Naglfar / Nagelfar
Harvest / Virus West
Century Media / Ván
2007 / 2006
B / B
n Hel, the Norse mythological underworld, Nagelfar is a ship made from the nails of the dead. When Ragnarok (aka Armageddon) comes, Nagelfar will set sail, carrying Loki and the soldiers of Hel. Two black metal bands, both formed in the early '90s, are named after Nagelfar. Sweden's Naglfar is on Century Media Records; Germany's Nagelfar is now defunct, but enjoys a recent revival due to Ván's reissue of its final album, 2001's Virus West.
Century Media is one of metal's best-selling labels. Blessed with budgets for strong production, its bands uphold verse-chorus structures, memorable melodies, and the fist-pumping ethos of classic metal. Nagelfar, on the other hand, is a cult favorite in black metal. In the metal underground, the conventional wisdom is this: Naglfar, polished edgeless, is commercial and watered-down; Nagelfar "keeps it real." However, Harvest and Virus West show that it's not that simple.
Naglfar started out as underground as any black metal band. Singer (and then-bassist) Kristoffer Olivius and guitarist Andreas Nilsson struggled to learn their instruments and to establish a black metal identity in a Swedish scene dominated by death metal. Its 1995 debut, Vittra, was startlingly forceful; its melodies suggested Iron Maiden with corpsepaint. Naglfar's songwriting has matured since then, with a revolving door of drummers and guitarists. However, its melodic sense has remained constant—and is probably what drew Century Media's attention.
If Naglfar has been slightly guilty of repeating itself in the past, Harvest won't change that. The ingredients are the same—tremolo picking, fluid leads, metronomic blastbeats, and diabolical rasps. However, after 15 years, the band's songwriting is almost impeccable. This emphasis on song, rather than sound, distinguishes more mainstream black metal bands like Naglfar from more avant-garde practitioners like Xasthur or Blut Aus Nord. These songs move quickly and economically, with snappy transitions and varied textures. A keyboard flourish here, a tasty guitar arpeggio there—the band is essentially writing pop songs, just with darker trimmings. Typically for Century Media, the production is clean, compressed, and powerful. This normally isn't a boon in black metal, which treasures the lo-fi, heavy-lidded drone. But it fits the material; guitars crunch with authority, and blastbeats pound like the galloping thunder of Odin's Hunt. Metal commentators often contrast "black metal" with traditional "heavy metal," but their union here is dynamic.
Add an "e," and the result isn't necessarily more esoteric. Like much of underground black metal, Nagelfar's songs are long and roving; four of the seven tracks on Virus West top ten minutes in length. However, the band's back catalogue suggests that with a higher budget, its goals might have been akin to those of its Swedish counterpart. While Nagelfar didn't try to write perfect four-minute songs, it often aimed for the same grandiosity. Lacking the battering ram production that Naglfar enjoys, Nagelfar resorted to keyboards. The results could be stirring, but were at times comically misplaced; its orchestral hits suggested the Pet Shop Boys, minus the irony.
Virus West's best moments are keyboard-free—the majestic Phrygian mode of "Sturm Der Katharsis," the male choral vocals that haunt "Hellebarn" and "Hetzjagd in Palästina." The elongated songs allow greater exploration, with eerie, jangly figures as masonry between rough-hewn riffs. Occasionally, the band dials in the right keyboard preset. "Hetzjagd" has ominous timpani drums; the horns in "Westwall" are martial calls to battle. Blastbeats run rampant, as do tracheotomy candidate rasps. But despite their many highlights, songs never really gel as such. They want both to crush and hypnotize, which are opposite ends. The former requires immediate impact; the latter, long-term commitment. Such tension can be colorful, though. While Nagelfar didn't explore it further, its drummer continues to do so with his current band, the Ruins of Beverast.