Boundaries are something we often attach to the music we collect. Whether it be Swedish death metal, Bay Area thrash, “Trve” Norwegian black metal or German power metal, people are always looking for ways to categorize and thereby confine their perception of what a particular piece of music should sound like based on its geographical origin or style. And this is perfectly understandable for the most part, isn’t it?
Take a look at the current Northern Heritage Records lineup, for example. With the exception of two bands, not only does the entire roster come from Finland, but some of the bands share members. Therefore, we like to lump the majority of those bands into the category of “Finnish black metal,” or at the very least, we’ll say that it sounds Finnish. In the case of the early Tampa death metal scene, few production studios really understood the dick-swinging heaviness that artists like Chuck Schuldiner wanted to insert into their riffs, and albums from that time and place were therefore recorded and mastered in a very similar fashion by the same people. Whether the practice of geographical categorization in the context of our current era is largely unjustifiable or not, there are certainly categories of music that have always been flat out impossible to pin down, and one of those is atmospheric/folk black metal.
Rewind, for a minute, to the first time your ears were ever graced with the overwhelming display of emotions given off by Agalloch‘s The Mantle, Wodensthrone‘s Loss or even Bathory‘s Hammerheart. All three albums — classics for their place and time — ultimately bow completely down to the nature gods that folk metal so wholeheartedly worships. Two attributes made each of those albums special, and the same two attributes are what will likely separate every truly inspired album of the same style from all of its imitators. First, the metal must come before all else. With varying degrees of folk metal containing drastically different layers of instrumentation, the one thing that ultimately sets leaders of the style apart is, and will always be, the almighty riff. Eliminate all of the mandolins, jaw harps, cawing crows and winter-y sound effects from the three albums above and you still have three unbeatable slabs of brilliant material. Second, and perhaps more esoterically, true nature worship knows no borders. Trees, rocks and streams were here long before we were, and they will undoubtedly outlive us; and only an artist that wholeheartedly believes in the gods they claim to worship can become a conduit of said gods. Perhaps, if nothing else, this is why atmospheric black metal can sound so nature-driven yet so otherworldly at the same time. Case in point: two of the three bands already mentioned broke up just last year, and Quorthon departed this plane of existence almost fifteen years ago. Although those recent breakups were disappointing to some of us, nature wasted no time looking for new conduits to work through, and boy-oh-boy did it find them.
Entering into the largely unexplored musical world of Siberia, Grima may have never come to mind before, but that will certainly change after a single spin of the band’s sophomore effort, Tales of the Enchanted Woods. Hailing from Krasnoyarsk, Russia, this seriously talented and inspired duo comprises what may be the best act to come out of the motherland since the departure of Walknut. (Here I go again, wrongfully categorizing bands based on arbitrary locations!)
Right out of the gates, Tales quickly sets a nature-worshiping, atmospheric backdrop before pummeling your ears with a blitzkrieg of blast beats paired with a fiery, balls-to-the-wall guitar tone. Taking their cues from Panopticon and Wodensthrone, members Morbius and Vilhelm take care of business by laying a sturdy foundation of intense guitar work and programmed percussion, intertwining power with fragility as emotional melodies sit atop colossal riffs not unlike minnows playfully skimming the surface of a giant tidal wave. It isn’t until the tail end of “The Moon and Its Shadows” that Grima starts to show more of its cards. The clean vocals are no less impressive as bonafide howls and yells, and are often accompanied by the sorrowful melodies of accordions, keyboards and wind instruments to solidify the band’s pagan nature. The next track, “Ritual,” continues in the same vein, as the delicate balance of overdoing neither the atmosphere nor the heaviness is always delightfully maintained. To further compare Grima to its more-than-obvious peers, the Siberians very clearly answer the following question: “Could that feeling of Agalloch’s split with Nest have been maintained if it was actually a metal album?” The answer is a resounding yes.
The real kicker, and the main attribute that puts Tales of the Enchanted Woods among the heavy hitters of this occasionally oversaturated sub-genre, is the amount of inspiration channeled into the second half of this album. After a rich, mood-setting interlude, the album’s climax just does not stop building up over the course of “Never Get Off the Trail” and “The Grief,” the two songs that unquestionably contain the album’s most emotional moments. In stepping away from the music for a quick second and analyzing Emerson’s cathartic nature essays, he states that the happiest people are those who learn from nature the lesson of worship. Well, if true sorrow must be experienced to understand pure happiness, then the reverse is also true. Nature can be just as much a beacon of hopelessness and helplessness as it can be a source for joy.
As humans, many systems are in place to convince us that we are the big picture when, in fact, the picture is much greater than we are. The cognitive dissonance associated with accepting the notion that, in the span of our short lifetimes we are largely helpless, is very real. To get personal, the first time I was broadsided with that realization, a large part of me wanted my life to end sooner rather than later, and the feeling hasn’t gone completely away since. But thankfully, just like the way nature loves to tug at our heartstrings during deep moments of reflection, we can just as easily realize we’re a part of something special that’s worth tarrying around for, even if it’s only in our control for a little while, if at all. And feeling all of that is why fans of this nature-driven genre can take comfort that somewhere, in the course of each attentive listen, music such as this speaks to our inner-selves while still reminding us who the boss truly is. Although regularly loud and bombastic — as heavy metal should be — the truly profound listening experience comes from the album’s quiet voice that says, “Hey, friend, you’re a part of me, and I’m a part of you. You don’t need to know more than that right now, but I love you.” Life, love, and loss are deeply encapsulated in the meanings of each of Tales‘ eight songs, and above all else, that is what Grima accomplishes so marvelously. Not unlike the genre defining classics that came before this album — I’m talking about the Kivenkantajas and Bergtatts of the world — Grima acknowledges itself as a mere conduit of the thing from which all life, happiness, sadness and death spring: nature.
So for those of you still feeling the void of your favorite artists falling by the wayside, take comfort in knowing those artists were never in control to begin with. The universe is going to put this music out there no matter what; I’m just thankful two kids from Siberia were intuitive and inspired enough to serve as its channel this time ’round.
“And we hang on the edge of the void, waiting for the last leaf to fall.”