Skuggflock is the third album in four years from Sweden’s Stilla, and although its potential appeal is wide-ranging, it will be of particular interest to anyone already invested in the unique micro-niche carved out by the band members’ other projects, including Armagedda, Bergraven, and LIK. It’s not the hooligan antics of Peste Noire nor the liquored-up hijinx of Urfaust, and its folkiness isn’t particularly sing-songy, so one may as well call it Swedish countryside black metal and be done with it. Skuggflock is a superficially easy album – the melodies eerie but pleasant and the instrumentation clear and un-fussed over – but there’s a root-level mystery, an only-barely-there strangeness in the wooze and lilt of the riffs that never quite suggests Ved Buens Ende, never quite Kvist, never quite Isengard, but lands somewhere in the rich terroir of their vicinity.
In a strange way, Stilla is successful for many of the same reasons that recent Darkthrone has been successful. Stilla sounds very little like Darkthrone (although strip the keys and acoustic guitar overlay and Skuggflock‘s title track actually makes some Blaze in the Northern Sky structural moves), but each in their own way has abstracted certain essentials from black metal’s template while striking out confidently sideways. And just as Nocturno Culto’s authoritative voice always commands attention, Stilla’s A. Petterson (formerly of, among others, Armagedda and Sweden’s Leviathan) turns in a consistently riveting performance with scornful, perfectly enunciated vocals like diaphragm-dredged curses.
Beyond any individual display, however, Stilla sounds like a group of seasoned black metal musicians who are comfortable with each other and with the nuances of the style. As such, nothing on Skuggflock is rushed or impatient, and nothing is busy or flashy simply to make a point. The bass is a hugely prominent voice throughout, with a particularly guiding presence on the mellow but twisty 3/4 of “Till Den Som Skall Komma.” Elsewhere, “I Tystnad Vilar Själen” shows the band’s duality, from its clean-sung main theme’s folkiness to its trad-leaning tremolo sections that arc insistently, like neon sparks from a welder’s torch. “Av Maran Riden” gives way a few times to a rolling drum foundation against which a swerving guitar tremolos away, lashing the band through wavering tempos like heavy runoff rushing through sloped thick woods.
Not to put too fine a point on the contrast, but Stilla exemplifies a particular kind of rustic, no-nonsense naturalism, as opposed to the exaggerated glorification of nature we often see in black metal. God love ’em, but most of the bands plucked from the winsome shorthairs of Ulver’s Bergtatt (meaning, naturally, Wolves in the Throne Room and their many acolytes) seem like the type to pose preciously for a majestic mountaintop selfie; Stilla sounds like a wizened farmer or a hunter seeing the old landscape for what it is: bounty and limitation, partner and adversary. Stilla is music for people for whom a little frostbite builds character. Album closer “Ett Inre Helvete – Ett Yttre Helvete” fades carefully, like a woman putting on her snowshoes to check the far valley, but who decides to keep walking into a landscape which soon erases her footfalls. She’s still out there, somewhere; Stilla’s sound is there with her.
The predominant mode of Skuggflock is persistence, as if the world the music confronts is all struggle and toil, against which the only reproach is gritted teeth and equanimity. If there’s a weakness to the album, it’s that the individual songs don’t stand apart very clearly. As such, Skuggflock feels more like a collection of variations on a particular idea. Some of the most effective variations occur when Stilla makes sparse, intentionally rudimentary breaks from full throttle, as on the outro to the album closer, with its eerie keys and simplistic drumming, or an earlier organ break split by pitter-patter rolls on “Till Den Som Skall Komma.” Base-level nitpicks aside, however, the album is a window onto a landscape, and to listen is to soak in a thoroughly immersive chiaroscuro of snow and leaf-bare limbs.
But hell, if you need it pithier than that: come for the riffs, stay for the ride.