Grá have a rich heritage in black metal with current Dark Funeral frontman, Heljarmadr, on guitars and vocals, and Godhead Machinery guitarist, Niklas Ekwall, joining for their latest album. Now on their fourth full-length release since their 2011 debut, the Swedish quartet decided to break from tradition and bring in outsiders – Terry Nikas and George Nerantzis – to mix and master their work. Lycaon also represents the first time they’ve teamed up with a label outside their homeland, in this case Italian company, Avantgarde Music. These aren’t the only changes. It seems they re-evaluated their black metal identity in the process and started listening to Tribulation.
Lycaon feels like the product of wise persistence, fine-tweaking, and a shared vision that all members are comfortable exploring without fear of losing their purpose. And, of course, with Heljarmadr at the microphone, they have one of the most venomous vocalists in extreme metal. Opener, ‘White City Devil’, reads like a garage rock single, but it draws from Paradise Lost’s mid-2000s sound for its dual guitar approach and prefers to court melody rather than crush it. You can even detect the might of Carcass in the death metal riff that holds together the first verse. The crunch of the guitars is as invigorating as an icepack on a headwound, with the excellent audio engineering separating the instruments with great clarity. Their decision to throw in a crowd participation moment to follow them through a chugging breakdown section will raise more than a few eyebrows.
Grá have not eliminated black metal from their sound. They’ve refined it and replaced its ethereal darkness with a thicker guitar tone and higher-tuned drum snares. ‘Flame of Hephaestus’ and ‘Torn Asunder’ keep you guessing what might happen among the loose framework of repeat verses and chorus meeting points. The former alternates between two-beat drum patterns and blast beats and focuses on melody and dissonance as a balancing act rather than a dichotomous choice. Listen how the latter is cold in places and flaming hot in others, thanks to its infusion of dark fifth chords and high-register melodies. Metallica’s Black album comes to mind in the way they dance around the crunchy riff in the middle eight. This is where you’ll make the comparisons with their fellow Swedes in Tribulation.
Only one of the eight tracks on this record falls flat, and that’s because it’s so sharp. ‘Chariots of Fire’ starts like a dungeon synth composition but then evolves into a comical piece of breakneck black metal with the rapid vocal delivery, almost like an earnest piece of extreme metal with a growling Busta Rhymes at the microphone. This is no doubt unintentional, but it feels like a song that never progressed beyond the rehearsal studio or benefitted from a pre-production demo. The band’s debt to Tribulation on ‘Ett Avskedsbrev’ is also notable, although their determination to throw in a “Hey! Hey!” fist pump will leave you with a scowl on your face. Why spoil the good work with such a cheap piece of choreography?
Fortunately, consistency is the greatest feature of this album, and you’ll find little to fault even if nothing astonishes you. ‘Brännmärkt’ is a triumph of restraint, relying on the quartet’s ability to maintain a dark introspection of sound without changing the mid-tempo beats. Closing track, ‘Jaws of the Underworld’, thrives on the stress of a timpani and foghorn before the tom drums work into a menacing tribal pattern that wants to hypnotise you. They could have put this at the beginning or the middle of the listening experience, and it would still resonate with the same shudder of anxiety.
Lycaon has less orchestration, fewer layers, and little pomp compared with their previous albums, but it makes up for this with a macabre gothic metal foundation for its heavier moments. Grá deserve credit for exploring a more playful malice, and they seldom squander this charm. The black metal die-hards have no need to worry about the group’s current evolution.
Release Date: 13/01/2023
Record Label: Avantgarde Music
Standout tracks: White City Devil; Torn Asunder; Lycaon
Suggested Further Listening: Tribulation – Where the Gloom Becomes Sound (2021), Paradise Lost – Medusa (2017), Carcass – Torn Arteries (2021)