Most long time Drudkh fans seem to agree that the band has not quite been the same since the masterful four year, four album run that began their career. Sure, 2009’s Microcosmos and recent albums such as last year’s A Furrow Cut Short had some great moments, but nothing after Blood In Our Wells has quite been able to measure up to what the Ukrainian masters achieved on their classics. Roman, Thurios, and company wouldn’t even be considered masters without those albums, but merely another decent entry into the very crowded Eastern European black metal scene.
Thus, every Drudkh release over the past decade has brought with it two questions: First, how far would the band fall from greatness? That was answered by Handful of Stars, the band’s odd, forgettable, but not utterly horrible diversion into lighter territory. The second question, then, must be: Would the band ever fully rediscover the previous glory that placed them among the ranks of black metal’s all time greats? The most recent albums, while getting there, still could not answer this with a definite “yes.”
Even a pair of split albums, which is what the band has offered thus far in 2016, are subject to such questions and scrutiny. A band of Drudkh’s “constantly climbing back” status going the split route is extra interesting because it sees them not only being challenged by themselves, but also by the bands with which they share these releases.
The good news is that both of these releases are quite strong, both in terms of Drudkh’s material and as appropriate splits. But has Drudkh completed their climb back to the top? Read on… (or skip to the end, I don’t get paid regardless).
ONE WHO TALKS WITH THE FOG /
PYRE ERA, BLACK!
The first of the 2016 splits came out back in June, and paired Drudkh with the long running Norwegian act Hades Almighty (formerly just Hades). Not exactly unknowns, the band gained some Second Wave infamy due to guitarist Jørn Inge Tunsberg’s involvement in Varg and company’s more combustible habits. But they also aren’t exactly a band that has maintained a profile equal to that of Drudkh, so it still feels like a Big Band / Less Big Band kind of pairing.
Anyway, Drudkh’s work here (the One Who Talks with the Fog half) is some of their most aggressive, percussion-oriented material ever. While it is easy to imagine these very classically Drudkh-ish chord progressions being placed over some simpler, more hypnotic sea shanty rhythms, they are instead paired with heaps of blasts and double kick patterns. The choice to push the drums to the front of the mix certain emphasizes and furthers this goal, but it also results in an overall production that doesn’t feel particularly natural for the band. Still, their two songs here are both quite nice, with at least a couple moments each that call to mind Drudkh at their best. “Golden Horse” goes full aggression before hinting at easing up, only to drop some major riffage, while“Fiery Serpent” basically sounding like a song from The Swan Road only with the aggression turned way up. Subpar production be damned, these two are winners.
The Hades Almighty half, which is also their Pyre Era, Black! EP from last year, pairs nicely with Drudkh’s songs, but can’t quite match them in standalone quality. The first two tracks are decent enough, showing a mix of Viking metal, Second Wave malevolence, and a touch of black’n’roll (think modern Satyricon, only nasty), but are quickly eclipsed by “Bound,” which hits a bit harder, but not in a traditionally hard hitting way. Rather, the song rides a 6/8 Viking black metal rhythm for nearly nine minutes, dropping line after line of desperation-drenched, preaching vocals (with a touch of Attila) while small little flairs add to the odd atmosphere. It’s a wickedly cool vibe, it’s just too bad they couldn’t achieve it for their full half.
BETRAYED BY THE SUN / MIRAGES
The second split just hit ears last week, and pairs Drudkh with Swedish one-man act Grift. Much more of an unknown, Erik Gärdefors’ Grift is coming off of a stellar full length debut in 2015’s Syner, and getting to team up with Drudkh for (a title that translates to) Betrayed by the Sun / Mirages ought to provide for him a bit of a coming out party. Plus, the stylistic pairing here is ideal, and there is a pretty staggering level of quality on display from both bands.
Put simply, Drudkh’s two songs on this split represent probably the best single 17ish minutes of music the band has done since their classic run. During the deeply melodic, slower passages of “His Twenty Fourth Spring,” one might be forgiven for thinking that they are listening to something from that classic run, as it features the same combination of methodic chord progressions and understated rhythms upon which the band originally build their legacy. This feeling of familiar mastery is even stronger on “Autumn in Sepia” (Most. Drudkh. Song title. Ever.), when the band switches between passages of Thurios’ fiercely determined vocals screeching above syncopated rhythms, and mood-expanding melodic progressions combined with chanting. When it’s all mashed together? That’s a major Ukrainian bingo.
That Grift almost matches the legends on this split says less about Drudkh’s two songs and more about the work of this relative newcomer. Obviously coming from a similarly folksy and melodic school, Grift sometimes comes across as a less dense version of Drudkh, or perhaps a more consistently black metal Agalloch. These two tracks often offer a combination of gorgeous tremolo lines that are allowed to develop over full phrases, Gärdefors’ tortured vocals, and an eased rhythmic delivery, while making sure to allow plenty of time for softer moments. It’s the kind of black metal that often feels quite relaxing to the right ears, and it’s as good an example of the style as any in recent memory.
So yeah, outside of any career context for Drudkh, this one is pretty much a no-brainer purchase for fans of melodic black metal.
Hell, both of these are pretty successful releases, despite one clearly being stronger than the other. Both are logical pairings not only of bands, but of material; by matching their sound somewhat to that of their split-mates, Drudkh managed to express slightly different versions of their music without making a full album that seems disjointed.
But… are they back… really back? The answer to that question at this point is a huge, resounding “for a little while, sure.” The material on Betrayed by the Sun, particularly “Autumn in Sepia,” would pretty easily fit on a classic album without even the slightest distraction. (The only other song that your’s truly thinks fits that qualification post-Blood In Our Wells? The majestic “Ars Poetica,” from Microcosmos.) They still need to prove they can write a full album’s worth of truly great material again. But if these splits did anything, it’s ensure that the next Drudkh album will actually be anticipated with true excitement, as opposed to the type of fanfare you’d see during bingo night night at Del Boca Vista. That alone is a pretty damned big development considering the ups and downs of the past several years.
Oh, and while you’re waiting on that album, don’t forget to listen to Grift.