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Melancholic Light in a Depressive Darkness: Vanhelga’s “Fredagsmys”

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When black metal is described as cinematic, it usually pertains to the grandiose, symphonic variety. Fredagsmys, the fifth album from Sweden’s Vanhelga, defies that tradition by embodying an epic feel with nary an orchestra in sight. Though, they do whistle…

No, seriously. “Psykotisk självinsikt,” which sounds like a more claustrophobic version of Bathory’s soaring “The Lake,” features whistling. It’s (probably) by Jacob Ottosson, a.k.a. “145188,” the progenitor of what was once a solo project. The whistling is a bit jarring, and not just because one can count the number of metal songs with whistling on barely more than one hand; rather, it’s how a sound which usually heard as light-hearted contrasts the morose, chilling sadness of the song.

Such a dichotomy should be expected on an album whose title literally translates to “cozy Friday,” a Swedish tradition of eating tacos on the couch while watching television with the family. That’s a fun, social activity referenced by a band that plays antisocial depressive black metal, or at least used to play it.

This is Vanhelga’s first album on Osmose Productions; previous releases came out on a host of smaller labels. The most prominent of those labels was Art of Propaganda who handled the Höst and Längtan full-lengths plus a handful of EPs between 2011 and 2014. As a result, this is probably the first exposure of Vanhelga to many listeners.

Listening back through the band’s catalogue, you can hear the primitive Bathory worship on the early material (the fruit doesn’t fall far from the Swedish-one-man-band tree). When Ottosson started adding musicians to the project, Vanhelga started going for baroque, culminating with 2016’s Ode & Elegy (Talheim Records). The disc was a massive step into psych-progressive waters, awash with piano, clean guitar parts that David Gilmour could have played, eerie samples, and female vocal accompaniment.

Fredagsmys in some ways steps backward: it’s a lot more straightforward and uncluttered. It certainly has less moving parts: the implied majestic horns of “Sömnparalys” are really just soaring guitars, “Varde mörker” and “Två blir ett” are bashed, blackened, and brash (which sounds like the most metal Waffle House hash browns imaginable), and “Förpassad till misär” is a rolling thundercloud of thrash metal keyboards and double-time riffs.

This simplicity creates an unlikely and surprisingly welcome pop accessibility. The lilting “Ensam mot alla” is Swedish poetry set to acoustic strings with an overblown chorus. “Feels Like Breathing in Sulfur” has modulated, textured, shimmering guitar interplay. Both tracks recall those terrible Metallica albums when they, too, tried to dumb things down. Only it’s not terrible here, because Vanhelga makes it sound natural and beautiful; besides, they didn’t have the pressure to sell millions of albums in doing so.

The band doesn’t rekindle the punctuated evolution of its past until the final parting salvo. The title track finale is a post-rock instrumental that could either be the brightest thing Godspeed You! Black Emperor ever did or the saddest thing Agalloch ever did. If album closers are a reliable predictor of the future, Vanhelga’s is bleak but wonderful.

Although epic in a handful of ways, that’s not what makes the album cinematic. That word perfectly encapsulates Fredagsmys — the feel of a soundtrack, complete with emotional hills and valleys that would perfectly accompany a depressing arthouse noir with a surprisingly optimistic conclusion. Even if such a flick is never made, Fredagsmys has more than enough imagination and inspiration to stand on its own.

Fredagsmys released on June 29th via Osmose Productions. Follow the band on Facebook.

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