Helfró – Tálgröf


Some of you will know Ragnar Sverrisson as the drummer for Icelandic tech-death shredders, Ophidian I. As of this year, he’s also the sticksman for Carach Angren’s live shows. But his true passion is Helfró, the project he started in 2017 as a solo venture that has now evolved into a duo with guitarist and bassist, Simon Thorolfsson. Tálgröf is the follow-up to 2018’s self-titled debut, and it promises to go harder on the death metal side of things while retaining its original purpose to bring Iceland’s winter landscape to life through the immersive power of music. Of course, the main problem is that Nordic winters are monotonous and bleak.

The technical scale-blazing riffs and start-stop blast beats of opening song, ‘Jarteikn’, give you a snapshot of the entire album in the first thirty-five seconds. This is never a good thing. A jarring pressure on your spine will take its toll after two tracks. The eye-watering fury of all instruments locked into a maximum velocity of aggression soon becomes just another tempo to grow used to, the way a child grows used to their Christmas presents and then moves on to the next distraction. Clearly, Ihsahn (Emperor) is the main influence on this music, but it lacks his charisma and enthusiasm. The malevolent vocals tease in a remorseless glee, like a murderer who finds great delight in offending the family members of his victims.

Nobody can deny the exquisite musicianship of Helfró. ‘Fláráð Fræði’ can match anything in the Morbid Angel catalogue in its opening riff and does a good job of retaining the listener’s attention with its keyboard strings haunting the dynamic peaks. ‘Fangelsaður í Tilvist að Eilífu’ starts with much promise under the grapeshot of a Wagnerian symphony orchestration, but the blast beats and dissonant guitars take over and send its memory down the drain like incessant rainwater. Again, there’s nothing to criticise in the quality of the guitar work or the rhythmic ability of either musician. Thorolfsson loves to catch the discordant strings when forming intervals on his fretboard. Introducing a French horn in the mix here is one of the wisest decisions on the album.

So, what are the weaknesses of this LP if the musicianship is so strong, and the credentials are not in doubt? Unfortunately, it comes down to the problem of abundance. We have an oversupply of blackened death metal bands in the international underground. Like the 10,000 graduates that apply for an intern at the London investment banks with a 2:1 degree and a Masters in Economics, there is little you can do to stand out if you stay within the rigid confines of the system. Helfró seem to understand this, and they try to nurture a chivalrous classical instinct when things start to become predictable. These would be successful if the songs had a semblance of ritual repetition. Instead, they evolve like linear narratives with a lot to digest in the middle parts. ‘Þögnin Ytra, Kyrrðin Innra’ shows great competency in the extreme metal field, but it’s also forgettable. Multiple listens reveal nothing apart from a blank canvass. ‘Traðkandi Blómin í Eigin Hjartagarði’ is another piece of blackened-death metal that we’ve heard so many times over the last fifteen years. It’s not enough to be dazzled by the stupendous musicianship.

But all is not lost for Helfró, nor do they stretch their music to unacceptable levels of monotony. Thirty-five minutes is tolerable for an audio bludgeoning that delights in accelerating the beats-per-minute to inhuman levels. ‘Sindur’ draws from the glory of Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium for its pomp and purpose. You can wear your imaginary General’s uniform as the menacing horns and keyboard strings leave a trail of smoke behind. The chunky down-picking rhythms at 01:30 are worthy of the air guitar posture. Here, Sverrisson’s blast beats release their rage like Stalingrad soldiers in search of food and winter clothing.

Helfró can be much more than a blackened-death metal band if they step out of their comfort zone. Unfortunately, they avoid the tough decisions and settle for a safe metallic onslaught that will win plaudits for its musicianship and lose the attention of those that demand continuous excitement.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 01/12/2023

Record Label: Season of Mist

Standout tracks: Fláráð fræði; angelsaður í tilvist að eilífu; Sindur

Suggested Further Listening: Hissing – Hypervirulence (2022), Descent – Order of Chaos (2022), Antitheus – The Faults of Our Kind (2023)