No, this isn’t the billionth occurrence of a website discussing the history of black metal. You guys are probably good on that. Nay, fellow traveler, this is the history of the brave, the strong, and the courageous individuals who have explored this harsh and hideous Earth. This is a telling of triumph, of perseverance, and of great loss. This, my friends, is the story of the last, tragic expedition of the famed Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. His final days are told to us by newcomers Grey Aura through their ambitious double album, Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort.
Forgive me for dramatically leading up to a long album title that essentially amounts to gibberish for English-speakers, but what’s done is done. The quick recap that you need to know before we dive in is that this is an excellent product, full of memorable riffs, biting cold, dramatic tension, and sincere stylistic variety. As mentioned above, this double album is a concept work that describes the final expedition of Willem Barentsz, a 16th century arctic explorer who went on three expeditions to the far north in search of the Northwest Passage. Grey Aura is a Dutch black metal band that, prior to this release, only had one EP to their name. While it is a quality effort in the vein of depressive black metal, it doesn’t begin to hint at the ambition and scope of Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort.
The album boasts a cast of voice actors portraying different scenes along Barentsz’s voyage. Scattered throughout both discs, these narrative tracks both draw listeners deeper into the explorer’s story and provide landmarks throughout the imposing length of the double album. The story begins with one of these spoken word tracks, setting the tone of Barentsz and his determination. It explodes into “Naar het noorden” (Toward the North), where we get the first proper taste of Grey Aura. Like the biting winds of the unforgiving Arctic, the vocals waste no time in cutting to the listener’s core in a harsh, bitter rasp. The guitar work is perpetually soaked in a bleak sense of melodicism, creating a mood where it isn’t the least bit difficult to imagine Barentsz in his ship, setting northward where, according to commentary in the album’s liner notes, “all light and heat disappeared behind thick layers of fog.”
Barentsz was on one of two ships that set sail on this particular voyage, which would be his last. After almost a month of sailing through harsh winds and bitter cold, the convoy discovered Bear Island on June 9, the southernmost island in the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago. You should be aware that this was in 1596, when the world was still being mapped and centuries would pass before central heating would become a spark of an idea. The men noted that “no trees, no greenery, no flora could be found. All of the north of the island was buried, it seemed – cold and dead beneath layers of pure, white snow.”
Just over a week later, the expedition discovered another island in the cluster: Spitsbergen. They were eventually forced to turn back—as another narration track portrays—due to impassable ice. They once again found themselves at Bear Island, after “the forked tongues of frozen waves licked and spat the ship out from the mouth of one strange island to another.” As the tumultuous drumming and insistent rhythms in “Tweestrijd” (Conflict) imply, an argument arose that would eventually condemn many in the party to death. Disagreements in direction led the two ships to pursue separate courses. The track gradually tapers out, conjuring an aural image of the other ship sailing away portentously into the thick fog. “De wind blies” (The Wind Blew) employs repetitive rhythms that could easily find a home in a Baroque dance suite to convey the crew’s creeping sense of isolation in the absence of a sister ship, and mournful guitar lines conjure feelings of the short Arctic summer drawing to a close. The ship, now renamed Windhond after the ship Barentsz helmed on his previous journey to the North, fought its way through a complex system of ice off the coast of Novaya Zemlya. A wonderfully desolate closing track portrays their struggles, deftly employing piano melodies and icy, windswept vocal passages that weigh heavy with a sense of desperation.
The second disc of the album opens with “Een bevriezende zee” (A Freezing Sea). The crew of the Windhond found themselves at the northernmost point of Novaya Zemlya, a long and narrow island north of Russia. Solid ice to the north kept the ship moving east, but in that direction they eventually found the Kara Sea frozen over as well. Discouraged at this route being closed to them, the ship maneuvered back south along the eastern shoreline of Novaya Zemlya. The 8-plus minute track depicts the struggle brilliantly; there’s a creeping sense of doom in the steadily pounding rhythm underneath the melody at 2:50, not unlike an increasingly worrisome amount of ice beating against the ship. It steadily builds to an all-out panic at 4:15, when the minds of the crew still fought hopelessly against what they knew to be true. A brief respite in the track breaks loose in a tumultuous outro as reality sets in: the ship is stuck in a sea of solid ice.
I’m not entirely sure of what to make of the first of the two “Tussenspel” (Interlude) tracks in terms of the historical outline, but from a structural standpoint in the album it works wonderfully. This first interlude (subtitled “Vorst, or “Frost”) is track two on disc two, and it revisits the dance-like rhythms and structure from earlier in the album. The inclusion of that style at multiple points throughout the album creates an air of sincerity, allowing us to believe that we’re immersed in an age left to the history books. As our dance abruptly ends, my personal high point of the album shrieks out of the foggy, frozen landscape.
At this point, the crew knows their only choice is to leave the ship and seek—or make—shelter on the ice. After days of exploration and trudging through ice and arctic wind, they salvaged downed trees in order to make a small wooden house on the ice. It was a nightmarish task that claimed the life of the crew’s carpenter, but they were in a race against time as the sun slowly sank on the horizon. They knew that in that part of the world during that time of the year, it would be the last time they saw true daylight for months. Now back to my favorite part of the album: “Het behouden huys” (The Safe House) opens with a garish, otherworldly shriek that rips apart the already howling wind. Wrought with pain and desperation, the cry easily recalls the poor and tormented souls fighting for survival as the merciless elements swirl pitilessly around their haggard forms. The track continues at a mid-paced trudge through coldly melodic riffing, with another appearance of the opening vocal shrieks as the instruments take the role of the harsh wintry air.
Despite the setting of the sun, the crew still had work to do to haul the contents of the ship to the hut. Being forced to battle against -25C winds and perpetual darkness, it was several weeks before the 16-man crew fully moved into the makeshift shelter. Scurvy had set in for some, but those able to work were continuously making trips back and forth from the ship for anything to improve the tiny house. The coal from the ship was eventually used for a more sustainable fire, and their spirits were lifted with a steadily burning fire. The passage of time, however, took its toll, as demonstrated through the dialogue in “Winterkou” (Winter Cold) and the icy, haunting melodies in “Bedrog” (Deceit). Scurvy settled in for Barentsz and most of the crew. Trips to the ship became less fruitful. Polar bear tracks were more and more frequent around the hut. Above all, no fire could truly keep out the biting cold. On one outing to the ship, crew members took the first record of an atmospheric phenomena called the Novaya Zemlya Effect, which briefly gave the appearance of a sunrise despite its true return being weeks away. That dashed hope gnawed at the men, like the vicious wind as they hauled firewood across darkness and ice.
The second “Tussenspel” track, subtitled “En open zee” (An Open Sea) and the following track “IJshoek” partner together well, restating the Baroque dance rhythms as the long arctic winter ends and the crew can take small boats out on the sea as it begins to thaw. That hope for home is tempered by the now-severe illness of Barentsz, as well as the bitter weather conditions that are no less unfavorable. An excerpt from a crewman’s journal tells of the utter hopelessness they see in Barentsz and his worsening condition. Their leader was defeated, and he knew then he would die at sea in their small boat as it is battered by yet another blizzard. “Day and night had converged into a single, timeless nightmare” as the men battled for survival against walls of ice and howling wind. One crewman jumped overboard to scale an ice floe with a rope, fighting a difficult path over a glacier and intending to tow the craft to the shoreline on the other side. The last track of the double album, “Nu alle troost ontbrak” (Now That All Solace Was Absent) tells of these struggles, and of the small boat finally reaching the shore with Barentsz and another beleaguered crewman. Both men, overtaken by frostbite and scurvy, were clearly at their time of passing, and were laid side by side on the frigid arctic beach. Willem Barentsz looked up into the unforgiving sky, finally content in the bitter world he so bravely fought to explore, and died there on June 20th, 1597. Twelve crewmen survived the eventual journey home after the ice had released the ship, almost a year after they initially became trapped.
Sitting through this ambitious and well-executed double album gives the listener a true sense of the brutal world these men endured. The feeling of antiquity communicated through the dance-like rhythms remind us that these hardships were fought centuries ago, without the aid of technology or even a knowledge of what may or may not be out there. Relentlessly aware of the power of melody, Grey Aura paints a dismally bleak background of perpetual ice, acerbic wind, and overbearing darkness. A variety of vocal styles weave the somber tale over that landscape, and the whole picture is propelled through well-crafted harmonic motion. While packaging doesn’t typically factor into a review, I have to point out the beautiful hardcover booklet, complete with all the Dutch lyrics, a powerful retelling of the tale in English, and gorgeous artwork depicting certain scenes. This is a physical copy that is well worth the money and time, as reading through the booklet while listening through both discs yields a highly immersive and powerful experience.
In an effort to be thorough, however, I do have to mention some criticisms. Double albums are notoriously hard to pull off, and this one does fall victim to some slow spots in the second disc. Reading through the booklet while listening allayed that issue for me, but I can see some issues for people who only experience it while listening through a digital download without the booklet in front of them. My advice is to listen intently to the nuance and passion in “Bedrog” (disc 2, track 6), then immerse yourself in a mental storyline of tracks 7-9 as they tell the tale of despair in winter, hope in the reopened sea, then despair again as their beloved leader succumbs to illness.
Overall, however, these are small complaints in the face of such an ambitious work for a debut full-length. I personally look forward to the fantastic future of Grey Aura, and I hope you’ll take the time to appreciate this impressive work.
Digital and physical copies can be purchased through Blood Music here. Despite this album only being released last June, the band is hard at work on more material and you can keep up with them on Facebook.