Hulder – Verses in Oath


Godslastering has the making of a cult record and will increase the clamour to find out the identity of the woman who composed it,’ said Scream Blast Repeat when reviewing Hulder’s 2021 album. ‘If this doesn’t intrigue your taste for the dark caverns of the underground, nothing will,’ we commented. Now, we know a lot more about her after she signed to 20 Buck Spin last year and accepted an invitation from Decibel Magazine to headline their 2024 North American tour with Devil Master, Worm and Necrofier. Her name is Marliese Beeuwsaert (aka Marz), the Belgian-American daughter of a former professional basketball player and current wife of the nephew of Melvins legend, Buzz Osborne. The buzz surrounding Hulder 2.0 is loud enough to wake the world’s hibernating hedgehog population in the critical month of February. Is this the artist that can cement America’s place on the black metal map?

Hulder’s music is European in aesthetic and sound. Maybe this is to be expected from a northern European woman from Belgium who now resides in the state of Washington. The din of geese squawking will prick up your ears in opener, ‘An Elegy’, as a cold wind approaches. It pinches your ear lobes and swirls inside them like a passing train and prepares you for the savage noise-confrontation of ‘Boughs Ablaze’ while you purse your lips in anticipation. There’s no hesitation to jump into the blast beats here, with muddy guitars that strum their strings at the speed of light like Immortal. You can hear the snares in the chaos as Marz chooses the most evil fifth chords on her guitar neck. The tempo is hotter than a sizzling funeral pyre, yet the drums alternate between rapid snares and simple two-beat patterns. What’s the difference between a death metal and a black metal vocal, you ask? It’s all in the rasp – Marz sounds like she needs to spit a wasp out of her mouth. There’s no need to palm-mute the riffs when the distortion is as ugly and as terminal as this. Listen how she adds keyboard horns to give the music a more majestic and triumphalist feel. This is black metal as envisaged by Mayhem in their rehearsal room in 1990.

It’s no exaggeration to say that ‘Hearken the End’ is the best metal song of 2024 so far. For this, we can thank the classical piano motifs inserted into the grinding noise template, like Arcturus circa 1997. Here, Marz embraces blackened death-doom with a spooky melody that’s as infectious as a venereal disease. Somehow, you can grasp a sense of the epic in the sweeping chaos. The vocal harmonies could be from a Miranda Sex Garden or Dead Can Dance album. Undoubtedly, this is a big step-up in musical ability from Hulder. The drummer dares to attack his double-kick pedal like a death metal sticksman. Close your eyes and you could be listening to a black metal take on Paradise Lost’s legendary Gothic LP from 1991. The onslaught of gain gushing out of the amps feels like a dam imploding.

We know that raw emotion takes precedence in black metal rather than any kind of sophisticated vocal techniques. Marz does not sound like somebody who agonised over the execution of her words even if she delivers them in agony. She barks with a permanent flare of the nostrils for most of this LP. The diabolical aggression in the title-track contains a bloodlust to it that makes you feel guilty for enjoying it. This song reveals more dimensions when you analyse it on repeat, with the use of a bass trombone preset in the keyboards thickening the guitars to great effect. The blast beats resemble a cement mixer on the lowest setting. This is because the bass drums overpower the snares. You can trace the pomp and aesthetic of this song back to Bathory, which is a sure sign of its vitality.

Of course, an album as hostile as this needs its moments of quieter introspection. All good forest-dwellers should know how to experience solitude during the day as well as night. ‘Lamentation’ is one minute and five seconds of a broken opera record spinning on the gramophone as if co-opted into a haunted house horror film. ‘An Offering’ is Marz at her most experimental and funereal. The mournful vocal harmonies are like pincers in the heart of the bereaved. A mono drum machine adds a distorted snare beat as a helpful reference point. But including the last of these palette cleansers at track six on a ten-track album is a mistake. We need one more near the end.

‘Cast into the Well of Remembrance’ uses the same grieving harmony as ‘An Offering’ but translates it into a faster guitar piece with demonic vocals that a priest would be too scared to banish. Burzum’s mystical transcendence is the aim of the game here. There’s no deviation in Marz’s voice in this album, yet it never feels tedious or unmotivated. Her pain is visceral. Listen to the metronomic flutter of the double-bass pedal in the groove – this will sound awesome in a live setting.

Yet the imagination levels wane in the last quarter, where the prospect of four consecutive black metal songs of little distinction leaves you checking your wristwatch. If we’re being kind, we might say that the gothic awe of ‘Vessel of Suffering’ lies in the subtlety of the keyboard choirs buried in the mix on purpose. You can hear the tremolo notes change with greater clarity in this song. Not so with ‘Enchanted Steel’, where a dirty blow-torch effect of layered guitars invites the blast beats to murder the life out of them. Blut Aus Nord would sound like this if they started adding guitars back into their song arrangements. An enchanting female choir agitates in the background like corrupted angels in league with Satan.

Verses of Oath is on the right track for Hulder’s artistic evolution, but it relies on a breadcrumb trail to retain its sense of place rather than the fearless instincts of the forest-living mind. Amon Amaarth would be proud of the martial spirit of closing track, ‘Veil of Penitence’, in the way it demands the listener mull over their warrior credentials. The heroism is admirable, but you might be too exhausted to ponder whether you should sacrifice your life for the greater good.

Hulder’s masterpiece can be realised in the future. This album is another stepping stone of great promise that almost achieves its potential.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 09/02/2024

Record Label: 20 Buck Spin

Standout tracks: Boughs Ablaze, Hearken the End, An Offering

Suggested Further Listening: Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994), Paradise Lost – Gothic (1991), Arcturus – La Masquerade Infernale (1997)