If there was a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-esque game for black metal, Norway’s Den Saakaldte would be name-checked more than attendees at a name tag industry convention. Since 2006, notable knights such as Niklas Kvarforth (Shining), Øyvind Hægeland (Spiral Architect), and Hellhammer (all of the bands) have passed through the Den Saakaldte ranks. Currently, the sextet boasts links to 1349, Carpathian Forest, Curse, Dødheimsgard, and Horizon Ablaze. To say they have a leg up due to pedigree is like saying a descendant of a Triple Crown winner will win by a nose versus a field of glue sticks. Another understatement: guitarist Sykelig — who started the project as a solo affair — has got the hookups.
Yet, it’s not Sykelig’s networking skills which are impressive, it’s his ability to let his ever-shifting crew play to their own strengths. Den Saakaldte haven’t been beholden to a certain style or sound, free to follow the fancy of the particular performers. Granted, their evolution might not appear seismic to outsiders, but the collective has amassed a sneakily varied set of songs. Birthed as a slightly proggier Ved Buens Ende — from whom they derived their namesake, a phrase roughly translating to “The So-Called” — Den Saakaldte have since guzzled depresso, gone as wild as a wildling, and taken big, avant leaps; sometimes within the span of a few sections. This is to say, Kapittel II: Faen i helvete, their full-length follow-up to 2009 LP debut All Hail Pessimism, possesses the potential to be a lot of things. In a sense, it’s quantum mechanics on a subtle scale: it will be what it is in the moment you measure it. It’s just that the word ’subtle’ needs stressing because, well, if you’re inside the flow, it’s hard to observe the proceedings as anything other than Den Saakaldte.
The first thing one notices about “Djevelens verk” are the guitars. This is decidedly not a tremolo competition, a way to show off bulging forearms before the inevitable onset of tendinitis. Sykelig and Tjalve are speedy, certainly, though their aim is to match the glorious tone tapestry that must have emanated from Bach’s harpsichord. They use melodic counterpoint in the way a drum n’ bass producer uses rhythm as a kind of shading. It also keeps you engaged, giving your brain a bounding fox to chase. It’s a neat effect.
Neater? How about the fact Den Saakaldte has learned to balance progression and aggression? “Djevelens verk”’s six-strings are stately, though the band doesn’t miss an opportunity to turn vicious. From my moment-measuring notes: “It’s akin to watching wolves waltz.” Later: “This could pass for, like, two Maiden albums played concurrently during a snowstorm.” It’s not so much a push/pull as it is atoms stabilizing themselves through bonding. If a section’s foreground is light, the background is dark, and vice versa. These contrasts accrue and form something whole.
That said, one can’t stress enough that “Djevelens verk” isn’t sterilized by smarts or smoothed out in a quest for textural perfection. Its middle is, typing this with zero intended hyperbole, heartfelt. That’s when Eldur’s howls go clean. He presents himself as your equally world-weary avatar, a willing sponge if you’re over-saturated by hopelessness. Notes, last time: “It’s the wishing well Green Carnation, swelling with endless elasticity.” The build-up leads into a crescendo constructed of an Arcturus-ian celestial essence that, somehow, remains earthy. Again, contrasts. Counter-balances. Den Saakaldte are what they are in the moment you hear them. “Djevelens verk”? Maybe their best. Until the next song starts, one guesses.