“From the mountains — Where storms are born — The wind blows — Cold and ruthless —Before that — All tremble”
The above passage was written in Lithuanian, in a silver-wax sealed letter on a cardboard slip accompanied with a handmade key. It was a precursor to something slowly approaching.
Over a year ago I chipped in to a kickstarter project for an ambitious album from a secluded and frostbitten musical entity. The promising album and the handmade wooden boxset packed with merchandise (Beyond Victory edition) was something I was highly anticipating. A lot of dedication and thought was put into this project, both the music and the packaging.
And finally a few weeks ago (nearly a month after the above mentioned letter arrived) the ancient box, secured with a heavy lock, arrived with something equally primeval laid down on vinyl residing within, emanating sounds hidden deep within forested, snow-capped mountains echoing times when the surrounding landscape was untouched by modernity.
This project was undertaken by Velnias, a five piece black metal group from Colorado who have slowly been building their catalog since 2007 — showcasing a fairly unique doomy atmospheric black metal with folk influences.
This is their second full length record entitled RuneEater and is definitely their most cohesive, thoughtful and tightly written material they’ve released thus far. Previous to this they’ve released two tour cds, a demo and a full length called Sovereign Nocturnal, which was heavier on the doom elements compared to this new piece of work. While I enjoyed it, the first record did not feel as impressive as I was hoping it would be, but you could feel Velnias working through their sound and forming a style that was different from the rest of the ‘cascadian’ circle of metal bands in existence.
And on RuneEater they have achieved this with great precision, a palpable undercurrent of disgust for the modern civilization in which we reside paralleled with an equal passion and reverence for nature, and unwavering archaic atmosphere found in the deepest, darkest undergrowth of the most untouched thickets.
All of this comes through in every aspects here: the darkly mystic earthen lyrics, the bemoaning tortured vocals, the meticulous analog production, the intermittent flurries of acoustic beauty between the blackened mass of scorched riffing — this guitar work which acts like a forest fire clearing deadwood to birth new life in each following track, leaving billowing smoke that will smother the listener in an acrid atmosphere. In the shuddering bass lines which rise high enough to be clear through the thunderous drum beats that crash down upon you like a magnificent rock slide.
The cd and vinyl version of the album have different masters; the vinyl version is meticulously dedicated to a pure analog vision, recorded on a two-inch tape with the lacquers being cut directly from the tape by a different team from the cd. The packaging is also different, but both sound and look brilliant regardless of which you choose to absorb.
“Proclaim your best intentions with all your heart from atop the highest hills, you are naught but the substance of the life you choose to lead.”
The lyrics express a deep commitment to the earth, abhorrence for the ills man in their pursuing modern development against nature, the slow decline of our civilization, and the glorification of times passed. Throughout the record this is made clear but one passage in “Desolation Of Grandeur” these sentiments are laid bare:
“How long will you writhe amidst the ruin of another’s folly? Where are we to sow our seeds amidst the endless decay? Mine will be the hand to cast the torch to this empire ripe in its falling!”
The words are put elegantly in each sentence and with passion through the hoarse howls rolling over the woeful guitar melodies.
And when it comes to the material on RuneEater it is incredibly strong throughout all five tracks. I would argue that it is their strongest, most resolute and well written to accompany the distinct theme it permeates. The first track includes a brief intro “Velnio Maldavimas”, booming tribal drums, spoken words in Lithuanian and slow “auns” to break the album open, while the third track “Velnio Ugnis” is a short acoustic piece to announce the second half.
Both songs break up the impassioned assault that makes up the core of RuneEater: “Desolation Of Grandeur”, “Reverend Flames Of Antiquity”, “Reclamation Of Valour”, and the closer “Iconoclast”. Two extend past eleven minutes and two fall just short of ten, but all of them have been carefully written to make each minute important and meaningful. The tracks flow by in no time despite their length, a testament to the enveloping atmosphere, robust song craft, and talented musicianship.
You can hear the growth of their style throughout each track since their first record. “Desolation Of Grandeur” displays some fantastic riffs and rhythms, and they lead off with one immediately here: powerful tremolo galloping ascending and dropping back down to repeat before the vocals tear through the atmosphere. This opening riff coupled with the concussive bass is a perfect way to open such a record.
We experience the gritty distorted guitar tone for the first time, jagged and raw as it churns in and out of harmonies and feedback. The journey they pave is memorable, leading to a slow breakdown three quarters of the way through where we feel the doom peak in briefly. The scratchy howls linger as the pained strings bleed into a calm and sad acoustic melody at the end.
In the track that follows titled “Reverend Flames Of Antiquity”, Velnias find a satisfying balance between atmospheric black metal and elements of doom that circles around Lycus, Pallbearer, and some of the earlier incarnations of the style. If you were worried that with their move towards a more ‘modern’ black metal style in the first track they were boiling down their sound to a more essential level, Velnias show here they have not left old elements to rest with this song.
This is easily my favorite track on this record. The blend of genres, the peaks and valleys it snakes through, the changes in pace all without losing the sense of isolation and cold beauty, it’s all so excellently crafted and powerful. It starts quietly and cleanly, meshing subtle additions of the acoustic alongside the electric guitar; the tone is dark and tragic as the cymbals begin to shimmer in and out before the doom bursts into full bloom. This slow build and the feedback makes the oncoming crushing melodies all the more cathartic.
Heavy notes hang and dip low, wandering about like a lone traveler in the forest. It’s a track that slowly melts into black metal before you’re aware of it, once the pace is quickened it becomes all the more intense. But then they return to the drudgery, punctuating the pained notes and shaking bass lines with pinched harmonics and scraping.
It gets all the more sorrowful with a beautiful clean/acoustic build at the halfway point, leading to a climax with a return to raw riffing. We’re met with some excellent reverb drenched passages that break away from the rhythms before the song ends — soaring from the mountain tops, drawing ever closer to the ground which they left; landing in feedback and darkness.
“Reclamation Of Valour” is interesting in that I feel it has a slightly nautical rhythm to it. You don’t get it as much in the clean/acoustic intro but once the distortion, drums, bass and vocals kick in I get the distinct feeling of swirling stormy seas battering a lone vessel as it approaches feral coasts. The lyrical themes do not indicate such intentions however — speaking of the valor of vengeful battle with steel against steel, and the readiness for conflict to right wrongs of the opposing forces which built a system degrading men and the land they walk:
“Upon what skull is crown beset to afford such travesty as writ, that in darkness we are left to stumble with our hands devoid of sword’s hilt? Truly tis the folly of fools to tread any path unarmed for unbeknownst is one when time shall come for need to spear or sword.
Hark, brothers – let radiant infinity open sleeping eyes! Again let hands blades hold fast and thrust them to the face of man’s facade. Beneath open sky again shall burn the flames of our revelry. Beneath our feet shall run the blood of those who had stood in our way. With the grimace of kings, as from gallows they swing, again shall true strength reign.
Through the Vacant stares of your beheaded sons this world shall see its rebirth.
Burn by our hands!
Burn by our hands!
Never shall you see remorse; for every wrong you have ever wrought yours shall suffer a thousand fold!”
Regardless the track is quick paced and sharp, swaying with excellent rhythm through tremolo chords, and actually picking the pace up a notch through an acoustic intermission and the following passage. The slow down again is soaked in a wicked sorrow, single notes ringing strongly before another acoustic intermission to change the attack; and with this the deep choral moaning underneath. This track again ends in a somber acoustic ballad with some backing from the drums at times.
We end with “Iconoclast”, the shortest song and a tale of what it means to be legend, to revere the old ways of men and nature once intertwined. Opening strong on a loud note, this gives way to another acoustic flourish that slowly builds pace and we rush into the whirlwind fury of distortion again. This happens again shortly after, but the riffs and drumming preceeding and following these sections do not lose steam and are quite creative, those at the half way mark break through with a wonderful gallop.
It’s strange but these a few rhythms here that I swear feel familiar but I can’t place where I may have heard them; specifically the acoustic section at 6:12 in which is followed by a reworking in multiple forms after. Regardless this final section is addictive, leading to the final acoustic push to close the record down.
Overall this is a great record with some great writing that sets it apart from the rest of the bands in the genre, with great integration of folk and doom elements sprinkled throughout. Admittedly the doom elements are lessened here but when they appear its blended so well. The drums could be a little higher in the mix, I feel they’re a little buried under all the other elements. Outside of that I don’t have any complaints, it’s very tightly written and arranged.
I highly recommend getting this album. While it’s not breaking new ground it is full of raw expression and their best work to date, a huge step up from their past efforts. It is well worth your money and Velnias are a band that deserve your support.
If you would like to procure a copy of this excellent record you can it in digital form from bandcamp, or if you want it on cd or vinyl in various forms you can go to Pesanta Urfolk’s webstore. The boxset is not available, it was only possible to get it through the kickstarter preorder project and limited to like 25.
(Originally written for Equivoke)