Released: March 26, 2013
Is it strange that as I hurtle through my mid-thirties, more than two decades after picking up my first "rock" album (Nirvana's Nevermind), my taste in guitar music leans shamelessly toward "metal"? Shouldn't I be well onto mature fare by now - Bon Iver or Grizzly Bear perhaps? No thanks - not quite yet. Even Kurt Cobain, often paralyzed by the same self-conscious modesty that plagues today's wet-noodle rockers, had to admit Nirvana's primary musical influences were the Beatles and Black Sabbath. The catchy, and the crushing.
The essence and power of rock & roll is in the primal, the untamed, and the provocative - the very name itself is a euphemism for "sex." The sonic frenzy and unhinged antics of the genre's founders - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others - bares little resemblance to much of what passes for rock today. That is, except metal - a diehard rock sub-genre, born at the implosion of flower-power in the late 60's, that boils rock & roll down to its dark fundamentals and amplifies the audiovisual assault.
Metal itself is a complex musical ecosystem with countless sub-genres and subcultures of its own. When navigating its vast landscape it helps to have a few touchstones. In recent years two of mine have been visual artist (and Baroness frontman) John Baizley, and prolific metal producer Kurt Ballou. The former is responsible for some of my favorite album artwork in metal, while the latter produced three of my favorite metal albums from last year (Black Breath's Sentenced To Life, High on Fire's De Vermis Mysteriis, and Torche's Harmonicraft). When I heard Ballou produced Kvelertak's new album Meir, featuring cover art by Baizley, I took the bait.
Kvelertak ("stranglehold" in Norwegian) is a six-piece metal band from Stevanger, Norway. Their style is loosely termed "black & roll" - a combination of "black metal" (an extreme sub-genre with a soft spot for Satan, popular in Scandinavia) and blue-collar party rock in the style of Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, and Motorhead. So what the hell does that sound like? Pretty damn good. Lead vocalist Erlend Hjelvik howls, screeches, and grunts his vocals with call-and-response backup from the rest of the band - entirely in Norwegian. I can't understand a single word these knuckleheads are screaming, but I can certainly pump my fist to it.
Kvelertak's self-titled debut (also produced by Ballou, with cover art by Baizley) was released in 2010 and went gold in Norway. Meir (simply, "more" in Norwegian) is the band's sophomore album and, as the title implies, it's really just a second helping of the same. Where a fan-from-day-one might be disappointed with Kvelertak's lack of evolution in three years, I suspect many new fans like myself wholeheartedly welcome another heaping plate of balls-to-the-wall rock fury.
Meir's opener, "Apenbaring," builds casually then erupts midway through with Hjelvik unleashing a bloodcurdling "Yaaaaaaow!" And we're off - triple guitar squall, bass rumbling, and drums pounding. Kvelertak rarely let up on the gas for the rest of the record's wild ride. "Trepan" starts out as traditional black metal - eerie tremolo guitar, unsettling demon shriek, urgent blast beats - but gradually morphs into a groovy jam by its conclusion. Though "Trepan" evolves subtly, other cuts shift gears at breakneck speed - throwing a dozen ideas into the blender at once.
"Evig Vandrar" begins with sprightly acoustic guitar and Hjelvik grunting like a grumpy troll roused from a slumber, another barbaric wail, more crunchy guitar, a bridge recalling Queen's "We Will Rock You," then the whole thing launches into the stratosphere before gingerly returning to earth - all in under three minutes. "Snilepisk" sprinkles Arabic motifs throughout its short run time, boasting a sweet bridge recalling the "Lawrence of Arabia" title theme, finger cymbals included.
Though chock-full of memorable tunes, Meir's two massive highlights are "Bruane Brenn" and closer "Kvelertak." The former, a high-octane rocker that has the whole band shouting on the mic, incorporates insistent boogie piano reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age's "Go With The Flow" and (not coincidentally) the aforementioned Jerry Lee Lewis, while the latter is the band's mid-tempo victory anthem, evoking vintage AC/DC, that will definitely get play during sweaty encores when sated fans break from moshing to hoist cans of Pabst skyward in collective salute.
Meir doesn't quite measure up to Kvelertak's unimpeachable debut and a few lengthy tracks in the latter third overstay their welcome, but it's a killer long-player nonetheless with top-notch production and energy to spare - definitely one of my favorites this year. Kevelertak merge their extreme metal and feral rock & roll influences deftly and joyfully. The band is certainly ripe for crossover success like the unapologetically fun and self-confident prog/sludge-metal heroes Mastodon. Meir is a pure shot of adrenaline that makes me flail around like an idiot, when nobody is watching of course - otherwise, that just wouldn't be sensible for a guy my age.