Those familiar with Árstíðir lífsins’ 2017 album Heljarkviða may feel the rug has been pulled from under their feet when their first chaotic charges of “Fornjóts synir ljótir at Haddingja lands lynláðum” rip through the Icelanders’ new album Saga á tveim tungum I: Vapn ok vidr.
Heljarkviða was a mesmerising and in places very moving album. But after the surprisingly confrontational opener, things begin to take on a more familiar feel on the second track “Sundv?rpuðir ok áraþytr” in which rich coal-deep voices echo over a somnambulant instrumental movement.
While the band members’ assorted roots extend to both Iceland and Germany their distinct musical driver over the past decade or so has been very much centred on Old Norse history, emphasised by the lyrics being sung in Old Icelandic.
Árstíðir lífsins have promised a further release later in the year, effectively a sister album to this one, which delivers tales from the blood-filled reign of the notorious Norwegian king, Óláfr Helgi Haraldsson.
Some of the medieval merriment and mayhem that stirred within Haraldsson’s 11th Century kingdom make Game of Thrones seem like an episode of Peppa Pig, and Árstíðir lífsins have attempted to capture something of that on this album, the band’s fourth.
Vápn ok viðr is crawling with monastic dark chants, such as on “Líf á milli hveinandi bloðkerta”, that help shape the ambient atmosphere while some of the song structures are also inspired by music from their forefathers, using a mix of new and old instruments for aural authenticity.
While previous album Heljarkviða featured four lengthy compositions, this new release has shorter song structures although even the briefer pieces such as “Siðar heilags brá sólar ljósi” veer towards Sunn O)))-like drone over a few deathly spoken words. Occasionally, such as on the febrile “Vandar j?tunn reisti fiska upp af v?tnum”, Árstíðir Lífsins stir from their slumber with buzzsaw guitars instigating a rarefied bludgeoning black metal assault.
The album’s final track is the epic 15-minute journey “Haldi oss frá eldi, eilífr skapa deilir”. Here the Icelanders have the space to showcase the complete breadth of their sonic vista, injecting greater colour into some of the more expressive passages, while still finding the time for some of their familiar shadowy low key hums.
Árstíðir lífsins remain a uniquely challenging proposition. While the Norwegian thread is as ever the dominant one, Saga á tveim tungum I: Vápn ok viðr was composed and recorded in Germany (and Sweden) in early 2018 and mixed and mastered by renowned producer Markus Stock at Klangschmiede Studio E, in Mellrichstadt, Germany. It reflects the ongoing progress of this most bewitching of Scandinavian bands whose spell it is so very easy to fall under.
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