Raising high the pagan flag since 2003, Sweden’s prolific Ereb Altor has built their own foundation upon the bedrock of countrymen such as Bathory and Thyrfing, producing seven full-length albums of epic Norse-saga inspired Metal over the course of their career. On the 23rd of September 2019, the band will release album number eight, entitled Järtecken, via Hammerheart Records. Looking to distinguish themselves with another chapter of their heady brand of battle-ready tunes, can Ereb Altor stand out among the hordes of bands plying similar sounds to the masses?
The grandeur of what is often referred to as Viking Metal – the true and genuine expression of the art form – can be as scarce as it is enigmatic and changeable. For many Extreme Metal fans, the explosion of Folk Metal in the 2000s rendered this form of music shallow and untenable, the somber history of Norsemen rendered into something like a parodical jaunt instead of a serious spiritual alternative to Satanism and Judeo-Christianity. Nevertheless, a number of bands who espoused the style never got swept up in all that ale-clinking tomfoolery. Ereb Altor is one of them. They have always contravened that musical direction, instead deriving their sound from elements of Black Metal, epic traditional Metal, with an underpinning of folk melody for good measure.
Järtecken, even discounting any familiarity with Ereb Altor’s sound, stands as a monolith upon a windswept shore. Massive riffs strike a deep chord, as the pounding bardic intro of “Avgudadyrkans Väg” bathes the listener in double-tracked, cleanly sung vocals. Sweeping guitars, a blackened touch to the vocals, and the clarion tenor returns, the blending of elements promising triumph before setting sail with album highlight “Queen of All Seas.” Growled vocals in the verses, keyboards for added atmosphere, and a clean sung chorus would be the least descriptive description of what amounts to one of the most rousing and emotionally charged songs this side of Valhalla. A ripping guitar solo adds to the affair, the emergence of a dark-toned horn serenading over double-bass drums. Ereb Altor strides that perfect line between the Dark Ages reference point of the lyrics and the modern clarity of the production.
Oppose this with the melodic black metal trappings of “Hvergelmir,” which offers an unforgettable dual clean-sung and growled chorus, and it is clear Ereb Altor is bringing to bear superb attention to nuance and detail. The ubiquitous use of clean vocals sets Järtecken apart, as is evident on this magical song. Neither predictable nor formulaic, the clean vocal performance is nothing short of outstanding.
Once more, on closer “With Fire In My Heart…” the icy resonance of black metal is summoned in the hastily picked riffs, before giving over to an epic vocal line worthy of both the glory of Quorthon and the long-dead skalds of the ancient northern world. The passion on display is undeniable, making sure that Järtecken will more than likely have appeal far outside the bounds of what people think of as Viking Metal. No mere Death Metal set to Norse themes here, a la Amon Amarth, for to crank this album is to be transported out of time and into a world of monsters and sagas and heroes galore. That Ereb Altor can conjure this feeling with modern instruments and their own vocal arrangements is a testament both to the pure sorcery they can channel, and the dedication to their culture running hot through their veins like blood.
If pace and violence is more to the taste of the listener, Ereb Altor crank up the pit-worthy hymnals with “Alliance In Blood,” a ravenous exercise of speed and hate. They refuse to sacrifice the epic clean vocals, managing to synthesize them perfectly therein. “Chained” is another stormer, the guitar tone straight from the tunnels of Black Metal, while the meat of the song dwells in speed metal territory. Catchy, never down on energy or arrangement quality, the band appears to have wasted not one iota of studio time on filler.
It is difficult to find fault with this slab of Heavy Metal goodness. The clean vocals of Daniel Bryntse (aka Ragnar, also of the band Isole) cannot be understated. He turns in one of the finest performances one can find in a metal band these days, and combines that with an overall fantastic album that, though burning with a Viking heart, bears the hallmarks of many of heavy metal’s strains. The result may be Ereb Altor’s finest hour. For these reasons Cryptic Rock gives Järtecken 5 out of 5 stars.