Originally written by Jordan Campbell
Dissecting a Valborg release–or Valborg in general–is a daunting dask. Unquestionably, they’re one of the weirdest bands in metal; but not in that bullshit, pseudo-avant-garde, watch-us-set-ourselves-on-fire! Unexpect vein. No, Valborg deploys their oddity far more subtly, but that doesn’t make them any less difficult to quantify.
The more straightfoward moments on their previous efforts, Glorification of Pain and Crown of Sorrow, paired a Celtic Frost lurch n’ lumber with a tempered, Godfleshian clang n’ thwack. (The smoky-smooth “Whispers of the Wizard” and the sewer-dwelling “Wisdom From The Vortex” are the chief purveyors of this amalgamation.) However, this thread refuses to remain constant. Valborg likes to keep things off-kilter, whether on the severely detuned “Eerie and Old” (which begat the seldom-used “elderly” vocal style) or the sprawling, arena progstomp of “I Am Space.” Thus, their reputation for boulder-hurling preceeds Barbarian‘s arrival.
If you’ve followed these past two Valborg outings (and the band’s deliberately exclusive distribution methods make that relatively unlikely), you’ll greet Barbarian with dueling perspectives. The band has established a singular sound for itself: Distant, yet phenomenally phrased drumming; that aforementioned affinity for Tom G’s tones; and a pronounced focus on creating a greyed-out, swarming-cold atmosphere. Yet, despite these traits, one never really knows what to expect. Compositionally, these fuckers are off the goddamn wall. Often, they’re also brilliant.
Barbarian‘s first true track, “Astral Kingdom,” is a force, showcasing Valborg‘s uncanny ability to pummel whilst creating space. (Imagine a verse / chorus Blut aus Nord grinding down on some vintage Sisters of Mercy.) “Battlefield of Souls” boasts a proto-death stomp and a mean-ass main riff, and then….
…things trail off for a bit.
Valborg has always been adept at applying their deliberate pacing to create a flowing whole; as a three-piece, they’re masters of creating deceptively minimalist, full-album panoramas. Crown of Sorrow‘s economic running time–a scant thirty-five minutes–served it perfectly, making it an easily digestible whole. Barbarian clocks in at a full fifty, and with tracks like “Exterminator” and “Phlegethonian Stream” acting as perpetually-chewed gristle, the album loses a bit of steam in the middle. (The value of these tracks is practically negated by the eight-minute, aptly titled “Towering Clouds.”) The whip-smart pacing of previous records is momentarily lost, but with the almost-closer “Samantha Alive,” the band recovers in legendary fashion.
A deus ex machina of the most enjoyable sort, “Samantha Alive” is the filthy-ass curveball that devoted Valborg-ites crave. Vocally, the band typically deals in haunting baritones, gravel-splattered bellows, and pained howls. But “Samantha Alive” employs a somber / soaring clean croon, mining a massive rock ballad from the depths of their ghastly ether. Like “I Am Space” before it, one gets the sense that the entire album is a long, protracted build to this brilliant turn of quirk.
Beginning its lengthy-yet-lightning-quick lifespan as a lovelost goth ballad, the song soon morphs–cued by a perfectly out-of-place “KICK IT!“–into Ian Astbury’s rejected contribution to The Lost Boys soundtrack. This thing has swagger: From blustery palm-muting to leather-chapped howling, it’s easily the coolest thing the band has ever recorded, and (very) arguably the fastest nine minutes ever put to tape.
These enormous, left-field freakouts are what makes Valborg one of the most invigorating acts in metal. While occassionally falling prey to their own indulgence, the band consistently succeeds at collecting their disparate influences into a vital, monolithic whole. (And with the torrential pace at which they’re releasing material–three LPs in the last three years–they have plenty of margin for error.) As unclassifiable as they come, Valborg is one of the very few must-hear, what-the-fuck-was-that standalones currently active.
Weirder than thou? Sure. But it rocks, too. Get on the bandwagon.