Reviewed: May 2022
Released: 2022, Black Lion Records
Reviewer: The Flâneur
Two years after the release of Kvaen’s highly successful debut, The Funeral Pyre, we are treated to his sophomore opus, The Great Below. The Great Below continues the energetic technical style set out in The Funeral Pyre, taking it to new melodic heights – particularly in the realm of guitar solos. Kvaen is definitely highly proficient with the guitar, and he has really showcased this in the eight-tracked record, specifically in the fifth track Sulphur Fire – though, the three guest guitar solos also add to it. In fact, guitar solos often appear in spaces in which one would not expect them to be. While this might be a fun and diversifying addition for some, it might equally be off-putting for others – especially those who never really grasped the appeal of heavy or power metal (this writer is, incidentally, one such heretic). However, even though these solos could be deemed distracting (and a little show-off-y) by some, they are still truly impressive, and contribute beautifully to a record full of fast riffage and even faster drumming, varied vocals, pastoral synths, and skilful storytelling.
The Great Below is indeed a very diverse record. It has so many fantastic elements masterfully combined within it. And, I genuinely think that the architect of the project – Jakob Björnfot – has the potential to create truly pioneering music. However, as close as this album is, it falls a little short off it, and there is a very particular reason as to why. The Great Below is just so busy, so focused on combining this many elements and genres perfectly, be them black, thrash, speed, or pagan metal, that it ends up sounding somewhat…unremarkable. I swear I’ve heard so many similar albums, yet I can’t remember their names or the names of the bands who produced them, because they all sound approximately the same – incredible, full of talent and promise, but samey in their aspiration of being new and ground-breaking. I love them the first time I listen to them, and in a week’s time, they’re all but forgotten. At this point, I’m getting tired of repeating what seems to have become my mantra: too much experimentation often leads to the exact opposite results than those intended.
This doesn’t in any way, shape, or form, mean that The Great Below is not a good album. In fact, it’s really quite remarkable. It will definitely give Kvaen more exposure and buzz on the metal scene – though, maybe not as much on the black metal scene in particular. This might be because the record simply doesn’t sound very much like black metal. I’m in no way a black metal purist, but in 2022, blackgaze seems closer to me to black metal than Kvaen’s exact blend of genres. And, that’s not a bad thing at all – it might even be intentional. On the one hand, Björnfot is a genuine fan of all these genres, and that much is clear. But, on the other, he may or may not also have a desire for more inter-genre appeal, even if subliminally. A testimony to this are the numerous cameos of celebrated musicians from across the metal spectrum. On the second track, also titled The Great Below, Jeff Loomis (Arch Enemy, ex-Nevermore) has contributed a guitar solo. The third one, In Silence, contains guest vocals from Netherbird’s Nephente. The following piece, Damnations Jaw, has another guest guitar solo, this time from Mike Wead, of King Diamond and Mercyful Fate fame. Sebastian Ramstedt of Necrophobic has supplied the final guest guitar solo of the record on its sixth track – Ensamvarg (the writer’s favourite). Finally, Finntroll’s Vreth’s vocals can be heard on the closing piece – The Fire within Him Burns. Angus Norder (Nekrokraft), Robin Mattson (Meadows End), Rasmus Rova (Autumn Death), and Tommi Tukhala on drums complete the line-up for The Great Below.
With such a star-studded cast, it’s hard not to give this album (and Björnfot) extra points for slotting it all together – and additional points for networking. It’s honestly scarily impressive. I wouldn’t be able to organise a birthday party if it required separately contacting more than three people, let alone a whole album full of contributions from members of some of the leading bands on the Scandinavian metal scene. But then again, I don’t have to – I can just leave that to Björnfot, and anticipate his next record, whenever it comes. No pressure.