2017 : Shadow Records
Format : LP/CD/Cassette
The most surprising thing about the coming of a new Ofermod album was exactly how little fanfare had greeted it. Perhaps not so much upon further reflection though, as a friend had astutely pointed out that the oversaturation of the black metal market with covens of void-worshipping, qilipothic faceless acolytes had worn the novelty of the Poe-faced, eerily mature, and downright academic approach to extreme metal religiosity pioneered by the initial pack of acts associated with labels like Norma Evangelium Diaboli rather thin. In days where bands seeking to distinguish themselves are spinning off into ever more exotic realms both thematically and musically, wielding ever more discordant and noisy progressions like weapons of mass destruction and substituting the classic satanic paeans with blood-soaked exhortations to Kali Ma, the real “orthodoxy” of a band like Ofermod in the literal sense becomes ever more apparent.
Yet one thing about veterans that somehow manage to continue kindling a semblance of their turbulent, youthful fires is their ability to truly draw out the archetypes of a sound and utilize them effortlessly in songs where they simply sound natural. In that sense, Sol Nox’s formula rests almost entirely upon a core of eerie, De Mysteriis-era Mayhem-esque melodies milked around the hierophantic howls of whatever madman is currently delivering orations for Ofermod’s fane (Johannes Kvarnbrink from Mortuus fame, in this case). Gone completely are the experiments with ritual instrumentation and more convoluted, death metal riffs and structures that had characterized their previous two full-lengths, unflinchingly returning to the bare bones sonic trappings that had initially laid out the band’s infamy on Mysterion Tes Anomias. One cannot say that no modernization occurred between the years though, as new bassist J. Kvarnbrink, or Tehom as he is known on stage, infuses the songwriting with a doom-laden, miasmic sensibility carried from his main gig, especially evident in the mid-paced crawl of tracks such as Smaiut N Set. In general, despite the near identical sonic template, the tracks on Sol Nox seem to lack the urgent insanity of the early work, sauntering as opposed to surging and more likely to maintain a comfortable gnostic meter instead of grabbing you straight by the throat and screaming “EVIL EVIL EVILLLLLL” as if they had something to prove about their level of devotion to their dark gods. Despite their rather limited catalog of releases in all the years they’ve been around, the reputation of Ofermod has long preceded itself, and band founder and main composer Mika ‘Belfagor’ Hakola and his current henchmen sound as comfortable slipping into their music as an old and wealthy businessman into a bespoke suit.
One must take care not to mistake maturity and comfortability for laziness and stagnation though, as that would miss the essence of exactly why Sol Nox’s formula works the way it does. The first thing to notice is that the barrage of dark, draconic melodies never truly let up into anything resembling filler or segue riffs, completely enveloping the listener in a cloud of swirling chaos. While this might seem to sap the songs of dynamics at a cursory listen, the more attentive listener may discern exactly how effortlessly the riffs transition one to another, giving the tracks a holistic logic that removes the need for any more dramatic gestures. Like many heavy metal musicians attempting to elevate their craft’s artistic credibility, Mika talks much about his classical music influences. Far more than mere pretense though, Ofermod’s ability to create subtle variations on a core set of melodies and subsequently progress them into different passages within rather modest song lengths speaks strongly to the band’s compositional prowess. This is demonstrated beautifully on the title track, a testament to the efficiency at which Ofermod is able to cover ground within the modest confines of their basic repertoire of techniques. Being able to extract the utmost out of individual riffs and couple them with a scathing vocal delivery in a structurally sound manner ultimately results in Sol Nox being stuffed with passages that easily glue themselves within the consciousness, hummable without being trite, simple without lacking in nuance. Such characteristics are very indicative of an experienced band that knows exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.
This now takes us to an impossible-to-measure and highly subjective element that devoid of, none of this would work anywhere near as well as it did (in this listener’s humble opinion, of course). The word “Ofermod” itself, translated from archaic Swedish, means arrogance, and getting down to it, few things describe the emotive aesthetic of Sol Nox, or indeed any of the band’s releases, so damn accurately. Now this isn’t the arrogance of a band that lazily vomits out release after release of rehashed material to the point of self-parody, nor the arrogance of a band that reaches beyond its means musically and attempts to redefine a genre, only to flop to a hideous, badly-stitched together chimera of contrived influences. No, this is the arrogance of a band that spits out lines such as:
“through the great Beast of Thagirion
the shadow is made perfect
and as we drink the fatal nectar!
life and death unite in perfect discord
for we have ignited the flame… and the offerings burn!”
as if they were speaking with the very voice of the Beast (and perhaps they are?), who un-ironically makes declarations about a release cleansing the weak face of modern black metal (and who doesn’t these days?) and actually puts out music that is sneering, smug, and fanatical enough to have you buy it, even for a second. We now get back to how effortless Ofermod makes being diabolical sound, and how this is tied to the overwhelming sense of arrogance that permeates their music. This is not to belie that this album isn’t actually intense, one listen to the deluge of overwhelming blackened bliss that is To Dare the Tower will easily convince you otherwise, as will the crescendo of haunting voices floating over a snarling groove on Sun of Dead Seasons, but you never seem to get the impression that the band is actually trying. As much as these chaos Gnostics sing praises to the archetype of Tiamat, they seem to have grown into an ancient dragon in how naturally menacing and humbling experiencing them is. It doesn’t even have to leave its horde to reduce you to a shaking wreck, and neither does Ofermod ever have to leave their comfort zone.
While it may be hard to approach a well-trodden path with as much enthusiasm as when it was still virgin ground, Sol Nox shows that an experienced band can still be capable of fully leveraging the strengths of a sound to create a work that feels at once familiar and awe-inspiring. While one would be hard-pressed to say that it reaches the intensity of Ofermod’s earliest days, and younger bands may outdo them in creativity and raw enthusiasm, Sol Nox nevertheless is a telling demonstration that this old black wyrm still has more than a few things to teach its brood.