After a lengthy hiatus from the studio, Norwegian blackened hard rock unit Satyricon, comprised of core members Satyr (Sigurd Wongraven on vocals, guitar & bass) & Frost (Kjetil-Vidar Haraldstad on drums) and a revolving team of supporting players, have returned with their self-titled eighth studio album. While they began as a strictly black metal band during that genre's Scandinavian glory days, Satyricon later transitioned to a more straightforward style of melodic hard rock, though they continue to embrace black metal's themes and retain a few of its musical motifs. For fans of horror and occult-oriented rock and metal who find traditional Norwegian black metal a bit too... well, let's say challenging to the ears (old school bands embrace those lo-fi elements as part of the genre's kill-the-rules mindset), Satyricon is both accessible and fist-pumping intense – a balance which makes for a pretty effective hook.
That signature sound continues for the most part in this new release (their first since 2008's The Age of Nero), but with some significant modifications – the most notable being their choice to record with only analog equipment, using a minimum of guitar effects or other processing. They also recruited a guest vocalist – frontman Sivert Høyem from Oslo-based indie rockers Madrugada – for the single “Phoenix,” a fairly soulful piece which represents the most dramatic change in the band's songwriting approach.
Though Høyem's moody delivery tends to bring the energy level down a bit (the guitars nearly overpower him during the verses), “Phoenix” is still an interesting and unique departure; the rest of the material sticks more closely to the dark-rock model showcased in Nero, though with a rougher edge that feels more dangerous. The aggression of these cuts comes more through the directness and intensity of the riffs (laid bare by stripped-down production) than from breakneck tempos or dramatic rhythm shifts, and Frost favors a straight mid-tempo rock foundation over chaotic blastbeats – with a few impressive exceptions, including the opening track and the eerie "Tro og Kraft" (featuring a theremin, for that ghostly touch that never fails to make me smile). Also, if you're accustomed to the thick, crystal-clear tone of modern metal production, you may be surprised by the sludgier feel of many tracks, as sonic elements of doom metal are folded into the otherwise dynamic melodies. Standout tracks like "Nocturnal Flare" and "Our World, It Rumbles Tonight" find a strong balance between high energy and creepy atmosphere, as you can hear in the latter:
Make no mistake, the band still finds the opportunity to unleash hell in the form of blistering cuts like "Walker Upon the Wind" and "Ageless Northern Spirit," which tap deepest into the band's black metal roots, and the menacing, slightly punkish heavy-rocker "Nekrohaven," which continues that Age of Nero vibe. Old and new Satyricon are fused in "The Infinity of Time and Space," which incorporates some of the prog-rock elements that eventually dominate the haunting instrumental waltz "Natt."
While it's not a groundbreaking entry in their catalog, Satyricon is an interesting stylistic departure for a band with a well-established style, and demonstrates the first tentative steps toward a moodier, more gothic sound, with song structures bordering on pop rock. Ironically, it's those hints of almost mainstream songwriting that represent one of the band's bolder career moves, sounding less like a sell-out than a creative step forward. I'm not sure what diabolical forces make this strange brew (mostly) work, but since I like the way it sounds overall, I'm not peeking behind that particular curtain just yet.