Ten Years #16: Falkenbach


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
16. Falkenbach (1,418 plays)
Top track (84 plays): Heathenpride, from En Their Medh Riki Fara (1996)
Featured track: Tanfana, from Tiurida (2011)

Happy Halloween! As you may have guessed, October 31st is our favorite day of the year here at Shattered Lens. I thought I’d celebrate with two entries in my Top 50 series that both happen to be particularly appropriate for the occasion. The first, coming in at 16th place with 1,418 listens over the past ten years, is the solo brainchild of Vratyas Vakyas: Falkenbach. A band I find some excuse to mention almost every October, Falkenbach have about as much of a right as Bathory or Enslaved to claim the invention of viking metal. While Vakyas certainly lacks the widespread influence attributable to Quorthon–only nine copies were supposedly ever made of the 1989 Havamal demo–he seems to have been a part of the movement from its very founding. Recording originally in Iceland and later settling down in Germany, Vakyas has dedicated his career as a musician to persistently refining a unique sound inseparable from the notion of viking metal.

“Viking metal” is a term I use sparingly. It marks, in my opinion, the transition of fringe metal bands away from reactionary Satanism and towards a more refined, pagan appreciation for pre-Christian European tradition. This process took the majority of the 1990s to fully realize, and many of the bands that most commonly receive a “viking” tag–Bathory, Enslaved, Falkenbach, Burzum–originated firmly within the spectrum of black metal. (The term “pagan metal” emerged in much the same manner further east, as Ukrainian and Russian black metal bands found similar cause to divorce Satanism.) Modern use of “viking metal” refers to little more than a lyrical theme, the transition to a folk aesthetic in black metal circles and beyond being at this point complete. “Pagan metal” seems to be the tag for any folkish band that still lies on the fringe, usually through heavy doses of black metal, provided they didn’t get dumped off in the “viking” bin first.

It would make a great deal of sense to me to lump the likes of Enslaved and Bathory into the “pagan” category where applicable, along with more recent acts like Moonsorrow, and abandon “viking metal” altogether. But if it is to persist, I find no band more appropriate for the title than Falkenbach. Much like Summoning, Falkenbach’s sound developed into an independent entity with no clear counterparts. From Ok Nefna Tysvar Ty (2003) onward, Vakyas’s sound has stood distinctly apart. The looping electronic woodwinds, acoustic guitar, mid-tempo beat, and chugging electric guitar in the sample track I’ve provided are all fundamental to the sound visible within the earliest available Falkenbach recordings and fully realized by 2003. But where Summoning has always defied classification, Falkenbach’s close ties to the onset of the viking metal movement seem to grant the term weight. It would be a bit silly to suggest that Falkenbach’s uniqueness is somehow more significant than the countless other innovative, folk-inspired metal bands of the 90s and 2000s, but his timing in history and lack of parallels, be they copycats or coincidental, has earned Vakyas a distinction beyond his impeccable song writing and sincere reverence for the old gods. Falkenbach is, for me at least, the closest thing to viking metal as a style of music that you will ever find.

My Top 15 Metal Albums of 2011


The years I most actively indulge my musical interests are the ones I find most difficult to wrap up in any sort of nice cohesive summary. December always begins with a feeling that I’ve really built up a solid basis on which to rate the best albums of the year, and it tends to end with the realization that I’ve really only heard a minute fraction of what’s out there. I’m going to limit this to my top 15. Anything beyond that is just too arbitrary–the long list of new albums I’ve still yet to hear will ultimately reconfigure it beyond recognition.

15. Thantifaxath – Thantifaxath EP
Thantifaxath’s debut EP might only be 15 minutes long, but that was more than enough to place it high on my charts. The whole emerging post/prog-bm sound has been largely a product of bands with the resources to refine it, and it’s quite refreshing to hear sounds reminiscent of recent Enslaved without any of the studio gloss. That, and I get a sort of B-side outer space horror vibe from it that’s not so easy to come by. (Recommended track: Violently Expanding Nothing)

14. Craft – Void
This is the straight-up, no bullshit black metal album of the year. It doesn’t try anything fancy or original. It’s just good solid mid-tempo bm–brutal, evil, conjuring, and unforgiving. Hail Satan etc. (Recommended track: any of them)

13. Turisas – Stand Up and Fight
Stand Up and Fight doesn’t hold a candle to The Varangian Way, but I never really expected it to. As a follow-up to one of my all-time favorite albums, it does a solid job of maintaining that immensely epic, triumphal sound they landed on in 2007. It lacks their previous work’s continuity, both in quality and in theme, but it’s still packed with astoundingly vivid imagery and exciting theatrics that render it almost more of a movie than an album. (Recommended tracks: Venetoi! Prasinoi!, Hunting Pirates)

12. Endstille – Infektion 1813
Swedish-style black metal seldom does much for me, and it’s hard to describe just what appeals to me so much about Germany’s Endstille. But just as Verführer caught me by pleasant surprise two years ago, Infektion 1813 managed to captivate me in spite of all expectations to the contrary. Like Marduk (the only other band of the sort that occasionally impresses me), they stick to themes of modern warfare, but Endstille’s musical artillery bombardments carry a sense of something sinister that Marduk lacks. The dark side of human nature Endstille explores isn’t shrouded in enticing mystery–it’s something so thoroughly historically validated that we’d rather just pretend it doesn’t exist at all. The final track, Völkerschlächter, is one of the best songs of the year. Stylistically subdued, it pummels the listener instead with a long list of political and military leaders responsible for mass murder, named in a thick German accent over a seven second riff that’s repeated for 11 minutes. It’s a brutal realization that the sensations black metal tends to arouse are quite real and quite deplorable, and it will leave you feeling a little sick inside.

11. Nekrogoblikon – Stench
Nekrogoblikon released a folk metal parody album in 2006 that was good for laughs and really nothing else. The music was pretty awful, but that was intentional. It was a joke, with no presumption to be any good as anything but a joke. They’re the last band on earth I ever expected, a full six years after the fact, to pop back up with a really fucking solid sound. But Stench is good. I mean, Stench is really good. It’s still comical in theme, but the music has been refined beyond measure. Quirky, cheesy guitar and keyboard doodles have become vivid images of little flesh-eating gremlins dancing around your feet, whiny mock-vocals have taken the shape of pretty solid Elvenking-esque power metal, pretty much everything about them has grown into a legitimate melo-death and power infused folk metal sound. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not meant to be taken seriously, but they’re now of Finntroll caliber. (Recommended tracks: Goblin Box, Gallows & Graves, A Feast)

10. Týr – The Lay of Thrym
I thought By the Light of the Northern Star was a fairly weak album, and because The Lay of Thrym maintains some of the stylistic changes they underwent then, a part of me keeps wanting to say it can’t be as good as say, Land or Eric the Red. But of all the albums I acquired in 2011, I’ve probably listened to this one the most. Týr have one of the most unique sounds on the market, and it’s thoroughly incapable of ever boring me or growing old. Heri Joensen’s consistently excellent vocal performance alone is enough to make them perpetual year-end contenders. (Recommended track: Hall of Freedom)

9. Waldgeflüster – Femundsmarka – Eine Reise in drei Kapiteln
This is some of the most endearing black metal I’ve heard in a while. Intended as a musical reminiscence of Winterherz’ journey through Femundsmarka National Park in Scandinavia, it’s a beautiful glorification of nature that takes some of the best accomplishments of Drudkh and Agalloch and adds to them a very uplifting vibe. Someone made an 8 minute compilation of the album on youtube which does a good job at previewing without revealing all of its finest moments. (Recommended track: Kapitel I: Seenland)

8. Ygg – Ygg
Ygg is an hour-long trance, evoking ancient gods in a way that only Slavic metal can. You could probably pick apart the music and discover plenty of flaws, but that would miss the point. I think that a lot of these Ukrainian and Russian bands are true believers, and that the purpose of music like this is more to create an experience in the listener than to be good for its own sake. This is a spiritual journey, and if it fails to move you as such it will probably come off as rather repetitive and generic, but I find it impressively effective. (Recommended track: Ygg)

7. Blut aus Nord – 777: Sect(s)
I don’t know where to put this really. I could just as easily have labeled it second best album of the year. Dropping it down to 7th might seem a little unjustified, but eh, this is a list of my top albums, not of the “best” albums of the year. There’s no denying Sect(s) credit as a brilliant masterpiece, but it’s an ode to madness. I mean, this music scares the shit out of me, and if that means it’s accomplished something no other album has, that also means I don’t particularly “enjoy” listening to it. (Recommended track: Epitome I)

6. Altar of Plagues – Mammal
I never did listen to Mammal as actively as I would have liked. I never sat down and gave it my undivided attention from start to finish. But it’s served as a background piece for many late nights at work. It zones me in–stimulates my senses without ever distracting them from the task at hand. I don’t feel like I can really say much about what makes it great, because that’s not the sort of thing I’ve considered while listening to it, but I absolutely love it. It’s a big improvement from White Tomb, which was itself an excellent album, and more so than most other releases of 2011 I will probably continue to listen to it frequently in years to come. (Recommended track: Neptune is Dead)

5. Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand (track: No Grave Deep Enough)
Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand is by no means perfect. It’s got a few sub-par tracks detracting from the full start to finish experience, but when it’s at its best all else can be easily forgiven. Call it folk metal or call it black metal, whichever you prefer, but first and foremost call it Irish, with every good thing that might entail. The vocals are outstanding, the music rocks out in folk fashion without ever relenting from its metal force, and while the lyrics don’t always make sense, they always hit like a fucking truck. Where they do all come together, delivered with Nemtheanga’s vast and desperate bellows, the result is overwhelming. O Death, where are your teeth that gnaw on the bones of fabled men? O Death, where are your claws that haul me from the grave? (Other recommended tracks: The Puritan’s Hand, Death of the Gods)

4. Falconer – Armod (track: Griftefrid)
Prior to 2011 I’d largely written Falconer off as one of those power metal acts that were just a little too cheesy to ever excite me. Maybe it was bad timing. Maybe I just happened to hear them for the first time while Kristoffer Göbel was filling in on vocals. Or maybe Armod is just their magnum opus–a spark of genius they’ve never neared before. Flawless if we ignore the “bonus tracks”, Armod takes that early folk metal sound Vintersorg pioneered with Otyg, merges it perfectly with power metal, and offers up 11 of the most well-written and excellently produced songs of the year. Mathias Blad’s vocals are absolutely phenomenal. (Other recommended tracks: Herr Peder Och Hans Syster)

3. Falkenbach – Tiurida (track: Sunnavend)
A lot of people might voice the legitimate complaint that Tiurida, Vratyas Vakyas’s first studio album in six years, sounds absolutely indistinguishable from his prior four. For me, that’s exactly why it ranks so high. Vakyas landed on a completely unique, instantly recognizable sound which, alongside Bathory, defined viking metal as a genre, and he’s refused to change it one bit. I fell in love with this album ten years ago. (Other recommended tracks: Where His Ravens Fly…)

2. Liturgy – Aesthethica (track: Harmonia)
Yes, Liturgy. It’s immature, childish, and imperfect, but it’s uplifting in a completely new way. No matter how far Hunt-Hendrix might go to embarrass himself and his band mates, behind all of his pompous babble there just might be some truth to it. (Other recommended tracks: True Will)

1. Krallice – Diotima (track: Dust and Light)
More than the album of the year, Diotima is one of the greatest albums ever made. I can’t fathom the amount of skill it must take to perform with the speed and precision that these guys do, but if they battered down a physical barrier to metal in 2008, they finally grasped hold of what lies beyond it in 2011. They claim that the songs on their first three albums were all written at the same time by Mick Barr and Colin Marston, before their self-titled debut. If that’s the case, then it must be the experience of performing together and the creative contributions of Lev Weinstein and Nick McMaster that raised Diotima to a higher level. It’s not just that they’ve improved in every way imaginable; the songs themselves are overwhelming, breathtaking, and chaotic to a degree they’d never before accomplished. Krallice perform an unwieldy monster that took a few albums to thoroughly overcome. Now they’re in complete control, and their absolutely brilliant song-writing can shine through. With the exception of the dubious Litany of Regrets, this is possibly the greatest album I have ever heard. (Other recommended tracks: Inhume, Diotima, Telluric Rings)

Review: Falkenbach – Tiurida


Geri and Freki does Heerfather feed, / the far-famed fighter of old, / but on wine alone does the one-eyed god / Wuotan forever live.

O’er Midgard Hugin and Munin both / each day set forth to fly. / For Hugin I fear lest he come not home. / but for Munin my care is more.

There Valgrind stands, the sacred gate, / and behind, the holy doors. / Old is the gate, but few there are / who can tell how it’s tightly locked.

Five hundred doors and forty there are, / I ween, in Walhall’s walls. / Eight hundred fighters through one door fare / when to war with the wolf they go.

Five hundred rooms and forty there are, / I ween, in Bilskirnir built. / Of all the homes whose roofs I beheld / my son’s the greatest meseemed.

There is Folkvang, where Freyja decrees / who shall have seats in the hall. / The half of the dead each day does she choose. / The other half does Othin have.

There is Gladsheim, and golden-bright / there stands Walhall stretching wide. / There does Othin each day choose / all those who fell in fight.

Now am I Othin, Ygg was I once. / Ere that did they call me Thund. / Wodan and Oden, and all, methinks / are the names for none but me.

Hail to thee, for hailed thou art / by the voice of Veratyr. / Where Valgrind stands, the sacred gate, / ye will find nine golden doors.

Hail to thee, for hailed thou art / by the voice of Veratyr. / Old is the gate, but few there are / who can tell how it’s tightly locked.


Where His Ravens Fly…

Far from a simple “see you in Valhalla,” Tiurida begins with a faring off worthy of kings, and even before understanding the lyrics you can feel their power in the music. Falkenbach’s 22 years of existence could be described as an effort to express the shared values, traditions, and beliefs of pre-Christian Europe. Written into the music just as much as the lyrics is a reverence for a greater age of man, in which fear and submission had not yet taken the place of mystery and honor. At least, that is what I have always taken out of his works, and perhaps it is why, in spite of the minimal variation in his sound over the years, I’ve always looked to new Falkenbach albums with a sort of reverence.

I never quite got the complaints that every Falkenbach album sounds the same–that he has eschewed developing as a musician and merely continued to produce the same thing over and over again. For while this is certainly true, especially of his last three albums, I would never want anything different. I would gladly take a hundred songs just like Where His Ravens Fly over any change that might cease to capture so fully the essence I’ve described.


Tanfana

I regard Tiurida as a phenomenal success, and possibly the best album of the year. Excluding the decidedly darker and heavier track Time Between Dog and Wolf, what you get on this album are five hymns. There is seldom any anxiety–no desperate or aggressive calls to return to past values, as so many other pagan bands manifest (with much success.) The lyrics are in the present tense, and so, in a sense, is the music. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly I mean by this last comment, but it definitely lies in the folk side of his sound.

Tanfana is an instrumental song referring to a Germanic goddess of which very little is known. Tacitus’ mention of her in the 1st century is the only surviving source. Fitting, then, that the song should have no lyrics. This song is a very standard representation of how Vratyas Vakyas goes about employing folk music. A few things should stand out right away: The woodwinds are all synthesized; there are no actually traditional instruments at work here. Furthermore, they aren’t being played in any sort of traditional way, with any degree of diversity or improvisation. They are locked into the pace of the song and feel more like a sound sample loop than something performed live in studio.

The effects of this have to be significant, because it’s really what characterizes the folk element of almost all of Falkenbach’s songs. Well, two things stand out to me. Whether we’re talking monks or Burzum or really bad techno, there’s something inescapable about chanting effects. The repetition zones you in and forces you to experience the music in the here and now, whether you want to or not. It creates a heightened awareness of your present state of being. (And it might be why alcohol makes most awful music sound even worse but really bad techno sound awesome, but I’m getting way off focus now.) My point is that an element of this is present in Falkenbach’s sound, not only in the plodding progression of the drums and guitar, but in the folk. The other thing is that the folk instrumentation, being synthetic, bears a commonality with the more standard keyboard choruses he uses. Actual folk instrumentation generally calls to mind an image of something decidedly non-modern, but here there’s very little gap.

So when I say the music is in the present tense, what I mean is that his sound both evades my preconceived disconnection between folk and modernity and zones me into the moment–not of the music, but the on-going present state. Am I just babbling now? Perhaps, but it’s interesting to try and understand what about his sound appeals to me so distinctly from any other band describable as folk/viking/pagan metal. I think that, instead of taking me into the past, it has a sort of capacity to bring the past to me and blur any distinction.


Sunnavend

I suppose we all have particular bands and songs that move us in a personal way and might not have any such effect on anyone else. Falkenbach is just one of those bands for me. I don’t ever want his sound to change, and I’m so glad that on Tiurida it didn’t. This music gives me a unique sort of peace of mind–a feeling that lofty visions of the past aren’t mere idealizations or lost causes, but are entirely realizable in the present. This music is a hymn to the immortal, personified through gods whom modern society has yet to blaspheme.