If you’re not already au fait with what’s happening in Iceland’s thriving metal scene, there’s never been a better time to delve in than now, no matter what your musical proclivities may be. Using this debut release from Zhrine as a stepping-stone I think you’ll be able to explore a substantial cross-section of the key constituents that make the isolated Nordic island such an interesting place for metal and music in general.
Zhrine (formerly Shrine) are a four-piece band who formed from the ashes of death metal act Gone Postal. Their lineup includes drummer Stefán who has previously worked with Nađra and guitarist/vocalist Nökkvi of Svartidauđi fame. Some early incarnations of a few of these tracks were present on Gone Postal’s last demo, so the members have had some time to work on them, and it really shows. Each track on this album is densely layered with all manner of riffs, mood and intrigue. Stab play below and prepare to be taken away.
After a sombre procession of delicate delay-tinged clean notes, the veil of night lifts to reveal a cloud-sheltered day. The once graceful timbre is transposed directly into a distorted state, revealing a searing melancholy. Before it has a chance to reach the heavens the swirling upheaval is dispersed, as it submissively gives way to the arrival of furious blasting. You are now only half-way into the first track (“Utopian Warfare”) from Zhrine’s debut album Unortheta. This is but the beginning. The next 35 minutes are a veritable deluge of nightmarish blackened death, set atop a captivating atmosphere replete with melody that remains beautiful while being directly opposed to the traces of dissonance.
The heavier parts of the album certainly bear a superficial resemblance to Svartidaudi, yet replace a lot of the narcotic doom-laden aspects of their sound with an elegant but somehow piercing ambience, utilising some post-metal-esque sensibilities to intersperse texture throughout the prevailing maelstrom. The vocals are seemingly roared from a distance for the most part, with some variety achieved through some slightly higher-pitch screams. The guitarists cover a great deal of ground. Zhrine have managed to mix many of the elements that make their countrymen musically unique; this is achieved through harnessing the riff-based approach of Sinmara, the dirge of the aforementioned Svartidaudi along with some of the rancorous harmonies and chaos of MisÞyrming. Using tension and release alongside outright brutality, their note choices are remarkably astute. The same could be said for their ability to layer arpeggiated chords with ringing open notes that rub and interlace, sometimes wrangling for the top position like snakes entwined in combat, other times blending harmoniously and forming a unified wall of sound much greater than the sum of its parts.
A strong dynamic is forged between the intensity of the more aggressive sounds and the near-minimalist (by comparison) calmer passages. The remorseful drawing of strings that rounds out “Spewing Gloom” (track 2) captures some of the grief that you’d expect to find on a Disemballerina album, whereas the intro to “World” (track 4) has some haunting twanging sounds that sound like they belong on a Numinous-style seque and were most likely created by picking strings behind the nut. Little experimentations like these help to give the album even more memorable moments and differentiate it from the swathe of new releases filling your ears.
Unortheta‘s strikingly stark artwork was created by Zbigniew M. Bielak, who has also penned the covers for Deströyer 666‘s latest Wildfire and Gorguts’ much anticipated new album Pleiades Dust. This album has the potential to open up a number of ears, possibly giving them the mindset to further explore the other gems of the area which may have eluded them previously. Through remaining dark but never seeming impenetrably opaque, Zhrine’s Unortheta offers a gateway into this mysterious realm, and thus, should be seen as a resounding success.
Since first starting this review I’ve left it for several days, hit replay numerous times and tried to be critical of this album, and honestly I just can’t think of a way it could be improved. Unortheta has much more than the variety of hooks needed to garner immediate enjoyment, but also has the depth of composition to render it a grower which, through time and further immersion, will sink deep into your subconscious. So as some of you may have guessed by now, after the Skáphe² (review), Unortheta is the second Icelandic album of 2016 that I’ll be bestowing with…