The Nail of the Master

Even though the bulk of my music writing is in the metal genre these days, I don’t listen to anywhere near as much new metal music as I did five years ago. This was a deliberate choice, as I had spent so many years combing through dozens of new releases per week in an effort to keep my ear as close to the ground, and to stay “current”, as much as possible. Little did I know that doing so was gradually taking a severe mental toll, and by 2016 I was severely burned out. The metal scene is now so huge that it is impossible for one person to be up on everything that’s out there, and it had gotten to the point where it stopped being fun.

So I scaled everything back, and these days I couldn’t be happier. I still feel it’s imperative to have somewhat of a grasp of what’s happening in the genre, but I’m far more selective. Orthodox black metal? Done. Metalcore, hardcore, and any American band that lazily and lamely rips off At the Gates? Nope. Technical death metal? Only if they know how to write songs. Basically the new metal music that attracts me is either the very traditional or the very experimental, and today I will scribble some thoughts about two bands from the latter category.

I’ve loved Norwegian band Enslaved for nearly 20 years (though that might make some old-school metal elitist roll their eyes at my “novice” status) and their albums always maintain a fairly high standard. I say “fairly” because 2017’s album E, while not a failure, didn’t quite ignite the same passionate interest that their work from 2001 through 2015 did for me. Thankfully that all changed with 2020’s Utgard, a record that reminded me why I love this band so much.

Enslaved have had a very similar career trajectory as Canadian ‘80s heroes Voivod, in that they started playing raw, highly extreme metal and gradually learned to incorporate many outside influences, creating their own distinct hybrid sound in the process. Every Enslaved album in the 21st century incorporates aspects of black metal, progressive rock and metal, and traditional Scandinavian music to varying degrees, and that balance is near immaculate on Utgard. Guitarist Ivan Bjornson is the band’s musical leader, and his songwriting here is wonderful in how it handles harsher sounds and exquisite melodies so effortlessly. Bassist Grutle Kjellson handles the harsh vocals while keyboardist Iver Sandoy tackles the “clean” singing, and throughout the 45-minute record they engage in a constant give-and-take that never fails to lose my interest. It’s such a cool, original combination, and coupled with Bjornson’s slightly more simplified riff patterns and catchy harmonies it all makes Utgard a dazzling return to form by one of the best metal bands on the planet.

Then there’s Oranssi Pazuzu. The Finnish band is younger than Enslaved, but perhaps even more experimental. Like Enslaved, Oranssi Pazuzu is rooted in black metal, but unlike Enslaved they are more inclined toward the more far-reaching sounds of krautrock. As difficult as it is to categorize krautrock and psychedelic rock, the stylistic breadth of the music makes for a very deep well from which Oranssi Pazuzu can draw. The possibilities for their music is limitless, and because of that, every new album is a wacky, unpredictable adventure.

Mestarin Kynsi is the band’s first for global metal superpower Nuclear Blast, and while it clocks in at a relatively crisp 50 minutes, the band pulls out all the stops in an effort to make as big a statement as possible. In so doing, the overall flow of the record can feel a little herky-jerky, but that’s all part of the fun. I have no idea what their Finnish lyrics are prattling on about, but that lack of comprehension makes the music even more mysterious. Like Can’s Ege Bamyasi, this record sounds as though it was made by aliens trying to replicate human music (in this case, metal music) and winds up sounding completely one of a kind in the process. The jazzy rhythms, the spacey keyboards, the screaming guitar solos all combine to somehow make a cohesive whole, and is just the kind of experimental metal music that thrills yours truly. I blasted this thing while commuting every day for a month or so before the pandemic, so it will always remind me now of a distant past when I wasn’t afraid to take the bus for fear of catching a deadly disease. Oranssi Pazuzu are one heck of an exciting band, and I can’t wait to hear where they’ll take listeners next.