I can think of that doesn’t tire me out) as well as its detriment. Stripping the guitars of their fuzzy distortion creates a lot of interesting chordal paradoxes, but also has an unintentional (or surprisingly intentional) effect: there are quite a few moments that seem to conjure post-hardcore more than blackened misery. The middle section of “Toward the Light” sounds like latter day Fugazi, and bits of “Twilight Aureole” sound like any number of bands on the Dischord roster. The opening of closing song “The Day Will Come” sounds just like the fucking Cure, or at least French post-punking black metallers Amesoeurs. Considering Roman Saenko’s bands’ histories of being associated with dodgy nationalistic politics (though Saenko, in making the only public statement outside the band’s albums on Season of Mist’s Drudkh MySpace page, insists that Drudkh don’t make music that “would suggest any political outlook”), it may be a good thing to know he’s branching out. Still though, even though great bands typically do change, I’m not sure how I feel about Drudkh doing so.
So what’s a man to do at the edge of autumn, the time of year usually associated with blankets of lament-filled guitars, with a lack of sad grown men playing introspective black metal? Why, head over to England to check out Winterfylleth, the country’s preeminent Burzum/early Ulver-worshipping countrymen. Though they don’t sound that much like Drudkh, they’re still pretty goddamn good. Despite leaning more on folk than most of the metal I’m accustomed to, they do it in a way where both genres truly enhance each other as opposed to the presence of one acting as a novelty in the company of the other. They feed off each other brilliantly, their black metal leanings gnawing endlessly on folk’s melodicism. And when decidedly non-metal portions pop up — like the harmonized singing that opens the album and periodically closes out a song or three — they serve as both curveballs and showcases of their versatility. Folk’s occasional longing for a world run by nature has always been a part of black metal’s DNA; bands like Winterfylleth know how to harvest it correctly as best to expand the genre’s comically limited horizons.
The most impressive thing about The Mercian Sphere, their latest, is how much of it there is and how it manages to hold one’s attention for the hour-plus it’s there. The formula doesn’t change much, but aside from two (staggeringly gorgeous, and this is coming from a guy who thinks they’re a waste of time and generally have no place in metal) interludes, there’s enough subtle variance to keep one interested in the journey. Winterfylleth — like Drudkh, Burzum, and other black metallers writing sad/angry music about trees — know how to harness a longing for things to return to simplicity again, a time when, sure, there weren’t polio vaccines or indoor plumbing, but there also wasn’t the ubiquitous clusterfuck of information and stimulation we encounter daily now. One could easily find beauty in basic things, the things we’ve taken for granted to the point where we obliterate them to make thing slightly easier for ourselves. That sadness has always been an element of black metal, in that it’s a time that’s seemingly lost for good. If Winterfylleth want to continue paying tribute to it, more power to ‘em. They do it pretty fucking well.
Drudkh, Handful of Stars
(3 out of 5 horns)
Winterfylleth, The Mercian Sphere
(4 out of 5 horns)