Disclaimer: Any translations done for this piece are possibly flawed; I have no ability to understand Icelandic but, as usual, I felt a rudimentary translation is better than no translation for the sake of academic rigour.
Vonlaus (Hopeless in English) is a five-piece Icelandic black metal band from Reykjavík and damn, there must be something in the water over in Iceland because they produce the most original and bewitching black metal acts. Their first and only EP titled Röð slæmra ákvarðan (A series of bad decisions) is one of the best debut EPs I have heard this year, in fact, it might be one of the best black metal releases I have heard in a long time. Something about this record brings on intense fits of nostalgia when listening and transports me away to a dream of foggy, frigid landscapes yet all the while tinged with prospects of better days.
This release is packed to the brim with alluring musical tones while the grotesque and unhinged screamed vocals decry all things earthly and human. I find the vocal tone more entrancing than harsh. Like a triumphant shout or sometimes a cry for help rather than an aggressive attack on your ears. The bass when heard playing alone is distorted and fuzzed-out but in a most pleasant way, the tone warm and enveloping. The guitars are also only mildly distorted, feeling crisp and mystical, drenched in reverb, and always sound melodious. The drums play a far less intense role than in most black metal bands. I attribute this mostly to the warm tonal quality of the drums; however, the music also makes use of more rock or punk style grooves than would be expected. The drums do of course feature some great double-kick sections and blasts, but the drumming style is much more diverse than one usually expects of this style of music, which I find refreshing. This overall combination of instrumental style and tone is equal parts darkness and light. The music is filled with power, the triumphant charge of a doomed brigade. Sombre, beautiful, and yearning.
This is a short release, being an EP only just breaking the nineteen-minute mark, however, every track on the album is quality. Of the four tracks on this release, I do not think I can pick a favourite, although I do have many favourite parts which I will outline in more detail now as I break down the tracks.
The album kicks off with “Gjaldþrot” (“Bankruptcy”). The samples heard at the start of the album misled me slightly, due to the short length of the album and the ‘flicking through a radio’ sample style complete with children’s song. Initially, this gave me the impression I was going into a grindcore album. How wrong I was. Before long the fuzzy bass opens the piece, the part is swung and almost a bit jazzy, but it is quickly punctuated by rich guitar chords and groovy drums. Immediately the emotional intensity of the album is on full display, like a rider racing through the snowy woods, bringing a warning, a message of war. Shortly before the two-minute mark, we get a sustained section that leads us into another impellent set of chords and drums. I don’t know quite how to describe or explain it, but this music wells up emotions in my chest, filling me with feelings of longing, remorse, and wistfulness. I find tears welling up in my eyes as the inevitable weight of reality grows heavy on my shoulders. One of the most moving parts of the piece has to be the effect-drenched guitar lead that breaks out of the mix at 2:30, purifying the soul and purging me of all earthly desires.
Track two, “Gegn mér” (“Against me”) draws from very similar emotional places although the drums are slightly more aggressive on this track. The vocals vary slightly into a shouted exclamation rather than a straight-up scream. We do hear a rare blast-beat in this track, but the tone of the drums is not violent and combative; it’s almost bewildering and organic. Another of my favourite parts of the album kicks in at 5:34, where blurring guitar lead dominates the mix and sends me into a trance-like state. The riff that comes right after at about 6:20 is another banger. After listening to this short EP close to twenty times, the music never fails to hit me right in the gut (or in the feels if you prefer). It is so hard to say what exactly gives me this feeling, potentially a mixture of the mild tempo, rich harmony, warm reverb-drenched tones, and deranged vocals, but whatever it may be, I want more. The song ends with a classic vocalist cough. I always love to hear little bits of cuts that would traditionally be left out of the final mix but are left in to remind you that this music is made by humans. Disturbed humans, but humans, nonetheless.
I feel like I have already been going on for quite a while now, I am going to try to close this up without waffling about too much more. Track three, “Af ólyfjan og drykkju” (“Of the drug and drinking”), has some enticing moments I would be remiss not to mention. It opens up with some of the more aggressive drums heard on the album, yet they still manage to feel so inviting. The moment at 09:40 might be the best riff of the EP; the rhythmic quality, dissonant yet beautiful harmony, soaring, lights a fire in my heart. We also hear some clean spoken vocals in this track, another nod to the diversity of the vocalist’s style. At 12:20 another incredible lead guitar part is heard. This picked, discordant, semitone shifting guitar lead that has become a trope of this album is never overused and always impactful. I just can’t get enough.
Although I would love to pen another five hundred words on this album, maybe I should leave something for you to discover on your own. If I have not convinced you by now that this album is required listening, then nothing will. But if I have piqued your interest at all, this album should be an instant buy. I might throw the phrase “album of year” around possibly a little too much, but I can without a doubt say this album has to be one of the finest I have listened to, not just this year but in many years. Maybe I could also suggest that the year of the plague has been a good year for black metal. This one is “name your price” on Bandcamp, so you have no excuse not to throw the band a few bucks. Do it… do it now.
* * * * * *
You can grab a digital or vinyl copy of Röð slæmra ákvarðan over on Vonlaus’ Bandcamp page. They don’t seem to have a presence on Spotify as yet so go follow their Facebook page to keep up to date with them.