Hyvinkaa, Finland’s Vargrav have far exceeded the trappings of your average black Metal act. Brilliantly masterminded by multi-instrumentalist, V-KhaoZ, Netherstorm is quickly proving to be a crucial piece of Finnish metal history. With its precise execution and terrifying undertones, this outstanding debut appears to have but one missive on its agenda-Finnish Black Metal Supremacy.
Adorned in corpse paint and battle gear, startling images of V-KhaoZ grace the album’s ominous gatefold. The photography is strikingly evocative, deeply drawing the listener in to another dimension of experience. To be clear, the conceptual art leaves no room for irony and succeeds wildly by instilling an overwhelming sense of impending doom in the listener.
The music itself is pure black metal magick. Obvious comparisons to peers in bands like Dark Throne and Emperor ultimately hang limp when held up to this magnum opus. Any outside influences simply provide a skeletal framework for Vargrav’s barely containable compositions.
As the opening strains of the title track wrap their thorn laden tendrils around our collective throats, I feel a sudden surge of panic. During “Netherstorm”s intro, a sparse, synth driven melody hovers just out of reach above churning doomsday tremors. Consumed by a tsunami of symphonic crescendos, the line quickly vanishes into an aural fog. The effect is awe-inspiring. By the time the guitars come screaming in, they are riding on waves of sheer devastation. My heart nearly stops dead as the haunted vocals enter the fray. Purposefully placed subtly in the mix, these harrowing wails and anguished cries are unlike anything I have ever heard. If it is possible to channel literal evil, Vargrav does so with ease and malevolence.
Next up, we are treated to a brief reprieve in the form of a twisted fugue that sends us spiraling ever further down the rabbit hole. The relief is short lived however, as we have merely been transported into the second ring of Hell. Here, in “Shadowed Secrets Unmasked”, V-KhaoZ showcases his extraordinary percussive abilities. With particular emphasis on the ride cymbal during the chorus, he blasts through dense orchestration with little effort. Massive bouts of choral chanting lend a decidedly sinister atmosphere throughout. The result is a perfect balance between two musical worlds.
“Limbo of Abysmal Void” wastes no time in getting to the darkened heart of the matter. Impressive tremolo guitar work gets things moving in a more traditional direction straight away. The note choices and general trend of the song are fascinating in their capacity to meander outside of the box. Despite this unique take on the craft, the sound never comes across lofty or at worst experimental. This is definitely one of the album’s stand outs.
“Ethereal Visions of a Monumental Cataclysm” continues along the lines of the album’s symphonic premise but this time features some of the most inconceivably vile vocals known to me at present. There is a progressive element that lingers just below the surface on this title, but again it’s presented with taste.
Nearing the end of our blissfully dreary journey now, things are slowed down to more of a funeral doom pace with “Obedient Intolerant Ensnared” (sic). This a melancholic piece well suited to the denouement of Netherstorm. Wave after wave of infernal organ and distorted guitar wash over the speakers to cleanse the palate with the blood of the Lamb. With vocals subdued we get an even clearer vision of the ambiance intended by Vargrav’s instrumentation.
We are guided back up and out of the experience through the “Outro”, a meditative reflection on the horrors we’ve witnessed herein. The doom and gloom remains seething beneath the undertow but for now we are safe.
Included in the limited edition release are two bonus tracks pressed on 7” vinyl. “The Glory of Eternal Night” exemplifies Vargrav’s penchant for atmospheric flourishes and sweeping background orchestration. One could easily imagine this played in an empty cathedral, so rich are its textures.
The second bonus is a cover of Emperor’s “Ancient Queen”. Gone are the lo-fi nuances that made the original so intentionally inaccessible. Vargrav sets his own spin to the song exposing it to a space where it can be heard in all its iniquitous glory.