originally written by Chris McDonald
As much as I stick to the “favorite albums over favorite bands” rule, I must admit that Taake’s recent direction was a pretty hard pill to swallow for me initially. Obviously, following up one of the greatest bodies of work in black metal (Taake’s first three albums) is a mighty task in itself, but the stylistic devolution Hoest introduced with the Nekro EP and brought to fruition with the self-titled effort was a 180-degree shift if there ever was one. As someone who generally favors epic, melodically sound black metal over the genre’s more primitive, animalistic strains, the self-titled effort took awhile to sink its teeth in, and I was ready to write it off as a disappointment for several months after hearing it. Once surprise gave way to acceptance, I was able to garner more appreciation for Taake’s new inspirations, and the album gained a different appeal. While it still ranks far below its trio of predecessors, the record certainly made me curious to hear what direction the band would go in next. As Noregs Vaapen shows, that direction is definitely up, but not necessarily in spectacular fashion.
Noregs Vaapen basically takes the style of the self-titled, executes it more confidently and adds some surprising but effective experimentation to top things off. One of the factors that has always set Taake’s music apart is Hoest’s desire to expand his songwriting outside of normally accepted parameters, whether it be through complex and unorthodox arrangements or genuine “what the fuck?” moments like the unforgettable mouth harp that surfaces in Over Bjoergvin Graater Himmerik. Despite the more digestible pacing and arrangements found on Noregs Vaapen, Hoest’s affinity for unusual time signatures and complex combinations of chords and tremolo runs is still fully integrated into this album’s more old-school aesthetic, and the results are both disorienting and compelling. Sure, there’s some flat out strange moments like the much-ballyhooed banjo solo in “Myr” (which, by the way, is surprisingly awesome). But it’s more the way that Hoest is able to take a relatively basic and recognizable brand of black metal and forge it to fit the Taake template that makes Noregs Vaapen such an unusual — and ultimately enjoyable — album.
The basic riffing cauldron will be familiar to anyone who heard the eponymous album. Songs are built around a balance of traditional Norwegian melodies, barbaric thrashing, Celtic Frost-ian grooves and slow, simplistic interludes. With that said, there’s definitely a greater focus on melodies than on the preceding full-length, and it’s immediately noticeable as a boon to this album’s power and potency. While certain tracks like opener “Fra Vadested Til Vaandesmed” and “Orkan” lean more heavily on icy refrains than others, the general prominence of the melodic component in all of the songs is a great asset to Noregs Vaapen. Hoest has always been a master at stretching out folk-influenced melodic themes into catchy and compelling riffs, and while the complexity is scaled back in this case, the power and conviction is still there. In fact, “Fra Vadested Til Vaandesmed” quickly distinguishes itself as one of the band’s most emotionally stirring songs, ushering in a heartfelt melody that eventually expands to support a spiraling guitar lead and beautiful orchestral accompaniment.
The more nihilistic elements of the album are similarly improved, with the primitive, punkish energy feeling more fleshed-out and powerful this time around. “Nordbunget” features a smattering of truly devilish licks, and the aforementioned banjo solo is preceded by a spine-tingling series of sinister chord progressions that would do the Darkthrone boys proud. But there are also times when the slower, more simplistic riffs bog the songs down, and Hoest stubbornly refuses to up the energy level. The punchy production and progressive flourishes are generally enough to compensate for these lapses in vigor, but the sparseness of some of the material is just plain boring at times. “Du Ville Ville Vestaland,” “Helvetesmakt,” and lengthy closer “Dei Vil Alltid Klaga Og Kyta” all suffer from meandering mid-sections that can be a chore to sit through, despite all three songs compensating with strong intros and conclusions. The dryness of instances such as these is hardly enough to sour impressions of the majority of the music here, but it definitely makes listening from start to finish more of an exercise in patience than I would have liked.
Despite some disappointing dips, I confess that Hoest and company have done a lot to re-ignite my excitement for this band with this release. Noregs Vaapen is filled with engaging songwriting and surprising left-turns, and brims with an enthusiasm and vitality that was somewhat lacking in its predecessor. Nevertheless, there’s an odd air of almost forced awkwardness that threatens to derail this album’s momentum at times. Hoest has remarked frequently in recent years about his distaste for Taake’s “popularity” and his subsequent desire to lose fans, and while these statements could very well be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there are moments on this album (and the last) that seem almost purposely more strained and less enjoyable than they perhaps could have been. Obviously, the nature of the intent behind this album’s conception is something I can only speculate on. What I CAN tell you is that Noregs Vaapen is an innovative and entertaining release from one of black metal’s most distinctive outfits, and if you’re still clamoring for a return to the sound of the project’s glorious days of yore, you’ll have to keep on clamoring.