Album: The Nighthold
Label: Werewolf Records
Release date: 15 December 2023
Format reviewed: High-quality digital recording
One of the most prolific acts to come out of Finland in recent years are Symphonic Black Metal masters Vargrav. Ever since the release of their groundbreaking debut album Netherstorm they have become a fan favourite act, their second full-length Reign in Supreme Darkness giving them legendary status among the modern black metal scene. 2023 marked the release of their third opus, The Nighthold which, to put it simply, not only lived up to the expectation, but crushed them to dust. It is one of the best works of symphonic black metal, a masterpiece of excellent songwriting and epic atmosphere all wrapped up with a beautiful album cover. There are plenty of elements that make this album stand out, from the vocals, to the overall composition, which I will delve into throughout this review.
The album barges in with Moonless Abyss of the Nighthold which is an epic orchestral track meant to shroud the listener in mystery and anticipation for what there is to come during the record. The use of choir-like voices, violins and bells gives the composition an enchanting sound, to which the grandeur of the organ and the other instruments is added.
Through the Woods of Breathing Shadow comes with a dramatic shift, drums go in, along with a classic black metal riff, high vocals and the epic choir and organ from before. The drums alternate between landmark black metal blast beats and more groovier thrashy beats, which accentuates the epic atmosphere of the composition and the melody infused, galloping riffs. The vocals come on top, in the form of high screeches, which quite some reverb, making them feel slightly faded into the whole mix. This rather underwhelming quality of the vocals, despite them being wonderfully executed, may seem off putting at first, but it becomes a landmark feature of the album, being actually quite fitting in the given musical context.
The third track, Chalice of Silver and Blood, starts out on a much darker note, given by a much slower tempo, an eerie synth passage and a particularly doomy riff. The music ramps up at times via the use of blast beats and tremolo riffs. The vocals maintain their mystic allure, which brings out a lot of the musical quirks of this song. The symphonic parts are brought a little bit backwards on this one, although they still have a considerable influence on the song overall.
Thy Imperial Malice is one of my personal favourite tracks from The Nighthold, fact that can be attributed to quite some factors. First of all, the infectiously catchy riffs that are both melodic and aggressive at the same time, the excellent drum work that supports the whole composition, the over the top majestic synth passages and the epic atmosphere, and, of course the vocals, which carry forward the melody of the guitars and synth, with a touch of evil, of course. The instrumental passages are also to die for, being the perfect balance between simple and complex.
Curse of the Plaguewood Lake comes next serving as an interlude, being a short musical passage of eerie synth and clean choir vocals, which serve as a break in the album that accentuates the mood of the record.
Halfway through the album, Encircle the Spectral Dimension starts out with a straightforward drum intro and a fast paced, aggressive tremolo riff and a menacing vocal performance, accompanied by apocalyptic synth and choir passages that follow the melodic line of the riffs. The drumming varies in tempo, although not as much as in the previous songs, being mostly centered around aggressive blast beats along with some groovier, yet still straight to the point passages. The production of the album is best highlighted on this song, with the instrumentals and vocals having that distinct clean touch to them, as, of course, the mixing and overall production of the record in on the polished side.
Triumph of the Nightbringer brings back the focus on atmosphere and pushes the symphonic elements back into the spotlight, the result being a black metal anthem, in the vein of Emperor. The synth passages are slightly more intricate here than in other songs, something that caught my ear in an unexpected way when listening to this record. It is also one of the songs with the least tempo variation, and the one who sounds the most like a classic symphonic black metal song. If you want to get into Vargrav, I would warmly recommend listening to Triumph of the Nightbringer.
The eighth track, Into The Shadow Crypts, comes as another instrumental filler, dominated by the sepulchral synth, occasional choir and other sound effects that help build up a particularly haunting atmosphere, that is guaranteed to keep your guard up high.
Approaching the end of the album, The One Who Lurks Beyond the Starscape is another one of the album’s highlights, with all its best musical elements on display this time around. The result is a masterpiece, and perhaps my absolute favourite on the whole record. There is a vocal shift to lower ranges in certain parts on the song, which came as a pleasant, yet unexpected surprise. The synth, guitar work and drums are flawless here, with the best of each instrument being fully audible. The following song, A Dark Consecration, while still being more on the aggressive side, mostly due to the way the drums are played and highlighted.
The two final songs that wrap up The Nighthold are Creator of the True Realm and the epic Ghostlands. These songs have an important role in the course of this record, which is the one of summarizing and ending it all on an epic note. Although seemingly not as memorable as their predecessors, they are still spectacular song, that end the journey throughout the mists and darkness Vargrav has offered this time. A definitely interesting touch is, of course, the solo at the end of Creator of the True Realm, which is something that can’t be missed out. It is, in my opinion, one of the best to be found in the realms of black metal.
All these being said, The Nighthold without any shadow of a doubt one of the best black metal albums of 2023. I was surely taken by surprise when listening to it, given that I hadn’t really been impressed by Vargrav’s previous work. Anyway, this is a must for every fan of extreme metal, period. Despite being on the lengthy side, it is one hell of a listening journey. 9.5/10 Ioana
9.5/10 Epic Storm
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