Ten Years #37: Drudkh

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
37. Drudkh (841 plays)
Top track (67 plays): Fate, from The Swan Road (2005)

Ukraine was my gateway into black metal. My earliest exposure to bm in general was met with a closed mind; I remember picking up IX Equilibrium not long after it came out, hearing nothing but distortion and blast beats, and wondering what all the fuss was about, as if its brilliant classical component was non-existent. But somehow Nokturnal Mortum’s Goat Horns blew my mind on first exposure, when I was still a teenager rocking out to In Flames, Opeth, Iced Earth and the like. That pagan spirit screaming murder beneath a wall of chaos struck me with more force than “satanic” or “progressive” bm ever would, then or now. I spent a substantial chunk of my paychecks at The End Records in the years that followed, and I was not searching for “black metal” so much as “Ukraine”. The consequence was that I got to enjoy bands like Drudkh, Hate Forest, and Astrofaes before it was “cool” to do so. (Let’s face it, hype always influences our perspective on a band in one way or another, whether we like to admit it or not.)

Drudkh quickly became my second favorite band in that scene after Nokturnal Mortum, and what I have heard in them over the years is nothing like the steady degradation from Forgotten Legends downward that supposedly “old school” fans are inclined to proclaim. I don’t know why so many people see Drudkh as a one-track band. Perhaps it is because the rate at which they release new material softens perception of the major shifts in their evolution as artists. Handful of Stars (2010) was the only album on which fans actually had to stop and go “wait, is this still Drudkh?”, and the band answered that question decisively with the Slavonic Chronicles EP. But if you listen to Drudkh as a band who played the same solid thing for four or five albums and then got too successful and lost their touch, you’re fairly misguided. It’s true that their first three albums have a lot of similarities. I sort of feel as though their vision on all three was roughly the same, with Swan Road (2005) marking the point at which they had enough recording experience to really make their sound fully capture that vision. The band has rarely repeated the same sound since. Blood in Our Wells (2006), my personal favorite, was a tremendous shift in favor of their pagan undertones, with songs like “Solitude” and “Eternity” crushing the listener through anthems more than atmospherics. Songs of Grief and Solitude (2006) was perhaps the best folk interlude album in black metal since Ulver famously did it, and Estrangement (2007) completely revisioned their sound, replacing characteristic deep plods with rabid, shrill blast beats and grittier production. Microcosmos (2009) was a significant change in production towards the other end of the spectrum, and I rather doubt the gut-wrenching quality of “Ars Poetica” (a song I still think has an almost screamo vibe to it at the climax) would have hit home so forcefully otherwise.

Drudkh’s trip to France on Handful of Stars (2010) may have left some fans disgusted, but it would be frankly stupid to call a band so consistently open to change “sell-outs” the moment their vision failed to reflect stereotypical expectations of aggression, masculinity, whatever the fuck tr00 cvlt dandies demand. And anyone who thinks Eternal Turn of the Wheel (2012) was some grand return to the good old days is in stark denial of the (I think quite intentional) persistent French influence underlining this newest chapter in their discography.

If I seem to be taking a defensive stance here, it might be in part because I’m arguing against my own initial inclinations. I’ve made the shallow mistake of blowing off Drudkh as washed up many times before, and I never fail to regret it once I’ve given the album in question substantially more time to grow on me. (My initial review here of Eternal Turn of the Wheel was cautiously negative. Today I would say it’s great.) I think over the years I’ve developed some boneheaded stereotype of Ukraine as a third world nation–an opinion based mainly on Ukrainian Americans whose pseudo-heritage reeks of self-debasing Cold War propaganda and “world music” zines. (“Only my American non-profit organization can preserve the endangered culture of our pathetic, eternally oppressed, utopianly pacifistic Slavic ancestors! I’ll give you a cultural awareness award and my new Carpathian-Caribbean fusion cd! Buy my shitty handicrafts! Send money!”) I try to forget about it and remind myself that these people are the ultimate American idiots with no actual connection to the people they pretend to represent, but I still find it hard at times to give Slavic musicians the intellectual credit they deserve. Roman Saenko and co are actually among the most intelligent musicians of our generation, and when I remind myself of that and revisit their discography, I realize again that it has been consistently solid from start to finish.

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