Thursday 11 January 2024

Hexvessel - Polar Veil (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Psychedelic Folk Rock/Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Sep 2023
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Well, here's something that I totally didn't expect. My last experience with Hexvessel was with an album called Kindred in 2020, which became my Album of the Year, just nudging out Solstice. Both of those albums were folk music, though former took that into psychedelic rock but the latter into progressive rock. It's a haunting album and I've gone back to it often since, as well as checking out a few odd earlier tracks on YouTube. I haven't listened to earlier albums yet, perhaps with a little fear that they might not be up to Kindred's incredibly high standard.

Well, this follow-up, their sixth studio album, is hard to compare because it adopts their style into a completely different genre, namely black metal, and it's a fascinating shift that I'm still coming to terms with. The black metal is in guitars, now exclusively Mathew McNerney's domain because I don't see Jesse Heikkinen in the line-up, which are no longer acoustic psychedelic folk but a full on wall of sound bleakness. The change is from pastoral meadow or maybe sparse desert to nighttime blizzard, literally day to night. However, neither the vocals nor the drums follow suit, except for an anomalous couple of moments.

That means no blastbeats, except for Eternal Meadow and Homeward Polar Spirit, which are both as frantic as we expect from black metal drumming. Otherwise, Jukka Rämänen keeps a slow beat, which fits the bleakness but carries a little more inherent warmth. It fits reasonably well, because it means we pay attention to mood more than we might usually for black metal and there is some variation there. It also forces us to slow down while we listen, which helps us pay closer attention to the voice, which delivers lyrics rather than serving as another musical instrument.

And yes, that means no harsh vocals, except for the very end of Older Than the Gods, where there are hints at something harsh. This is less successful to my thinking, because these approaches are almost mutually exclusive. What made McNerney's vocals special on Kindred was how much sheer nuance he was able to infuse into songs. Even when other instruments did something interesting, I was always listening to the words he was singing and feeling them in the way he felt them. It was a highly immersive storytelling technique and individual words carried powerful meaning. Here, he seems to do the same thing, but I just couldn't hear that nuance. I mostly couldn't hear words. The lyrics may be as meaningful but I couldn't back that up or give examples.

So the overall effect is very different. What preserves from the psychedelic folk sound is a strong sense of ritual. It was easy to fall into rhythms and flows and those remain powerful, if not of the same level of impact. McNerney's voice stands out best on Crepuscular Creatures, where all that nuance is still evident, but A Cabin in Montana is the track that easily carries the most impactful groove because the beat works perfectly with the voice. It's mostly on these two songs that I was able to catch lyrics. "Who speaks to the world?" "Freedom!"

Elsewhere, I like that overall effect as a sound but not how it plays out over the whole album. It's fascinating to hear what I still think of as psychedelic folk music drenched in feedback and with an entirely clean voice almost battling it out for dominance with an abrasive guitar. However, over a full album, this is generally too opaque, too distant and too dense, except in rare moments, like a snatch of something special at the very end of Listen to the River, as the wall of sound fades away and we hear what was behind that curtain.

Of course, I have to wonder if this is a one-off experiment or an indication of where Hexvessel are going. As the former, it's certainly interesting and, on occasion, it works rather well. Some tracks continue to grow on me, even if I have to pay serious attention to figure out why. Ring is one, with some excellent guitarwork underneath the wall of sound. As the latter, though, it seems unlikely to me that this approach will work long term. It's inherently limited and, as such it's missing a lot of what I find special in this band. By a lot, I mean far too much. I guess only time will tell.

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