The open question: Do Vanhelgd play fashionable death metal unfashionably, or unfashionable death metal fashionably? On the one hand, Vanhelgd’s melodicism and (in particular) the potently reverbed vocals sometimes suggest a kinship with such peripatetic peers as Tribulation, Morbus Chron, and Horrendous. On the other hand, these guitars churn and scour with the classic buzzsaw that even your arthritic and mostly deaf cat might be able to identify as Swedeath. Thankfully, the real answer is that Vanhelgd play excellent death metal excellently, and with the kind of split-lip abandon that ought to wipe all such smarmy questions off the face of the blighted earth.
Although Relics of Sulphur Salvation was one of the most blissfully disgusting albums of 2014, with their new album Temple of Phobos Vanhelgd are still flying fairly low on the radar, which is a shame, because few recent bands have managed as equal a balance between greasy and majestic, gross and uplifting. Although their music is draped with enough sinister harmonic overtones and vaguely liturgical gestures that it reaches with an outstretched hand of friendship to black metal, Vanhelgd are still a death metal band to the last. In fact, Vanhelgd are almost devoutly traditional, which makes the fervent racket they cook up all the more potent; there’s very little in the way of trickery or diversion at play in the taut forty-four minutes of these eight songs. (The final track goes silent for a few minutes before returning to a grimy, punk-infused reprise.)
Although the overall effect of Temple of Phobos is slightly less overwhelming than the grinning battery of Relics of Sulphur Salvation, the true watchword of the album is intensification. By exploring slower tempos and frequently uncomplicated drumming, Vanhelgd seem to be always on the ball of the foot, carefully considering the next lunge rather than always barreling recklessly ahead. The snaking riff at the chorus of “Den Klentrognes Klagan,” for example, might be equally at home on an Asphyx or an Eyehategod album, because riffs are borderless commodities. This tendency is even more pronounced on the album’s second half, which concludes beautifully with the mournful stomp of “Allt hopp är Förbi,” where the choral accompaniment puts the song somewhere in the neighborhood of a scuzzy mid-period Therion.
Though the second half’s slower approach generally maintains the band’s grim focus and intensity, “Gravens Lovsång” is one of the only spots where the band lets its momentum flag. Still, the closing two minutes, with their melodic soaring eerily reminiscent of My Dying Bride’s “The Cry of Mankind,” are redemptive. Elsewhere, the clean guitar lead that runs through the first half of the title track has such an implacably driving force that it could have walked straight out of Paradise Lost’s Icon. These moments of seemingly off-topic banter are nonetheless woven into the discussion so cleanly and sensibly that Vanhelgd’s conversation is worth following attentively. As it turns out, Temple of Phobos has no particular allegiance to fashionability, but neither does it have the petulant compulsion towards unfashionability that is so often a sign of a band without a clear center.
Vanhelgd keeps a quintessential death metal promise: to persist with riffs – to insist on riffs – in the face of the multitudes of riffless charlatans. One could do worse for a benediction, too: go out into the world and spread the riff. Amen.