(Iron Bonehead Records, 2018)
#FOR FANS OF: Pagan Black, Primordial, Agalloch
When Runespell made its debut with 'Unhallowed Blood Oath', Nightwolf had no shortage of samey riffs and basic black metal to ascribe to his dingy dominion. With a slight handle on harnessing a hollow atmosphere, humidified by raining guitar notes and barely audible blasting moments into his swampy mix, the Australian newcomer's first attempt made for an unimpressive display of down under diligence. Nevertheless, Nightwolf plunges on with his 2018 attempt in 'Order of Vengeance', an equally milquetoast album with an equally vague title that somehow extinguishes the small and distant flicker of hope that once emanated from this bland bedroom. Where 'Unhallowed Blood Oath' had the potential to presage a pivot after an initial display of prowess, 'Order of Vengeance' plods down the same safe path, fearful of the creatures that creep in the bush and unwilling to undertake the struggle to discover a truer aspect within.
“Retribution in Iron” encapsulates everything you need to hear, to understand, and what to expect from this album. The barely audible swinging rear riffs, hallowed harmonies hailing calls to trigger blast beat charges, and a consistent melancholy lending the generic surface meaning to ferocious music leaves the listener conflicted, wondering whether to weep or shriek at this enraging cage. At the forefront are proclamations from a calm but stern vocal, unintelligible at most times but raspy enough to leave a microphone sopping with unbrushed flavor after an hour. Yet there is a second layer of conflict underpinning 'Order of Vengeance', a conflict that leaves this listener wondering whether he even wants to listen to another bland bedroom black metal band such as this after so many years of consistent, cannibalistic, and incestuous music with so little variation and exploration in this well-hidden sub-culture.
Rather than branch out, Runespell's latest attempt is a far more cloistered display of Nightwolf's vision, consistent to a fault, and leaves a listener yearning for the Agalloch worship and flagging idealism of yesteryear. With a dull and dulcet demo sounding mix that betrays the energy of this album by propelling puttering patters rather than a powerful and passionate punch, the effort and black metal zeal is apparent in some places, but is in a quiet place of studious creation rather than the overt, unsettling, vengeful, and brash individual enterprise typical of the style. Turning his sights from the most obvious groups to simulate and instead scratching somewhat beneath the surface of one of the most placid black metal coves, 'Order of Vengeance' maintains an unwavering Primordial focus that eschews epic ambiances in favor of a gait as uninterrupted by diversity, fresh ideas, and originality as a festival featuring an abandoned fifer who knows only one song. While this creates a sound that must make the album grow on the listener in order to be approached with appreciation, with some great riffing in the background of “Claws of Fate” and tremolos abound, the disheartening lack of originality throughout these forty-six minutes serves as a reminder of the talent that serves so many facets of underground metal and the ease with which a passing posing band wagoner may be spotted. 'Order of Vengeance' is replete with two-riff inanities that wash the ears in so many by-the-numbers, beaten down, and uninspiring reels that it shows Nightwolf as a formulaic well-versed musician phoning in his art and attempting to turn trash into cash.
That being said, Runespell has a sound that is steadily growing on me. In spite of its lacking originality, the pinches of nuance and improvement in formula and pacing have shown that Nighwolf has been studying and adapting his songwriting ever so slightly. In spite of the fact that every song on 'Order of Vengeance' sounds either the same as the last or generically repeats just about every old trope in the black book, underpinning many modern mechanics with a modest low-fi aesthetic, the general gist of the album plays things safe and even enough not to offend, let alone imbue itself into memory. This is best shown in the ambient and acoustic “Night's Gate”, where a most familiar string tinkle joins with the sound of distant cars hitting a freeway bump, almost beat for beat an Agalloch piece, but that would be too easy a comparison to draw. This song strips down some of the Balkan fire of Bethroned, quiets the sound of “Autumn I” by Gallowbraid, and leaves this writer scratching his head, ready to embark on a ten hour search for that single exact example of emulation. It's frustrating when a sound so typical and overdone pings so loud that it conjures a dozen responses on the radar, but this is the eternal plight of the bedroom black metal band. In spite of Occam's razor prevailing in finding the near mirror likeness of “Night's Gate” in another woefully average Australian band, Vaiya's endlessly monotonous “:W i n t e r m o o n:”, there is a larger bottleneck of ideas that needs to be addressed.
Struggling with the issues that plague so many, working in the same styled space as countless others, and attempting to force the individuality inspired by black metal out of such a counterintuitively collective culture stagnates musicians and leaves swaths of scorched earth as common and indistinct from each other as a bass guitar is in a lo-fi mix. Runespell is a product of a much larger endemic issue in the black metal underground. A misguided and misdirected hope to stand out with the crowd leaves so many broken and beaten bands by the wayside for the sole reason that they simply are not interesting or unique enough to deserve more than a cursory glance. In a style so stark in its search for solitude, so willing to praise itself for its population of lone wolves, bedroom black metal musicians seem unable to grasp the reality that they are the dime a dozen worldwide distribution of self-parodying sadness spawned from a once proud, cloistered, under-publicized, and passionate sub-culture. The internet has become the new Sunset Strip. Soundcloud, bandcamp, and Facebook are the new nightclubs filled with musicians caked in make-up hoping for a record deal, and there isn't a chick in sight. Runespell is just another here today and gone tomorrow member of a lost generation with nothing to say, further cheapening the idea of bedroom black metal in spite of some examples of fantastic musicians that Nightwolf may well consider his peers.
Eight years ago Runespell would have been one of many in the long list of listenable but impactless bedroom black metal bands, unable to hold a candle to the few stars seen as transcendent in the realm but considered capable enough to deserve its marginal success and a modest following. Eight years ago this DNA flowed through the veins of musicians in Norway, Sweden, and Germany, Croatia and Slovenia, the United States and Canada, Bahrain and Iran, Russia and Ukraine, and most of them are still around today, saturating a musical landscape with an immense elaboration on the particulars of the style. What makes anything by any of the latest in this Australian branch within this last year any different?
As much as this album starts to grow on me, digging in meek tendrils of roots that lose their grip to even a drizzle, Runespell may as well be holding up the background of a mindless low-tier video game with its music rather than strive for the lofty par set by the likes of Final Fantasy's Nobo Uematsu or Command and Conquer's Frank Klepacki. If Koei decided to create an endless series of viking hack and slash games, Runespell could easily provide the soundtrack with a reverential eruption like “Wolf.Axis” and wouldn't offend in the least after a generation of players hears these endless riffs recycling just under the sound of terribly-voiced awfully translated dialogue. Simply put, Runespell is incredibly boring, inert and soulless in its rage, and it seems this has become a common thread with some of these more atmospherically inclined Australian bedroom bands. The lack of ambiance shows how hollow and lacking in ideas these musicians are while the endless repetition shows how one-dimensional, copy and paste, their outlooks can be. Something needs to change.