Thursday, October 3, 2013

Drottnar - Stratum (2013)

When I was a kid, it was common to see a new record from many bands each year.  With the music industry in what was probably the height of its reign, bands almost had to do so in order to keep themselves relevant, keep new product available, singles on the radio, and keep the tour buses rolling.  Artists who spent years away in between albums either had to rely on a rabid fan base, or just be THAT GOOD, where it didn't matter how long they'd been away - fans were going to eat up whatever they put out.  Today's modern music "industry" landscape is much different.  With the internet allowing bands to connect directly with and market to fans, long stints between albums is no longer a factor, other than the usual "Musical ADD" that some folks have.

I don't think Drottnar has that problem, in part because their music is niche enough to escape the attention of the crop of folks that would suffer from that "Musical ADD".  And to, Drottnar's music has become a unique enough beast that, even if others were copying what they were doing, there's still no substitute for the genuine article.  So while fans who dug the limited release "Anamorphosis" EP (good little release) may have thought 3 years was a long time to wait for the unexpected shift toward the self-dubbed "bunker metal" of "Welterwerk", imagine how much agony those same fans were in during the 6-year wait between that album and this new release, "Stratum"!  Suffice to say, I think the wait was worth it.

Much like its predecessor, "Stratum" is a difficult album to penetrate at first.  There is the standard instant gratification of much metal, in that it's an immediately visceral and intense experience, with grinding guitars, pounding drums, fast riffing, thumping bass, and vocals that could peel the paint off your house.  But beneath the surface, there's a lot going on, and if you're not listening closely enough, you'll miss it.  That's because this is no longer the primitive black metal sound the band was playing on early demos, or even the slightly more tuneful stuff on "Anamorphosis".  No, friends, this is music that requires time and attention to appreciate fully.  And it's time you'll want to invest, because this is a worthwhile conquest.

Right away it's evident that the album, on the whole, is a bit more straightforward than "Welterwerk", at least in terms of the songs.  There are fewer bits that seem to meander, and most of the songs are well constructed and get to the point soon enough, and then don't wander off into aimless territory toward the end like a couple tracks on "Welterwerk" that went on too long.  This is a more refined Drottnar, and for the better.  You may also notice that this album hits harder immediately and sounds heavier, in part because it's louder.  This album isn't going to win the "loudness war" going on in modern metal, however, because it's still easy to get separation of instruments and hear what's going on.  You just won't have to crank up the stereo quite as much before you get the "Memorex" effect of being blown away by it all.

The guitar sound is quite similar to "Welterwerk", in that it mirrors that slightly thinner black metal sound and feel, having more in common with dark thrash than death metal.  The distortion isn't as chunky as you might expect, but the effect is no less scathing, as the riffing and guitar tone still combine to create a heavy experience.  The riffs employ a lot of dissonant and dis-harmonic sounds, much like the previous album, so that adds to the overall atmosphere of the album.  Bass guitar is evident, and provides a nice thump behind the guitar tone, occasionally doing enough of its own thing to prompt you to listen specifically to the bass.  Drums sound great here, with a nice "thumpy" bass drum sound (as opposed to the overly "clicky" sound on many albums), and a snappy snare tone.  Between the slow, groove-based drumming, the blast beats, and the various fills and rolls provided due to the use of odd time signatures, the drum work rarely gets stale or uninteresting.  Vocally, Sven-Erik Lind sounds much as he did on "Welterwerk", with that piercing, raspy black metal styled shriek he has employed.  For those that think there isn't much expression or range in a vocal like that, this album is a good example of how that's just not true - plenty of inflection, emotion, and "vocal shaping" are employed here to great effect.  There are also a handful of moments where choir vocals are used for a bit of atmosphere - it's subtle and not overdone, so it works well here.

In terms of the album as a whole, it's a frenetic experience, from the opening chords of "We March" and the twisting, winding guitar lines of "Cul-De-Sac" (an ironic song title, to be sure), through the album's centerpiece tracks "Soul Suburbia", with its almost movement-like structure, and "Seven Suns Shining" with its odd timed groove and excellent riffing.  On the back side of the experience, the intensity of "Ersatz" and winding sound of "Wolves and Lambs" cap things off nicely.  There's barely a respite moment between songs, either, as many tracks flow right into each other (best exemplified by the lack of a pause between "Lucid Stratum" and "Ersatz"), so aside from a couple spots where the tempo slows for effect, the album doesn't really let up until the final moments of "Wolves and Lambs".  The experience of listening to the album is intense, and after just 38 minutes, you feel as though the journey was longer than that, because it's exhausting and exhilarating at once.

My biggest complaints with the album are minor, but worth mentioning.  As I just mentioned, the album is only 38 minutes long.  A 6-year wait and only 38 minutes?  This is partially muted because the quality of the material is high, and because it means the transition to vinyl is easier (which I plan to take advantage of), but still, it's a little thin.  In addition, the aforementioned lack of transition between tracks can occasionally be confusing, because unless you're paying attention to what track is playing, you may not even realize that you've just listened to 3 songs in a row, rather than 1 really long song.  After repeated listens, this diminishes some, as you begin to learn the songs as slightly more individual entities versus one large blur, but it's still a minor complaint.  Perhaps also worth mentioning is the artwork - the gas mask trope has been overdone in modern metal and rock, and while it's more relevant with Drottnar (because gas masks are a part of their stage presence), it still feels a little "phoned in", like they should have done something a bit more creative than a simple black and white photo with somebody wearing a gas mask, even if it does slightly illustrate the stark and cold nature of the music.

Even with those complaints, I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album over the last several weeks, and imagine I'll come back to it more than "Welterwerk", which I think is the indicator that matters most.  "Welterwerk" at times left me cold, not wanting more, but a little confused as to what they were doing.  "Stratum", on the other hand, is a much more focused and effective distillation of the so-called "bunker metal" sound Drottnar have developed, and these songs have thus far impacted me more than any on its predecessor.  That's progress, and that's why I think this is not only the best thing they've done so far, but also a great jumping-off point for the band to really go places.  Bravo to the band for their best album so far, and here's hoping the next one doesn't take 6 years to make.  Recommended.


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