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Quality falling down a mountain - 59%

quickbeam, April 22nd, 2018

Going through the discography of Hermóðr chronologically makes me realise how hit and miss the act is. With The Howling Mountains, Rafn unfortunately realises a pattern of following up a great work of sorrowful, atmospheric black metal with an album which can fairly be described as rather poor. Interestingly, the contrasts between these two substandard collections are sharp: Krigstid is a bloated behemoth of an album, and an attempt to execute a more grim and gritty style of black metal; but The Howling Mountains is practically half its length and probably the furthest Hermóðr has strayed from traditional black metal so far. Granted, there are black metal fans who would doubt the suitability of Hermóðr’s previous releases being included in the genre – understandable, I suppose, given its trademark slow percussion and soft-sounding guitars – but it usually wore that Burzum influence on its sleeve. This album, however, does not sound like Burzum; this is basically a post-rock album, and features a few guitar techniques – specifically the note-bending he does a couple of times – which actually remind me of indie-rock from the 90s. As with Krigstid, I credit Rafn for trying out new things, and every album he has released until now has certainly displayed unique aspects. However, the music of Hermóðr was already verging on soft, and this album is, sadly, as gentle as a lamb.

This isn’t the only issue, though. The other crucial problem with The Howling Mountains is that there are simply no great tracks and a dearth of memorable sequences. This is especially galling because a major criticism I have had of Hermóðr’s previous output is that too many tracks go on for too long, and I have often felt that more of Rafn’s attention should be spent on shorter tracks – especially given the quality of those he created for What Once Was Beautiful. But here we have an entire album of – by Hermóðr’s standards – short tracks, and the result is disappointing. The best bits here are at the start: ‘The Mystic Forest’ and ‘Farewell’ follow a similar formula, beginning fairly simply before switching up and introducing the type of dramatic, emotional melody which Hermóðr is known for. ‘At the Last Chapter’ is also interesting and at least recognisably in the black metal tradition, featuring a nice Horna-style riff and a very desolate, gloomy atmosphere; but even this track doesn’t quite work out, veering this way and that near the end and ultimately fizzling out. The title-track which closes the album also fizzles out and, somewhat tragically – considering the tremendous effect created by keyboards on the previous album – features irritating plinky piano sounds which further detract from the unsatisfying song. The Darkness of December felt like a great leap forward; unfortunately, this album is another miss from Hermóðr, and as I listen to it I feel quite dispirited that he seems to be forsaking the elements which have made his previous music so appealing.

Can't touch this (with Google) - 65%

gasmask_colostomy, December 7th, 2017

My feelings about Hermóðr are not easily summed up, though I must say that my second impression (my first is coming up in a minute) was that more people would probably listen to mainman Rafn's music if his bandname didn't contain two bloody non-standard letter symbols, one of which it's not even possible to make on my phone keyboard. That the name never gets changed to Hermordr or Hermothr - both of which would be near-correct phonetically - makes it all the harder to search for music or information online, since you aren't likely to find an album like this by accidental googling or anything similar. This obstacle was quite probably Rafn's intention though, seeing as Hermóðr is a project that takes great pains to maintain Nordic atmospheres and authenticity (everything until 2015's What Was Once Beautiful was in his native Swedish), meaning that the people who know how to find the band are probably the people who are supposed to find the band, not any metalhead and his dog.

All the same, it's a quite legitimate statement that you wouldn't need to be a metalhead to enjoy the majority of the songs on The Howling Mountains, seeing as this is a downbeat and nostalgic trip through the kind of scenery depicted on the cover and doesn't play up the heaviness of the black metal heritage that the style has. The basic idea is to take the fuzzy, hypnotic repetition of Burzum, which included Varg's tortured shrieks and philosophical stabs, meld it together with the epic journeying feel of later Bathory, then add in some post-black elements that leave this feeling very natural and light in comparison to those bands and closer in feel to Alcest or even the post-rock crew of Mogwai et al. This all means that if you like your black metal to contain blastbeats and shrieks, you ain't gonna have no joy here. This is most certainly a relaxed way to look back at the Norselands, as if there had never been any Vikings or the takeover of Christianity a millennium ago, two subjects that have fuelled furnaces of anger in some of the more visceral of bands strongly connected with their northern homelands.

What we get instead is a slow, textured sprawl of sentimentality and atmosphere that works on some levels but not on others. My earliest acquaintance with the music of Hermóðr was through the views of another user of this website, who, it's safe to say, can be termed a fanboy. His reaction to some of the most recent material from Rafn was to mention its timeless quality and epic scope, plus the way that the "melting voice" affected the feeling of the music. Now, I'm pretty sure that in certain moods this would strike me as an entrancing release, since it has a kind of weightless feeling that means you don't really need drugs to get totally out of your body, especially if you feel quite tired or emotional or are carried away by the music. However, I'm not usually in any of the aforementioned states and wouldn't be much good at putting my feelings into words if I were, so I don't feel as strongly about the atmospheric clutches of The Howling Mountains as that fan. On the other hand, I can't figure out at all what the "melting voice" is supposed to refer to, since (here, anyway) Rafn uses all harsh vocals. They are a little bit more harsh and focused on 'Snow and Ice', but then again that song is rather heavier than most others too.

On the subject of 'Snow and Ice', it's more to my taste to see a song like this pick up the intensity a little and add more intricacies into a very plain formula that borders dreamy and hypnotic on one side and endless and tiring on the other. The distinction between the two is mostly down to the rhythm at which Rafn goes through the songs, settling for a slowish drum beat that rarely alters from simple timekeeping, meaning that the experience can sound monotonous, like a long afternoon spent browsing through an abandoned museum about ancient culture. 'Östergötland' is another place in which some energy is added to the riffing, though the guitar diversions all come later in the track listing, which seems like a weird choice, given that the first half drifted so aimlessly for most of its length. In summary, I don't find The Howling Mountains a compelling listen, though this kind of dreamy post-black metal certainly has worse disciples and poorer showings. Hermóðr proves that Rafn knows his roots very well - it's just a shame he didn't fall farther from the tree.