Label: Hypnotic Dirge Records
If any style can be said to capture the zeitgeist of black metal over the past few years – in the way that the Scandinavian second wave did in the mid-90’s, or symphonic did a few years after that – it would be atmospheric black metal. And as with any (relatively) popular style of music, there are a lot of dull, uninspired records being made that aim to be atmospheric and hypnotic, but simply end up feeling dull and boring. So, it makes the discovery of a record like the self-titled album from Kval all the more special. It may be easily recognisable as the nature-inspired atmospheric black metal we all know and (possibly) love, but Kval has a sense of character, strength, and aura that is all too rare.
One of the main failings of much atmospheric black metal is the simple inability to create the desired atmospheres; to hit that sweet spot where repetition becomes hypnotic, and tension is not over-played. Kval quickly reveal themselves to be able to tread this thin line with rare skill. Opening introductory track ‘Usva’ eschews convention, drawing as much from dark ambient as anything else, meaning that when second track ‘Sokeus’ begins, the frostbitten guitars and harsh vocals already have a strong counter-point, making them all the more effective. Likewise, that the band vary the tempos helps greatly, and the way the music shifts its emphasis without losing overall focus is deceptively hypnotic – the way the guitars move between buzzsaw riffs and chilling, icy tremolo-picked melodies is both striking and captivating.
What goes a long way to making Kval such a notable, successful album is that, as much as it draws from atmospheric black metal, there’s also plenty of hints of other styles. A Finnish sense of melody and darkness – similar to that which can be found in the music of bands such as Horna – runs deep in Kval’s veins, most notably on ‘Pokuni Vailla Suuntaa’; whilst Harhainen moves with a sinister grace that has much in common with the best examples of Scandinavian black metal, without ever sounding reminiscent of one particular band. Whereas other, lesser atmospheric black metal albums may focus on one mood or tone, Kval is unafraid to shift and twist upon itself, the atmosphere subtly changing at different points, ensuring that the album is as interesting as it is hypnotic. The inclusion of short interlude track ‘Kaiku Tyhjyydeta’ at the mid-point of the album helps greatly with this, serving as something of a palate cleanser; as does the fact that the drums don’t simply hammer away in the background. They may never be show-stealing, but there is clear evidence that thought has gone in to them, which is something that cannot be said for many other bands of this style.
All of this is secondary though, to the simple fact that Kval is a record where the atmosphere is absolutely right; where the riffs will pull the listener in and keep you held fast for the duration of the album, succeeding whether you choose to treat the album as an hypnotic exercise or actively engage with it. It is all too rare for an atmospheric black metal album to succeed in both counts, and in an age when second-rate Drudkh and Wolves In The Throne Room clones are all too common, Kval stands out as a band and record of singular character.