Sound — 8
Kvelertak are probably the most surprising band that I have come across in the past few months. It isn't that their music is so surprising. I mean, I guess I wasn't expecting a band labeled as Norwegian black metal to sound so much like the hard rock of modern bands like Bloc Party or The Strokes. Kvelertak build on the hard rock sound of the '70s and combine it with modern elements, like scream vocals. The effect is a unique, but not unpredictable brand of rock/metal. It surprises me that there are not more Kvelertaks. It would seem like there a lot of musicians that count '70s and '80s rock titans among their influences. Yet there are so few bands where those influences shine through today. The lack of Kvelertaks in the modern music scene may be what is behind the statements of some, like Flea and Gene Simmons, who declare rock is dead or dying.
So imagine, for a minute, that the genre I picture for Kvelertak is actually populated with many bands. In that world, the first question I would ask is: does Kvelertak represent the upper, middle, or lower echelon of the genre? From this album alone, it feels like Kvelertak would occupy a space in the middle echelon. A couple of notes to start with: this album sounds closer to a traditional hard rock album than Kvelertak's previous two releases, which tend to veer more toward punk; the distinctly metal part of this album is the lead guitar, which is reminiscent of Adrian Smith's early work with Iron Maiden.
Other than these elements, and the scream vocals, this album would seem to possess all the hallmarks of a hard rock album from decades past. There are easily definable verses, pre-choruses, and choruses. The songs are all driven by a catchy guitar riff that is repeated ad infinitum. Sometimes there will be a key change here or there to give the riffs some flair (repeating the same riffs, but in a different key to sound different). As far as rhythm is concerned, the album sticks to beats that are fast, bouncy, and 4/4. There are some songs that have normal or slow beats, but they still feel bouncy. These almost swing beats, easiest to feel on the punk-like "Bronsegud," are what differentiate this album from metal by accentuating the second and fourth beats instead of the first and third, like headbanging metal songs do.
Of course, there are a few short parts of the album that stray from this norm, and to good effect. For example, the beginning of "Berserkr" mixes repetitions of a single chord with a blast beat to enter the song into a brutal, yet trance-like state. The closest thing I can think of to this phenomenon is Deafheaven's standard sound. Also, if this even is enough to count, the chromaticism of the first few seconds on "1985" sounds like a traditional thrash trope. Interestingly, the biggest outlier of the album is its opener, "Dendrofil for Yggdrasil." This song is the closest the music comes to black metal, with blast beats and skin-crawling guitar scales galore.
Lyrics — 7
The vocals just add to the fun of the album, though there is no doubt that the screams ward off some traditional rock fans who find them too annoying or incomprehensible. For others, the idea of listening to an entire album with Norwegian lyrics might be too much of an obstacle. Nevertheless, the vocals are good fun. They fill the verses adequately. They are dynamic, moving from quiet to loud when necessary. The best parts are the choruses, where the non-scream harmonies come in. The harmonies aren't fun just because they're different; they are fun because they make the overall melody sound so whole and fulfilling. There also seems to be a slight correlation between the use of these softer harmonies and the insertion of acoustic guitars. This further reinforcement of the hard/soft contrast gives the mind much needed reprieves after the high energy sections that dominate the album.
Overall Impression — 7
Everything I have discussed about this album so far is positive. I think this album is a lot of fun. And as far as the return of hard rock is concerned, this album could really be a kick in the rear end to the music industry if it does well. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Kvelertak can take their brand of music further than they have here. This album is missing the "it" factor. The title track is a step above the rest, but it still does not get over the hump, so to speak. The riffs are catchy and the grooves could really get a crowd moving, but there is still nothing on this album that really stands out.
It seems that Kvelertak has hit their stride in terms of finding their identity. Now it would be intriguing to see what the band does in a follow up release where they take that identity and exploit every facet of it for the world to hear.