How effective is narrative art if one can’t follow the narrative? For music as richly textual as Arstidir Lifsins’s, the question is hardly academic. On the (mostly) German band’s third album, passages of sweeping, majestic black metal are juxtaposed against neofolk-leaning acoustics, the limpid swell of strings, barrel-chested choral chanting, and what feels like several novels’ worth of spoken word interludes. At one level, it’s easy to sink into the deep atmosphere of these long, episodic songs and paint the scene for oneself. At another level, however, the album feels much too close to watching a dialogue-heavy, foreign-language historical drama without subtitles.
If you point your ears just right, it occasionally sounds like Arstidir Lifsins has lifted the majority of its sonic and aesthetic toolkit straight from Enslaved’s “793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne).” To be more charitable, though: At its best, the band’s bombastic, pagan black metal plays like a collision between The Ruins of Beverast and the first few Helheim albums. At its worst, however, the music saps its own momentum with those constant spoken-word interludes, dramatic downshifts in mood, and a general tendency to sandwich its most interesting themes between uninspiring, meandering bits of often generic folk.
“Þeir heilags dóms hirðar” leads off with some of the most potently metal riffing of the album, all Moonsorrow scope and mid-period Enslaved snarl. Although it still finds plenty of time to digress and wander throughout its 13 minutes, it hangs together as a coherent heavy metal song much better than most of the rest of this overstuffed album. So, although nothing throughout the 80-minute running time of Aldafodr is bad, per se, it’s easy to wish that Arstidir Lifsins was more frequently willing to tame their sprawl.
What strikes me as weakness may in fact be perceived as strengths to many listeners: The album is an immersive experience, and by virtue of owning physical versions of the band’s preceding two albums, I know that they are serious about providing a holistic package. Album themes are rich with deeply researched history and lyrics are provided with both translations and explanations. Experiencing this new album in a wholly disconnected, digital medium may be contributing to my frustrations with it.
Nevertheless – and at the risk of becoming a ridiculous caricature – I really wish that this multifaceted metal album was interested in spending a bit more time simply being, well, metal. By that token, “Bituls skokra benvargs hreggjar á sér stað” is one of the album’s biggest successes simply by virtue of spending most of its time being metal. Since the band is clearly adept at writing atmospheric black metal hooks that retain enough physicality that one wouldn’t really call them “atmospheric” as a pejorative, the fact that they don’t spend all of their time playing those hooks has to be interpreted as a conscious choice rather than a lack of skill or commitment.
As such, I hate to begrudge a band their choices, but when they’ve clearly got so many stories to tell, I just wish they’d speak them in a language I found easier to hear.