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Stratum after Stratum Peeled from the Black Death - 94%

bayern, February 20th, 2017

The first “marriage” between technical death and black metal was achieved by the Finns Nomicon on their magnificent “Yellow” opus in the distant 1997. However, they didn’t quite start a trend with this eponymous effort as the rest of the practitioners kept those two styles strictly separated except for the guitar wizard Toby Knapp (Onward) who saw the potential in this combustible blend, and based the repertoire of his first short-lived (1996-1998) project Darken on it entirely, resulting in some really good atmospheric intricately-woven music.

The main issue with mixtures of the kind is that the band really have to use very advanced precise “scales” in order to properly measure the two ingredients; the slightest imbalance in such a mix would either lead to badly disguised intricate death metal, or to multi-layered diverse black metal landscapes. Drottnar boldly ventured into this amalgam, and have been successful in pulling it out on two full-lengths so far. An admirable achievement having in mind that they started their career in the midst of the second wave of black metal which was “raging” in their motherland in the mid-90’s. The first incarnation was named Vitality, and the guys defied the ruling forces by choosing to play death metal alongside another innovative act from their motherland, Molested (later Borknagar), who appeared at around the same time. They managed to release two demos before changing their name to Drottnar. One of the first things the band did under this new moniker was to re-release the demos’ material as the “Spiritual Battle” compilation (2000).

The release of the “Anamorphosis” EP in 2003 was the first sign that this act wouldn’t sit around playing some banal, conventional death metal, but would try to break the rigid formulas of the existing genres by incorporating more original ideas and valiant innovative decisions. The delivery had shifted more towards symphonic black metal with weird time-signatures breaking the orthodox strides at every corner. A further consolidation of their original style was made with their full-length debut “Welterwerk” (2006) which also introduced death metal back to the fore the resulting symbiosis a most delectable progressive/technical affair placing both genres into a less aggressive, more abstract plane together with another similar work released the same year, the Spaniards Unreal Overflows’ “Architecture of Incomprehension”.

With death metal diversified into various directions in the new millennium, thanks to the pioneering endeavours of acts like Drottnar, it was time for retrospection which took wholesome six years before the band struck again. In 2012 innovation was hardly the name of the game on the music scene, but the Norwegians' new opus was a wonder to listen to nonetheless. It may actually scare the unprepared with the amorphous spastic, quite dynamic beginning of “We March” which sees the guys “marching” forward with the inclusion of short blast-beating passages; the surreality commences before long with atonal, dissonant rifforamas crossing each other pacified by minimalistic doomy additions. “Slave” is actually “a master” excluding the overlong drum intro, with its appetizing hectic arrangements which inaugurate a blasting black metal cacophony first, before creepy jarring abstractism “invades” the second half its thunder stolen by the super-fast ending. “Cul-De-Sac” throws in beaufitul enchanting melodies on top of the weird outlandish riff-formulas which get interrupted by a sudden speedy interlude.

“Soul Suburbia” is a crunchy doomy number with abrupt fast-paced deathy insertions, a spacey oblivious saga except for those death metal brutalities which are by all means an asset with their intricate, very technical character. “Seven Suns Shining” has a most sudden sharp intro which smacks the listener right in the middle of the technical black/death metal cavalcade which twists and turns into all possible directions with a lot of dizzying stop-and-go techniques featured, piled on top of the very hectic atonal/dissonant “parade” which reaches hallucinogenic proportions when a few sparse blast-beats spring up near the end. “Lucid Stratum” follows the same very eventful pattern the guys playing quite fast raising the flag of symphonic black metal higher in this case leaving the more elusive intricate side for the mid-break. “Ersatz” pounds its way onward in a jumpy Confessor-esque fashion, but the technical dynamics resume on full-throttle accompanied by more or less expected hyper-blasts the latter also handsomely provided on “Wolves & Lambs” which blasts its way in the most stylish manner imaginable, providing the more digestible and more melodic alternative to the Deathspell Omega chaos also recalling the more recent, and better, “atrocities” of Mayhem; subdued technical doomy black-isms undermine the aggression to capture the second half and the quiet ending.

Death metal has stepped down again to some extent, and now the fans have a great example of technical black metal for more than half the time, a delivery which is way more convincing and more labyrinthine that the last few works of Abigor, for instance, which supposedly pass for technical black metal as well. With this album the band shifted further away from their death metal roots thus only partially belonging now to the group of death metal expanders like Morbus Chron, Flourishing, Tribulation, Horrendous, etc. although in spirit and execution this opus recalls the finest recordings from the group like Beheaded Zombie’s “Happiness for All” and Serdce’s “The Alchemy of Harmony” (both 2009).

The band’s arsenal is fairly wide and inordinately diverse, and it seems as though the black metal confines won’t be able to hold them for long. They were actually expected to branch out into the unknown with the album reviewed here since the foundations were laid out only too well on the debut… well, their black heart is holding still although the extreme progressive metal arena is beckoning auteurs like them in order to merge the boundaries between the genres until it all becomes one big complicated melee. At least in the Drottnar case there will be quite a few surprises, all of them pleasant of course, including another potential delightful tribute to the black/death “love affair”.

A step up from its predecessor. - 85%

MetalFRO, October 4th, 2013

When I was a kid, it was common to see a new record from many bands each year. With the music industry in what was probably the height of its reign, bands almost had to do so in order to keep themselves relevant, keep new product available, singles on the radio, and keep the tour buses rolling. Artists who spent years away in between albums either had to rely on a rabid fan base, or just be THAT GOOD, where it didn't matter how long they'd been away - fans were going to eat up whatever they put out. Today's modern music "industry" landscape is much different. With the internet allowing bands to connect directly with and market to fans, long stints between albums is no longer a factor, other than the usual "Musical ADD" that some folks have.

I don't think Drottnar has that problem, in part because their music is niche enough to escape the attention of the crop of folks that would suffer from that "Musical ADD". And to, Drottnar's music has become a unique enough beast that, even if others were copying what they were doing, there's still no substitute for the genuine article. So while fans who dug the limited release "Anamorphosis" EP (good little release) may have thought 3 years was a long time to wait for the unexpected shift toward the self-dubbed "bunker metal" of "Welterwerk", imagine how much agony those same fans were in during the 6-year wait between that album and this new release, "Stratum"! Suffice to say, I think the wait was worth it.

Much like its predecessor, "Stratum" is a difficult album to penetrate at first. There is the standard instant gratification of much metal, in that it's an immediately visceral and intense experience, with grinding guitars, pounding drums, fast riffing, thumping bass, and vocals that could peel the paint off your house. But beneath the surface, there's a lot going on, and if you're not listening closely enough, you'll miss it. That's because this is no longer the primitive black metal sound the band was playing on early demos, or even the slightly more tuneful stuff on "Anamorphosis". No, friends, this is music that requires time and attention to appreciate fully. And it's time you'll want to invest, because this is a worthwhile conquest.

Right away it's evident that the album, on the whole, is a bit more straightforward than "Welterwerk", at least in terms of the songs. There are fewer bits that seem to meander, and most of the songs are well constructed and get to the point soon enough, and then don't wander off into aimless territory toward the end like a couple tracks on "Welterwerk" that went on too long. This is a more refined Drottnar, and for the better. You may also notice that this album hits harder immediately and sounds heavier, in part because it's louder. This album isn't going to win the "loudness war" going on in modern metal, however, because it's still easy to get separation of instruments and hear what's going on. You just won't have to crank up the stereo quite as much before you get the "Memorex" effect of being blown away by it all.

The guitar sound is quite similar to "Welterwerk", in that it mirrors that slightly thinner black metal sound and feel, having more in common with dark thrash than death metal. The distortion isn't as chunky as you might expect, but the effect is no less scathing, as the riffing and guitar tone still combine to create a heavy experience. The riffs employ a lot of dissonant and dis-harmonic sounds, much like the previous album, so that adds to the overall atmosphere of the album. Bass guitar is evident, and provides a nice thump behind the guitar tone, occasionally doing enough of its own thing to prompt you to listen specifically to the bass. Drums sound great here, with a nice "thumpy" bass drum sound (as opposed to the overly "clicky" sound on many albums), and a snappy snare tone. Between the slow, groove-based drumming, the blast beats, and the various fills and rolls provided due to the use of odd time signatures, the drum work rarely gets stale or uninteresting. Vocally, Sven-Erik Lind sounds much as he did on "Welterwerk", with that piercing, raspy black metal styled shriek he has employed. For those that think there isn't much expression or range in a vocal like that, this album is a good example of how that's just not true - plenty of inflection, emotion, and "vocal shaping" are employed here to great effect. There are also a handful of moments where choir vocals are used for a bit of atmosphere - it's subtle and not overdone, so it works well here.

In terms of the album as a whole, it's a frenetic experience, from the opening chords of "We March" and the twisting, winding guitar lines of "Cul-De-Sac" (an ironic song title, to be sure), through the album's centerpiece tracks "Soul Suburbia", with its almost movement-like structure, and "Seven Suns Shining" with its odd timed groove and excellent riffing. On the back side of the experience, the intensity of "Ersatz" and winding sound of "Wolves and Lambs" cap things off nicely. There's barely a respite moment between songs, either, as many tracks flow right into each other (best exemplified by the lack of a pause between "Lucid Stratum" and "Ersatz"), so aside from a couple spots where the tempo slows for effect, the album doesn't really let up until the final moments of "Wolves and Lambs". The experience of listening to the album is intense, and after just 38 minutes, you feel as though the journey was longer than that, because it's exhausting and exhilarating at once.

My biggest complaints with the album are minor, but worth mentioning. As I just mentioned, the album is only 38 minutes long. A 6-year wait and only 38 minutes? This is partially muted because the quality of the material is high, and because it means the transition to vinyl is easier (which I plan to take advantage of), but still, it's a little thin. In addition, the aforementioned lack of transition between tracks can occasionally be confusing, because unless you're paying attention to what track is playing, you may not even realize that you've just listened to 3 songs in a row, rather than 1 really long song. After repeated listens, this diminishes some, as you begin to learn the songs as slightly more individual entities versus one large blur, but it's still a minor complaint. Perhaps also worth mentioning is the artwork - the gas mask trope has been overdone in modern metal and rock, and while it's more relevant with Drottnar (because gas masks are a part of their stage presence), it still feels a little "phoned in", like they should have done something a bit more creative than a simple black and white photo with somebody wearing a gas mask, even if it does slightly illustrate the stark and cold nature of the music.

Even with those complaints, I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album over the last several weeks, and imagine I'll come back to it more than "Welterwerk", which I think is the indicator that matters most. "Welterwerk" at times left me cold, not wanting more, but a little confused as to what they were doing. "Stratum", on the other hand, is a much more focused and effective distillation of the so-called "bunker metal" sound Drottnar have developed, and these songs have thus far impacted me more than any on its predecessor. That's progress, and that's why I think this is not only the best thing they've done so far, but also a great jumping-off point for the band to really go places. Bravo to the band for their best album so far, and here's hoping the next one doesn't take 6 years to make. Recommended.

Originally posted on MetalFRO's Musings: