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In Praise Of Kvelertak, In Defense Of Enthusiasm

The cover art for Kvelertak's debut album, by John Dyer Baizley of Baroness!

A week or so ago, I posted the following status update on my Facebook Wall:

Spent the last month deeply in love w/this Kvelertak LP (D-beat a la Disfear but weirder, crazier). As of today, it’s my album of the year.


My thinking here was this: It’s November. I’ve listened to hundreds of records this year, and not too many have stuck with me. Yet, Kvelertak’s self-titled debut has revealed more nuances and exciting musical choices with every listen, and continued to prove to me that it is not just a very good album, but perhaps one that is pushing boundaries, one that is worthy of the strange dedication it has inspired in me. At the moment I wrote that update, if I’d been asked to officially declare my “2010 Album of the Year,” it would have been Kvelertak.

Anyway, that was the extended thought process that went into my very brief Facebook status update. Needless to say, I couldn’t expect anyone else to know what I was thinking, but I didn’t anticipate a backlash. And then I got one. Via my friend Phil, who replied:

dude, this must be your 8th album of the year since june. . . what were all those other ones again?

Phil was, of course, mocking my enthusiasm, which does indeed lead me to apply the superlative to numerous records every year, even though to do so is strictly oxymoronic: There cannot be more than one “best.” I do what little I can to skirt this by saying (very, very often) that some record or other is “one of the year’s best.” By leaving my parameters undefined, I have a built-in legal defense against complainants such as Phil. “One of the year’s best” could mean anything, really. I see no need to enumerate further. “One of the year’s best.” That says enough. In the moment, to me, the record in question is without any doubt the best music in the world. And there have been many such records for me this year.

Anyway, I was out walking last Saturday afternoon, blasting through my headphones Marrow of the Spirit, the new album from Portland, Oregon black-metal band Agalloch, and I found myself thinking: “This is really a great album. This could be the album of the year.”

And, you know, the more I think about it, the more I think, it really could.

But that realization made it especially urgent for me to document in my own words what makes Kvelertak such a special record—I want to say more about it than just, “As of today, it’s my album of the year.” Because if my superlatives have no value, then I must craft stronger, more thoughtful arguments for why I love this music as much as I do. So this week, a few words on Kvelertak. Perhaps next week we’ll discuss Marrow of the Spirit…and any other albums that change my life between now and then.

Kvelertak—Kvelertak (Indie Recordings)

If I didn’t already know Kvelertak was from Norway and you’d asked me to guess where they were from based solely on their sound, I’d say, “Sweden,” and be pretty confident I was right: The band’s exceptional self-titled debut album has much more in common with Swedish D-beat/death metal merchants like Disfear, Entombed and At the Gates than it does any of Norway’s best-known metal exports: Here I’m thinking specifically of the sound for which Norway is most famous, i.e., black metal in the Darkthrone/Burzum/Mayhem tradition. Kvelertak betray their origins in their lyrical themes—Norse mythology—and their lyrics—which are written and sung in Norwegian (in those regards, Kvelertak has a lot in common with another of this year’s standout metal albums, Burzum’s Belus).

That slight cultural crossover provides immense rewards. Kvelertak is an insane album of massive chant-along choruses, dirty blues guitar licks, gargantuan riffs as sticky as resin, and wild instrumental unpredictability. The whole thing sounds like a barroom brawl—but, you know, a barroom brawl as seen on Sons of Anarchy: chaotic and sweaty and sexy and cool. And loud. Like, LOUD. And catchy. Like, there are more hooks here than on most radio-pop albums. It’s a party record, really. It also sounds like five decades of rock ’n’ roll’s most dangerous music—the Stones, the Stooges, the Pistols, Motorhead, Mayhem—distilled into 11 individual 3-to-5-minute blasts of 90-proof sonic vodka.

That description could make the music sound arch or postmodern, but it’s really not: It’s so unself-conscious, so utterly excited and enthusiastic and manic that such artistic pretensions would seem totally alien to the band’s identity, their approach to making music, the sheer, violent energy that drives each of these tremendous songs. On their website, Kvelertak claim they “shamelessly draw inspiration from every corner of something that could fit into their idea of good, hard-hitting and catchy rock ’n’ roll,” and that seems accurate, even perhaps a bit modest. Kvelertak the album abounds with such richness, openness, joy and hedonism. It somehow captures an entire history in its 49 minutes. It is timeless and multitudinous, but so urgent and immediate that it could not have existed in any other instant except this one. [9/10]

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