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The Night... - 100%

Nightgaunt, April 16th, 2009

For as long as music has existed, there has always been some segment of it--however small, marginal, or obscure (forgotten?)--that has belonged to the night. From ancient pastoral music to the vivacious, synthetic libidoloop soundtrack of tomorrow's nightclubs, it is there...somewhere. Classical, blues, jazz, country, folk, rock, punk, electro...even pop, or anything else that one might feasibly conceive of, all harbor at least some small number of expressions--a few artists, a few albums, a few songs, perhaps even just a few notes--inspired by, dedicated to, or otherwise redolent of the night. The character, nature, and subject matter of these expressions are of many variations; as numerous as are the stars that hang in the night sky. Mystery; vitality; serenity. The hidden; the open; the free. Dreams and nightmares; peace and unrest ; beginnings and endings. Absolute shrieking terror, religious awe, unrelenting bloodlust, and young love. All of this and so much more...a panoply of what one might call "nocturnal emissions of the soul."

Of course, such odes are far more anomalous in some musical traditions than in others. Metal is no stranger to the night. Indeed, if anything, it belongs far more to the night than to the day, flourishing under the moon rather than the tactless, boorish sun. All true forms of metal are at home in the night, though some are more given to earnestly exploring its depths and portents than are others. Death, doom, and particularly black metal regularly treat directly with the night--what it means, what it stands for, how it feels, or perhaps simply what lurks within it. Yes, metal abounds with recountances of starlitten sabbaths, tales of the tenebrously vibrant "life" that graveyards, tombs, and crypts see at night, odes to old castles by moonlight, and spirited retellings of Satan's many naughty nocturnal nightcaps in the nunnery down the block, to name but a few; each a picture painted or story told with sound. But even if metal is closer to the night than most other traditions, its expressions, too, are but particular shades--mere molecules--of the night. Even in metal, pieces that truly capture the essence of the night itself are exceedingly rare.

Rare, but extant. Sjel av Natten is such a piece. This EP, in its roughly thirty minutes, fleetingly encapsulates all that the is the night. Not as a range of moods and shades, but a single one...the one that in some way encompasses all of the countless others. This is not simply of the night; in a sense, it is the night, discrete from any simple qualifier. Its sound is not readily classified as either pessimistic or optimistic; neither malevolent nor benevolent; and certainly nothing so fleeting and as "evil" or "good."

The quality of the recording itself reminds of nothing quite so much as a laid back old rock record--sounding something like an America cut with a bit of additional electric bite and more percussive presence, perhaps. Simple, yet spacious. The main electric, anything but domineering or showy, is a smooth not-quite-blur, like the sound of a stream over aeon-rounded stones in its bed, or perhaps like the night wind. A relatively gentle, even lulling, sound. This is not to say that the electric strings take after the "hypnodrone" approach--not at all. Much as a night wind will often neither buffet like a fist nor carve like a knife, but rather suddenly snake its way through chinks in one's clothing, bringing a slight chill; or sinuously and suddenly change direction and intensity, stroking one about the face playfully, but stirringly; so too do these usually minor-key, often slyly rock-tinged guitar melodies have a way of becoming the center of attention when one least expects it. Initially, the riffs will sort of introduce themselves to you and then fade into the background--the electrics work at the bottom of the mix most of the time--only to occasionally glide forth with a graceful doomy sweep, perhaps accompanied by a clean, clear lead, though these are used very sparingly. Indeed, the album has no one particular "lead instrument." The role is at times taken up by the lead electric, at times by the ever-shifting acoustic accompaniment, and quite often by the bass. The latter is played in a versatile style, alternating between providing a mist-cloaked firmament for the airier electrics and acoustics to work against, and itself leading the way with cool, clean, decidedly "vintage" melodies, clear and eloquent, yet subtle and restrained.

The string section as a whole is lower in the mix than the drum track, which might seem odd, but it functions quite well--drumming is primarily a simple, steady rock-based beat (there is not a single full-fledged blast to be found here, although parts of "Hvor Vinteren Rår" come close), adorned with modest yet quite classy rolls and fills here and there for emphasis. The final element, the vocals, are of the (what would now be called 'traditional') throaty shrieking style popularized by Varg Vikerness, though Torkelsen sounds a bit more restrained (perhaps refined) than Vikerness, and he tends to enunciate more clearly. There is very little variation in this department outside of some occasional echo--nor does there need to be. Memorable lyrics, a unique voice, a bizarre or over-the-top style, and general vocal-chord-Kama-Sutra may all be well and good in their own right, but not one of them is a perfect substitute for genuine feeling and conviction, which Torkelsen exudes in spades.

Like the recording itself, the sense of composition is both quite natural and remarkably spacious. As with the night, all is in harmony; each performance fully individuated yet engaged in a constant (if subtle) interplay with all of the others...The main electric the susurrus of the night wind through the trees and valleys and over the mountaintops; the expressive bass sounding through and sometimes above, as the howl of the wolf; acoustic guitars waxing, waning, and sometimes flourishing, as the songs of the nightbirds; the elusive lead electric cutting through the melodious din now and again, as the higher, more capricious voice of the coyote...The humble, yet steadfast drumming as the passing of time, carrying the whole interminably forward, all underlying Torkelsen's vocal reflection of the "mind at night." Each of the three lengthy songs is centered on a distinct melody/theme augmented by a few subsidiary melodies. Always instantly and eminently captivating in and of themselves, these central melodies are introduced early on, and then alternately emphasized and de-emphasized as the song progresses; sometimes downplayed or paused for a folksy set-piece, moody black metal dirge, or closer look at one of the sub-melodies, and at other times highlighted as all of the melodic themes come into alignment with a sublime sense of timing. While it's plain to see (hear, rather) that the three songs are part of one focused work, each is quite distinct from its cohorts--the expansive metal sweep and immaculate pacing of "Sjel av Natten"; the indescribably haunting "En Natt Med Storm Og Ravners Skrik", with its chill bass-lead theme, ghostly clean humming, and striking lead; and the darkly wistful focus of the alternately dreary and energetic "Hvor Vinteren Rår"--boundlessness, mystery, and nostalgia, respectively.

Those interested few of you who missed this treasure the first time around can still find it in the form of Forgotten Woods' boxset Baklengs mot Stupet, which I understand collects 99% of the band's recorded material to date. But doesn't need you. It doesn't need me. It doesn't need anybody, even those very few who might reasonably be said to "belong" to it. But for these magical thirty minutes, the night will, perhaps paradoxically, welcome you into its eternally aloof and ever-mysterious realm.