If metalheads were a fair bunch, they’d pick on the identical wardrobes of every “war metal” band as much as they focus on the looks of bands like New Hampshire’s Vattnet Viskar. Because really, the fashions of the time look no more ridiculous or contrived than whatever-the-good-goddamn Shagrath is donning. But hey, The H Word, I guess, and music fans can’t help but be skeptical when a band spends so much time on image, and cover art, and other stuff beyond the music itself, leading to expectations that what actually meets their ears will fall short of the support structure. Publicity makes a name memorable, but to commit such extra-musical acts and not appear like utter charlatans, you better back it up on record.
Thankfully, on sophomore full length Settler, Vattnet Viskar went beyond just backing up their professional photographs and likely expensive cover artwork; they have made post-rock-infused black metal that is engaging, often thrilling, and delightfully efficient. In other words, forget about the scarf, me.
The stated efficiency is one of the biggest reasons for the album’s success. Too often, bands become extremely long-winded when applying the riffs and dynamics of post rock to a blackened feel, sacrificing interesting songwriting for a “feel.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but Vattnet Viskar takes no such risks, delivering an album of eight songs under 40 total minutes that packs more detail and variety than most similarly-minded discs twice as long.
Opener “Dawnlands” brings a touch of Woe’s slightly punky black metal while almost hiding a huge melodic swell; “Colony” sees the band paralleling Tombs’ penchant for The Big Riff Landing; “Yearn” completely shifts the mood to darker, more layered material, and comes up as one of the album’s best songs. This is only the first three tracks, and while several of these tools are reused throughout, very little ever feels repeated in any way. Plus, with songs as loaded with riffs as the title track, you might even find a little neck-wrecking.
Another of the album’s more rewarding aspects is its ability to trick the listener into thinking it’s falling into any number of modern tropes. The beginning of “Glory” might start out sounding exactly like Isis, but this is only to set up a starkly contrasting set of dissonant tremolo lines later in the song. Likewise, closer “Coldwar” begins in the brightest, cheeriest, postmetallest way possible, but the way it builds to a dramatic guitar solo is a fancy bit of songcraft, not to mention fitting for a finale.
The album does, however, fall prey to a few pitfalls. First is the production. When every instrument is being smashed or picked with maximum intensity (which is often), things become muddled and compressed, with the edges of the guitar distortion getting mushed in with the cymbals. Speaking of the cymbals, the slow-cymbal-hit-for-shimmery overtone technique is used constantly. It might be a pretty common technique, but it’s a lazy crutch when the rest of the music is so lush with detail, and it sometimes results in muted dynamics.
Imperfections aside, Settler is still among the best recent examples of this oversaturated-but-starved-for-quality style. Call it “post/black metal,” call it “fashionable black metal,” call it “modern American metal,” whatever, just listen to it. Vattnet Viskar has woven a musical tale that is both dramatic and nuanced, allowing neither themselves nor the listener to become bored, even for a second.