In music, true economy is rare. There are, of course, essentially an infinite number of ways to make a musical point. Variations in instrumentation, melody, rhythm, harmony, tone, and so on enable musicians to paint with a broad palette. But can we agree that sometimes it’s just… too much? How many albums have you heard where a set of sturdy songs was drowned out by too many sounds? Or where a clear melody was enervated by too much embellishment of its core idea?
This is hardly an argument that less is always more: Think of how many competently generic albums might have stood out on their own merit if they had been given a more personal touch in the production, or had used contrasting textures more effectively. Music, like any art form, is all about balance. One of the hallmarks of exceptional art is a confident sense of economy; not using as few elements as possible, exactly, but using exactly the right elements and no more than are needed to accomplish its goal.
Sweden’s Runemagick is one exemplar of such economy. That statement feels a bit laughable in light of the fact that Into Desolate Realms, the excellent new album currently under the pedant-o-scope, is the band’s thirteenth full-length album since 1998 (with eleven of those albums coming in just a nine-year stretch). Nevertheless, despite such prolific output, when experienced on an album by album, song by song basis, Runemagick’s meticulous and eerie death/doom is created with a compellingly efficient parsimony. The most immediate effect of this is that the listener’s focus is always directed squarely at the riff, and at how the band uses simple tools to lattice those riffs into little universes of deceptive beauty and an almost uncanny internal logic.
Into Desolate Realms picks up almost exactly where last year’s very good Evoked from Abysmal Sleep (itself the first album following a ten-year hiatus) left off, but improves on its predecessor by upping the stakes in both the memorability department and the grim beauty of the album as a singular arc. Although death/doom is by definition a hybrid proposition, over the course of their career, Runemagick have planted their flag firmly in the terrain of death metal played with doomed abandon (rather than doom played with death metal tones), and as such, they have few precise peers yet many fellow travelers. If you can picture a train car made of lead containing members of Asphyx, Incantation, Valborg, Coffins, Winter, Necros Christos, Celtic Frost, Hooded Menace, and even vintage Electric Wizard skidding off the rails and grinding the tracks into a shower of slow-motion sparks at a somehow inexplicably unstoppable 2 mph, you’ll get a sense of the patient, deliberately meted-out destruction that Runemagick offers.
The almost uniformly languid yet sinister pace of the album feels a bit like a lonely trip down the river Styx; Charon watches silently as the guitar tone prow of the boat cuts the silky dark waters. This course is set nearly from the outset of the album, as opening track “Remnants of the Old” introduces a beautifully simple but catchy riff, slowly adding an additional guitar layer and more insistent punctuation from the drums, and then around 1:30 or so, they begin to slow almost imperceptibly as one, so naturally that I missed it the first few times through the album. It’s such a confident move that it’s almost a taunt: “We can start off slow and get even slower, but we’ll do it with such skill you’ll second-guess your own perception of time.”
Late-album gem “Necromancer of the Red Sun” is the closest Runemagick comes to a real death metal gallop here, but even then, they pull up short by building the intro drums to a half-time fakeout rather than a rickety, pummeling trot. Elsewhere, the album’s second side opens with “Decay to Nothing,” which takes its exactness from the balance sheet all the way to the battlefield; its torpid pace is always on the verge of becoming a bounce or a swing, but the center of gravity holds throughout. At 4:20 or so, the bottom drops out entirely, and a woozily patient clean guitar builds it back up to a truly triumphant lead that succeeds exactly because of its simplicity rather than in spite of it.
Economy, however, is not quite the same thing as minimalism; it does not simply mean making do with few elements and little variation. On the title track, for example, the drummer occasionally alternates his bass/snare patterns so that they go from normal to half time, all while the ride cymbal taps remain mostly constant on eighth notes. It gives this otherwise simple-sounding song a slight unease, because it flirts with both 6/8 and 4/4 rhythms. And the lead guitar around the 4:30 mark or so – is that a solo? Well, not quite, but it’s a guitar vamping on the lead guitar riffs while occasionally stomping some effects, pulling a few bends, and generally shading the song’s core without distracting from it. And the downbeat that hits at 5:54 and ushers in the song’s outro is one of those utterly perfect moments that makes the otherwise stolid and stoic listener want to don a neon pink track suit and run with the majestic flamingos.
The Tom G. Warrior vibes are strongest on “Sorceress Reburned,” which trudges and almost falls on top of itself with how hard it leans back on the beat; the dejected plodding is perfectly matched to Nicklas Rudolfsson’s vocals, which sound like they are dredged reluctantly but ultimately forcefully from some deep reservoir of disgusted exhaustion. These are all great things! The perfectly despondent outro march of closing track “After the Sepulchral Lava” even pulls out a wah-drenched solo, but it, too, fades. The album’s heady weight evaporates into a dense fog of a tangle of acoustic guitar lines as it ends, but feels no less grimly determined for the ostensible reprieve.
This is a band whose relative obscurity is a crime against decency, and they’re turning in some of the finest work of their consistently excellent career. It’s always better late than never, so please, tune in to Runemagick for a gleefully dour and consummately professional display of parsimony; come for the riffs, stay to watch the band lunge at your idiot face with a glintingly sharpened Occam’s razor.