Review: Kvelertak, Nattesferd, Or: This Ain’t Taylor Swift’s 1989
Everybody wants some fun, or so I claimed in my analysis of SXSW, the new Richard Linklater movie, and Donald Trump last month. But not every band knows how to have it, how to harness and contain it, how to hit the stage and speak purely through a riff. Kvelertak are one of the few bands that do, a group of total fucking champions, and one of the few truly great bands that modern heavy metal has to offer.
When I first heard lead single “1985,” I thought, like the rest of you, that Nattesferd (“Night Journey”) would be the album where Kvelertak finally make their transition into a full-fledged rock band. Which is what I wanted: I’m ready for them to go all Rick Springfield, ’80s arena, Razor’s Edge-era AC/DC. That element of their sound is one of the things that made them instantly stand out with 2010’s Kvelertak: in a metal world that (then and now) was dominated by overly serious vest metal bands, art house hipster metal, and completely dull “prog” and djent bands, here were a group of guys who didn’t care about a single thing other than fun. I was ready for them to make their “Jessie’s Girl.” I wanted to have fun.
This is not that album, but that’s totally OK. If anything, this is Kvelertak fully embracing and pushing the boundaries of their black metal roots, drawing as much from Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light as Darkthrone. Stripped of Kurt Ballou’s sonic clarity, Nattesferd is gloriously underproduced and roughly played: guitar parts are occasionally out of sync, the drums sound thin, the guitar tone shrill and almost clipping. But first and foremost Kvelertak are a rock band; this is a group of guys who get in a room, turn on their Orange amps, and pump out power chords. The sound is raw, sure, but its paucity demonstrates just how freaking good of a band Kvelertak are. Every break, every harmony, and every climactic chorus, sounds completely organic, built up by the skills of the band rather than studio trickery and multi-layering.
Through all this, frontman Erlend Hjelvik shines. I’ve always thought he was underrated among his peers, not because he’s a “great screamer” but because of the incredibly catchy, rhythmically fresh way in which he conceptualizes his phrases. This should be apparent to anyone who’s ever attended a Kvelertak show in the U.S., because the audience is always “singing” along to lyrics they definitely don’t understand. It’s part of the fun of the band, for sure, but it’s also a testament to how Erlend has found a way to communicate in a purely sonic fashion that transcends language barriers. I don’t give a single fuck what he’s singing about because it doesn’t matter; his poetry exists purely in his performance. Nattesferd also demonstrates the growth he’s made in his delivery: Erlend’s still spewing out disgustingly catchy vocal riffs, but now with playfulness, tonal variance, and total command.
[Although, from what I can parse from Google Translate / Wikipedia / just guessing, the lyrics sound pretty cool. Songs seem to be about stuff like being sexually stimulated by mythical trees, traveling back in time to party with Van Halen, Nostradamus being reincarnated as a zombie, shit like that]
This album is nearly a masterpiece. Some songs are so fucking good they made me laugh out loud, like the chorus-climax of “Nattesferd” and the cut-time groove on “Dendrofil for Yggdrasil.” Their newest foray into ’70s prog, “Heksebrann,” is their best-yet attempt at what they were going for on “Tordenbrak,” from 2013’s Meir, and a complete triumph. Album closer “Nekrodamus” is like an anti-Kvelertak closer and their best mid-tempo track since “Mjod.” The song is just a foot-stomper, lacking an over-the-top chorus or excessive window dressing: it’s just straight Kvelertak rock. Unfortunately, the album’s only misstep is “Ondskapens Galakse,” which I was sad about even before I heard the album when I saw the band play it in New York a few weeks back. It’s the only song on Nattesferd that feels half-baked: more of a riff idea than a fully realized piece of music. But every other song on this thing is a banger, which you can’t really say about the band’s first two records.
Kvelertak are at the peak of their powers, and Nattesferd is their best record yet. This is a band staunchly committed to musical principles that most of the scene only thinks it understands: clever songwriting, satisfying articulation, and fresh delivery. I can’t wait to hear what comes next.