originally written by Chris McDonald
For many black metal fans, myself included, our first exposure to Drudkh was something of a revelatory experience. Here was a band that completely shunned both the theatrical superficialities that plague black metal as well as the musical clichés that go along with them. Their approach was of a hauntingly beautiful and deeply spiritual sort, embracing the mysterious grandeur of nature with music so epic and heartfelt that it truly felt like we were hearing the sounds of the Earth itself.
The band’s first four albums were all nothing short of stellar; from the minimalist sagas of Forgotten Legends to the tragic marches of Blood In Our Wells, each new Drudkh release was an experience in itself, thematically connected to the band’s overall sound and ethos but independent in its own musical approach. And this is what made 2007’s Estrangement so disappointing; rather than shifting their musical identity as they had done for each album prior, Drudkh attempted to swirl them all together at once, making for four poorly-produced songs that were well below the band’s standards. Between that album, the pointless Anti-Urban EP, and the interesting but ultimately unfulfilling acoustic experiments of Songs of Grief and Solitude, the band that had helped redefine black metal in the new millennium was stagnating, and it was worrisome to say the least.
But 2009 has been a big year for comebacks, and it continues to reward us in this case. Microcosmos is easily Drudkh’s most consistent and enjoyable release since Blood In Our Wells, and while it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of that mammoth album, it definitely soars above the lows of Estrangement and Anti-Urban. Microcosmos is most similar stylistically to 2003’s The Swan Road in that it melds raw speed and energy with an epic sprawl, while peppering in quiet phrases of folky ambiance and instrumental dexterity. New drummer Vlad is the primary difference-maker in the latter regard, supporting the band’s softer passages with jazzy snare work and inventive twists on the outfit’s lurching rhythms that lend an air of technical proficiency to this recording that is noteworthy while remaining tasteful. Obviously Drudkh are never going to be a band that emphasizes flashy musicianship, but the inspired drumming and the expected excellent guitar solos make Microcosmos feel like the group’s most confident effort yet.
But musicianship aside, songwriting is where the band has really been faltering lately, and while the majority of Microcosmos is of high quality, there are parts of this album that still seem to be lacking something. The lazily written riffs of Estrangement are thankfully gone, but in their place we get some hazy and uninteresting passages like the lengthy buildup in “Decadence,” which cycles three droning riffs for half the track’s duration that just aren’t engaging enough to warrant such repetition. The payoff at the song’s end is definitely worthwhile, but Vlad’s inventive fills and the clear and snazzy bass work aren’t enough to inject real energy into some of the undercooked riff compositions, and these are the only instances where the band’s improved musicianship feels at odds with what’s best for the songs. There are also times where it feels like the band is just recycling riffs similar to stuff written in the past (the mid-section of “Everything Unsaid Before”), and it makes you wonder if Drudkh’s tried-and-true formula is beginning to run out of steam after seven full-length albums in six years.
But while Microcosmos is hardly a flawless effort, the great far outweighs the not-great this time around. The majestic leadoff of “Distant Cries of Cranes,” the melodic warmth of “Ars Poetica” (which brings to mind the iconic “Sunwheel” from Autumn Aurora) and the triumphant conclusion of “Everything Unsaid Before” make the unconvincing Estrangement seem like a distant memory, and the album’s production is perfectly raw and balanced. I wish Thurios had stuck with the clearer vocal approach of Blood In Our Wells, but the vocals are still one of the definitive aspects of this band and continue to impress with their harsh, desperate energy. And I’ll say it again; if there’s any doubt remaining that Drudkh’s guitar solos are the best in black metal, the scorching leads in “Distant Cries of Cranes” and “Everything Unsaid Before” should remedy that quickly.
After a discouraging bout with mediocrity, Drudkh are definitely on an upswing stage in their career. Microcosmos is an epic and rewarding black metal album only slightly held back by some dull build-ups and a subtle feeling of sameness with their other work. This is still a band capable of churning out some of the most emotionally gratifying black metal you’re going to encounter, and even if they don’t quite hit it out of the park by their own standards, they’re still going to eclipse 90% of modern black metal bands whenever they release something. While it’s spotty in a couple of places, Microcosmos is a great return to form for Drudkh, and a necessary purchase for black metal fans in 2009.