‘Jumalten aika’ the latest Moonsorrow epic
John Darr | Monday, April 11, 2016
There is a quality threshold that a piece of art can cross in order to transcend the limitations of its genre. One second, a group of teenagers is laughing at the pointlessness of an abstract art exhibit, and the next minute they’re breathless in front of a Pollack. Your mother, an avowed enemy of all things hip-hop, can’t help but ask you to play Kendrick Lamar’s “I” for the seventh time in a row. Your hatred of romantic comedies dies within the first 10 minutes of “Before Sunrise.” Sure, some such instances of “crossover success” has more to do with the combination of one genre with another so that fans of either genre can use the work as an entry point into the other one. But sometime a work is so uncompromisingly successful at using the elements of its form that it achieves something close to an ideal that simply demands the respect of anyone who comes into contact with it.
Enter “Jumalten aika,” the eighth full-length record by black metal giants Moonsorrow. From an outsider perspective, the world of metal can seem ridiculous and even comical in almost every aspect from its reverence for all sorts of mythologies and belief systems, its elaborate and overblown cover art style and its unrelentingly serious self-image. The reverence with which metal fans describe their favorite works is all-too-easily made fun of in a music scene that purports a hip brand of self-aware dispassion. But with “Jumalten aika,” Moonsorrow has seized the elements at the heart of black metal — tidal waves of riffing guitars, a relentlessly precise rhythm section and the signature yowled vocals of a long-maned frontman — and crafted a masterwork of unequivocal awe.
The record begins with the ripple of a brook and whispering wind carrying over a wide plain, seemingly crawling out of some distant, barely-visible space on an epic mountainous landscape. A flute melody peels out of the silence, followed by the roll of a hand drum — the full effect is that of a battle destined to erupt from tall grass. Soon come the chanting choral vocals, swelling with the beat of the drum and a subtle beat of a zither as shakers and bells rattle in soft rhythms. And then, with a final barrage of drums, the song bursts into its blistering form, unleashing a full-on black metal assault.
It’s a perfect representation of the music to come. Moonsorrow enriches the noisy, unforgiving walls of black metal sound with vivid sonic color, seamlessly melding massive guitar riffs with soaring violin arrangements and trading off between gorgeous, peaceful stretches of Scandinavian folk music and blistering breakdowns without a hitch. It recalls the balance struck in the best of the epic fantasy genre, using the rich colors of an imagined world to balance out the force and violence of the conflict at the heart of the work’s story: This is music to kill dragons to.
And yet, given Moonsorrow’s no-holds-barred take on instrumentation and song-structure, they never fall into indulgence. Each song has, at its core, a set of brilliantly crafted and structured melodies and rhythms that are structured without any filler in-between. Instead of using their strengths as a crutch to allow for moments of laziness or tangential rambling, Moonsorrow pares down each song to its core on “Jumalten aika” in order to craft a set of songs that never fail to thrill. Whether or not you have ever thrashed your head like Willow Smith at a metal concert, dreamed of leading an army across the great plains of a university quad or let out the roar of a dragonborn after fully destroying a particularly monstrous test, “Jumalten aika” provides a wonderful gateway into the world of metal while standing as a testament to the potential of the genre.