Saturday, September 29, 2012

Unleashed - Odalheim (2012)

When you think of Viking death metal, I’d be willing to bet the majority of you immediately and unerringly bring to mind Amon Amarth. However, the more deeply involved in the scene will be quick to point to another distinct entity, a marriage of those sky-seeking melodies and the decrepit rollicking of early Entombed, one who has been toiling away to perfect this style for years before their more popular Viking-styled countrymen even began, and indeed, when the scene was still a fledgling, defined by only Bathory and a handful of others. To my knowledge, they were the first example of pure-blooded Viking death metal, using the trademark buzz-saw melodic nature of the Swedish scene to bring forth Norse battle cries unlike any other. The band I speak of is Unleashed, whose 11th and newest record is just as good as anything their melodic or (now) death n’ roll counterparts have released, but with a blazing tenacity that acts as a dynamic middle ground to those more widely recognized soundscapes.

Constant comparison is largely a lazy review style, but bear with me, I beg, as it’s just so fitting in this case. There is a decent amount of crunch one would find in the typical Amon Amarth song, but there are layers of riffing here that exude a more complex flow of melody. The songs are not as anthemic or accessible, but contain an unflappable ferocity that burns its way into your gray matter and sets the spirit aflame. If Amon Amarth exemplifies the even, rhythmic pounding of Thor’s hammer, than Odalheim is a lightning storm straight from Odin, punishing the whole world over. However, despite differences in delivery, they provide innately similar experiences, grim-bearded brothers carrying different weapons to the same battlefield, prepared to fight and die to protect the glory of Yggdrasil. The ceaseless, pounding march of Odalheim's chugging, gloriously violent melodies also draws parallels to the formative works of Dismember and Entombed, and indeed, Unleashed main-man Johnny Hedlund was actually a part of the latter in the early days, when they tearing up the underground as Nihilist.

The compositions lean toward flowing layers of fast-paced, windy melody, much more so than the chunky, muted slabs you may be used to, though those certainly manifest themselves more than a bit as well. The riffing is simply glorious, and there are roughly 3 zillion to choose from, so you never end up bored, or feeling like a section is too often repeated. It’s like a roaring river (or an ever flowing stream), or a blazing fire, essentially constant, yet ever-changing.

Fimbulwinter blasts like a storm of ice shards, its driven proclamations of winter savagery immediately vicious and infectious. The titular Odalheim is a hammer-pounding call to arms, flowing with melodious anger into a soulful, memorable solo and another spine-tingling chorus. White Christ is a testament to the historical inhumanity of Christianity, and alternates between a choppy, rhythmic stomp and cutting layers of riffing that veritably shave the skin off your bones. The Hour of Defeat is gallops hard into the angry Gathering the Battalions, where guitar leads blow through panoramic mountains of pounding, muscular notation. Rise of the Maya Warriors has an amazing dual-harmony near its end, and The Soil of Our Fathers is a blazing march for glory and revenge. Every song here is memorable in its own way, concise and epic to the nth degree.Of this short 43 minute length, every moment achingly sweet, the simple purity of spirit belying the thoughtful, intelligent song construction, each riff carefully placed for the maximum possible impact.

Johnny Hedlund’s vocals are somewhere between the barking drawl of LG Petrov and the lion-esque roar of Johan Hegg, having evolved from the simple, percussive death grunts of the early years to a more scarred, clearly enunciated delivery, snarling in both lower and medium-high octaves, his natural pride and venom matching the spiritual weight of the notation pound for pound. He also pulls off an impressive performance on the bass; nothing overly technical or insane, but boasting a nice, warm, audible tone, and he doesn’t miss a beat in providing a thick, warm pulse for the guitars to rest on as they cut like a winter wind. And indeed, they are the star of the show here, an inspired array of chilly, battle-ready note progressions that slice through the snow with a bead drawn on your throat. I’d even go so far as to call this lightly blackened death metal, as Odalheim practically oozes ice, both in notation and clear, crisp production.

I’ll admit, both to you and myself, that I never gave Unleashed quite as much credit as they no doubt deserved, always playing second fiddle to other, more visible Swedish death projects, but all that’s changed now. It has led me to re-examine some of their other albums I hadn't given enough time to sink in, and I’ll likely review them all at some point. More important and immediate, though, is Odalheim, one of the best albums I’ve heard all year, very nearly as infectious as the new Kreator, and somehow eclipsing it in terms of sheer excitement. Their signature sound is like a call to battle, stirring the Scandinavian in my blood and imparting mental imagery of galloping warrior hordes, of severed Christian heads lining the stained crimson snow, and epic, valorous war wrought by hordes of axes and snarling storms of ice.

If there is anything negative here, it's that a few of the melodies and choruses feel similar to each other, and this sense of pervasive familiarity does hold the album back from being perfect, but it's a testament to the overarching quality that it does very little detriment to the end result. The level of magnificence in each track is astounding, but just a bit more differentiation could have made Odalheim truly immortal. As it stands though, it's still impeccable, a fucking monolith of battle-hardened, memorable material.

Many are keen to compare Unleashed with their more lauded adversaries, and not always favorably. This is particularly true of Amon Amarth, a practice I obviously can’t condemn, and while this is rather inescapable, what with their gigantic popularity and the obvious similarities native to both, I like to think of them as savage warriors championing the same cause, side by side rather than rivals, crushing your feeble skull for the glory of Asgaard. In conjunction with the flowing melodies, the pure violence and often crashing pace are redolent of the very best aspects of works like Left Hand Path and An Ever Flowing Stream, and this easily eclipses the competition as the best unerringly Swedish death metal album I’ve heard in years, melodic or otherwise.

Odalheim is the most resounding, savage, epically memorable attack these warlords have summoned thus far, and will likely stay in my rotation for years to come. Frosty, bearded, and hammer swinging with divine fury ‘til the bitter end, Viking metal just doesn’t get better than this.

9.5 / 10 - Immortal Battalions, Bearded and Brave