Assuming that one was ever able to stomach grown men tromping around in full-on chain mail, constantly poised as if to spring from the bow of a longboat and onto the unspoiled shores of a sleepy hamlet ripe for pillaging, Viking metal used to be a damned serious business. Long before the original, grim-faced intent was hijacked by jig-obsessed drunkards and circus workers out of a job during the off-season, few bands whipped up this serious brand of Ragnarok-repping atmospheric black metal as well asEnslaved and Helheim, and while the former’s proggish and Floyd-ian divagations are well-chronicled and rightly celebrated, the latter’s profile has always been lower than the consistent quality of its records deserves.
Still, despite the many similarities between early Enslaved and earlyHelheim, the career-arc that makes even more sense for comparison isSolefald: both Solefald’s and Helheim’s early albums are masterful black metal featuring seriously shrill vocal shrieks – matched in pitch and ferocity only by Fleurety and early Burzum – and both bands strode purposefully away from their bloody-minded blackness almost immediately after conquering it. Granted, even Solefald circa debut album The Linear Scaffoldwas boatloads more experimental than Helheim’s early period, but the side-by-side progression remains uncanny. While Solefald later aimed at a polyglot Borknagar-ish proggy blackened heavy metal, Helheim tilted toward a more gradually death metal-infused Viking synthesis.
It must unfortunately also be noted that both bands took a rather worrisome turn for the boring during this period, though in Helheim’s favor, the band never produced anything as gut-wrenchingly dull as Solefald’s Red for Fire / Black for Death snoozefest. Now, with Solefald’s stunningly good 2010 album Norrøn Livskunst not exactly a return to form as much as a simultaneous pissing on and embracing their own rulebook by progressing yet again, this time in a thrillingly antic but incisively metallic direction, the long suffering lads of Helheim would seem almost required for symmetry’s sake to level a similar challenge to their own back catalog: “It’s been fun, but no more fucking around.”
Much to the relief of this already over-stretched comparison, Heiðindómr Ok Mótgangr delivers like a sonofabitch, pulling off all kinds of grandiose stunts with the self-assured craft of veterans, and oh, by the way, also delivering potentially the best album of Helheim’s career, or at least a resolute statement well on par with early career stunners Jormundgandand Av Norrøn Ætt. If I was some kind of corny asshole, right about now would be the time that I’d say something like “Viking metal is dead; long live Helheim metal,” but I’ll keep it to myself.
Album opener “Viten Og Mot (Sindighet)” sets the pace, and basically tells you everything you need to know about the album: beginning with a stately melodic theme that becomes all the more majestic when it’s joined by timpani and horns, it soon shifts into lengthy, flowing tremolo melodies and a reserved drum technique that massages the riffs perfectly, shuffling and blasting with equal finesse. At around 3:20 the song switches into a speedy melodic section, with some tasty guitar leads that soar above chiming rhythmic arpeggios. Following this section, though, instead of kicking back into the song’s main theme, Helheim drops yet another new theme on your unsuspecting ears, this time a modal slow burn that eventually introduces some very up-front ragged crooning and fierce but still understated blasting. The song leads seamlessly into “Dualitet Og Ulver,” which is an all-around rager featuring the suitably-caustic guest vocals of Taake’s Hoest, while elsewhere “Element” starts out all downcast power ballad before careening into a cascading vocal unison so evocative that I’m considering petitioning the band to rename themselves “The Fjord Whisperers.” And that’s pretty much the modus operandi of the remainder of the album: well-constructed and internally-dynamic songs that shift from stout aggression to thoughtful psychedelic meandering to simultaneously rousing and melancholic melodic sweeps.
If there’s a major complaint to be leveled at this album, it’s that there is nothing startlingly new about it. That’s different from saying there’s nothingnew, of course, but even so, in place of massive stylistic innovation the album presents the listener with a fine-point honing of a somewhat anachronistic (and thus much-missed) style of black metal that Helheimpioneered before abandoning it for a few seasons of wandering in the desert. The last couple of proper metal songs do trail off somewhat abruptly, but the delicate acoustic picking, mouth harp and distant chanting of album closer “Helheim VIII” put an appropriately mystical capstone on this fine album.
Ah, fuck it: Viking metal is dead; long live Helheim metal.