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Skogen's debut Vittra was a passable hour of wandering "melodic" black metal, but it had little to draw me back time and again. However, three albums in, this forest-loving Swedish duo have tightened everything up, expanded and deepened their already luscious sound, and stolen an Enslaved album title to spew up a truly impressive slice of mid-pace blackened atmosphere. This sounds much more like a full-on black metal album.
As per standard the songs are generally long; six or seven minutes is the general duration of these rides. The key thing this time around, the thing that keeps me coming back, is not particularly that the proud guitar leads or weighty atmospheres are that much more striking in themselves ('cause what they were doing before was decent enough), but that they are given poise by some genuinely terrific pure black metal that knits the whole sound together too well to deny. It all sounds darker and, dare I say it, bleaker, meaning the appearance of the band's trademark epic moments are that much more rewarding.
The opener 'Djävulens Eld' is a great example - a malevolent curl of blackened chords like something off Mgła or Sargeist rolls into snarling guitar screeches; the mournful clean guitars that punctuate it bring an air of foreboding this time, rather than the relaxed round-the-campfire feel of previous outings. And the triumphant leads that gleam like lances of sunlight into a Platonic cave shine with all the more emotional resonance for the grimmer context. This is material even for lovers of older Katatonia and perhaps those who adore Insomnium's wonderful guitarwork but find their oft-limited song structures tedious. The record continues in this vein, meshing the band's established epic leanings with far more expertise in the "legit" black metal songwriting department than I would have expected them to develop in just a year or so since Svitjod.
The record continues to pile moments of new and icy inspiration onto the band's recipe throughout. Although an instrumental like 'Nihil Sine Morte' is proof positive the boys can stun simply through plugging away on the ol' rousing melodies for a few minutes, it is in the album's wider construction that their creativity bears tasty tasty fruit. With all the harshness going on, the tantalising glints of fragility that manifest through plucked clean guitars on 'Orcus Labyrint' hit hard. 'Apokalypsens Vita Dimma' has a great rampaging nature to it, almost like something from Watain's rockin' recent albums but slathered with more excellent leads and some great, distant chants. The hugely atmospheric and appropriately frosty closer 'Monolit' is replete with Deathspell Omega style black metal chords accenting its boiling tread, while 'Aska' might be the best thing here: a 101 in building to a shimmering climax of mountainous melody via a marching, seething first half, some magnificent ride work and a tremolo-picked section that again reminds of Mgła. And if you heard 'Genom Svarta Vatten' with no prior knowledge of this band or glimpse of the album cover, you would initially think you were in for some fairly strict and linear Total Death or Ravishing Grimness style nihilism - but after the halfway mark the blasts would be interrupted by majestic guitar solos and concluded with beautiful acoustic strumming and you would end up wondering what this wonderful beast you had happened upon could truly be. Some sort of, well, new favourite band, possibly? Seriously, if you have a chance to make this your first experience of Skogen, do it. For these reasons. It excels everywhere it sufficed in the past.
My one complaint might be that the clanging motif defining 'Svavelpsalm' reminds intolerably of an album I've been digging massively this year, Ascension's nigh-perfect 2010 release Consolamentum - it seems lifted from the song 'Rebellion Flesh'. Whether accidental or not, its a bit of a downer. At least the song itself is redeemed and distinguished via some great blasting moments and a wrathful climax. Still, a small niggle.
Everything else however is so much better this time around, and having done my due diligence and checked out the sophomore Svitjod to get my shit straight, I can tell you this is the album you need by these guys, if any. The songwriting is bigger, more professional; the sound is heavy and clear with a cold, swelling guitar tone; the instrumentation on-point. Even the vocals have improved; deep growls and authentic rasps all over the place. No longer do they wander these forests - now, they stride, forging forth with purpose into primal realms of pagan rule and old gods.