Denmark: home to Vikings, frikadeller and funeral doom metal

By Ben arnold

In the short time it has been around, black metal, the cacophonous, fast, harsh, and often occult breed of metal has given unholy birth to some incredible subgenres, like symphonic black metal, Viking metal, and folk metal. But its most interesting spawn are those hatched in conjunction with other genres of extreme metal-for instance, its crossover with the deliberately slowed-down and dissonant doom metal-yielding vague, brilliant subgenres like dark ambient, drone doom, and, notably, funeral doom, a species that is crushingly slow, heavy and atmospheric. While funeral doom hasn’t continued on the same path of blasphemous unholy creation of further esoteric subgenres, it has given rise to some of the most progressive acts under the black metal umbrella today. Case in point: the Danish band Nortt, and in particular, its new album “Galgenfrist.”Around since the mid-nineties, Nortt, actually a one-man project whose reclusive mastermind goes by the same name, has sporadically created several influential but mostly standard demos and EPs; his style of the genre, which normally relies on crushing guitar and vocals, was minimalist and incorporated instruments like the piano, as well as lowering the reverb of the guitars, to create a claustrophobic aural space. This was an interesting and unseen move within the genre; however, once the novelty faded, the windowless room Nortt was trying to create seemed to be made of cardboard rather than stone. He attempted to make an atmosphere, however dank, above anything else; instead, low-quality production and a near addiction to piano cut his efforts short.

No more. With 2007’s “Galgenfrist,” Nortt has hit black metal gold. It is slow. It is crushing. It feels like death, and emptiness, and crawls at the pace of a funeral march. The atmosphere and sense of despair that he seemed to be searching for has been found. Whereas previous releases had an excellent song or two mixed in with forgettable pieces (“Dod og Borte,” for example, off of the 2004 split LP with Xasthur), “Galgenfrist” feels like an endless thunderstorm.

While Nortt sticks mostly with standard funeral doom instrumentation-crushingly distorted guitar and huge empty drums-he does some interesting things. Bass guitar is avoided in favor of deep, uncomplicated strings, as well as hollow synth notes so low they fade off the bass register into an endless ringing, most apparent on the track “Til Graven VI.” The trademark piano makes a cameo on the track “Af Dode,” but this time he gets it perfect, with simple chords that are hollow, distant and somewhere in the back of the noise. Vocally, the slow growls of previous Nortt recordings are scratched in favor of endless, low-volume screams and groans that fade into the overall noise rather than stand above it. Interestingly, what sound like distorted and lengthened nature recordings of thunder and wind are hidden underneath the instrumentation. While this is not the first time that nature sounds have been used in funeral doom-Minnesota’s own Celestial used this element to great effect on his album “Desolate North”-the fact that Nortt does not use them as a blunt end-in-itself deepens the pool of sound he creates on the album.

Every piece on this album works to create an atmosphere, rather than showcase instrumental, lyrical or thematic talent. However, instead of just sounding like a monotone thunderstorm (which would be great in and of itself) there is melody within the atmosphere, mostly provided by the piano and strings; however, Nortt takes an interesting step on “Over Mit Lig” to have the sparse melody transfer from the strings to the guitar, and then to a high synth tone. The same song also showcases the subtle yet high-contrast transitions between softer, full passages and empty, louder sections that Nortt has always done well.

On “Galgenfrist,” Nortt finally matures into the musician he has been trying to be. By ditching the compressed, low-tone sound for a huge, vacant emptiness, he has discovered, ironically, the claustrophobic despair he was searching for on previous works. “Galgenfrist,” with its booming echoes and natural noises, put the listener somewhere in Mordor this time around, and for funeral doom, it’s all about atmosphere.