The whole genre of Viking metal and Scandinavian battle metal relies totally on the myth that if heavy metal were around during the times of the Vikings, then heavy metal would be their music of choice. How do we know that the Viking hordes would listen to the likes of Manegarm or Ensiferum before going for a good days pillaging and fighting? Of course we don't have a clue but the stereotypical image of metal, its sword and sandal imagery and the blatant emersion of the above bands in the Viking imagery lends itself perfectly to heavy metal. If the Vikings were around today I can't really see them getting ready for battle to Abba's 'Dancing Queen' or Ace of Base's 'All That She Wants'; they're hardly crowd rousing anthems whereas 'Vargstenen' could possibly be the theme to pick up your axe and go and cause chaos.
'Vargstenen' is the 6th album by these Swedish metallers and is an in depth concept album through the Norse conception of the world but we have to take their word for this because the vocals are, for the most part, growled in Swedish which means he could be singing the ingredients of a meatball than anything Norse-like. But do you know what? I don't care because 'Vargstenen' is a hugely enjoyable listen from start to finish that incorporates thrashing guitars, machine gun drums, violins, female vocals and, god forbid, an acoustic guitar. It's a musical journey that is perhaps difficult to endure at first and a little toilsome to get into, but with perseverance the long-term rewards are definitely worth it.
The band hail from Norrtälje, Sweden and their main aim at their inception in 1995 was to play metal as fast and primitive as possible and the lyrics had to be in Swedish. I can't deny that they've not been successful in their goals, however after six albums the drive for pace and primitive metal have subsided into a more restrained and well thought out sense of writing that contains variety and depth. This is non more prevalent than in 'Ur sjalslig dod' and 'En fallen fader' which contain sublime mid songs breaks that incorporate a gentle female vocal and tidy violin work, but the highlight of this disc is the nine minute epic 'Visioner pa isen' that holds this concept together. Again it throws in rough vocals, clean vocals, female vocals and the violin into the mix with the result being a sweeping slab of thrash metal that doesn't rely on pace to get its message across.
We're definitely in Viking territory here, take Ensiferum and Turisis and ask them to collaborate on an album and what you'll probably end up with is 'Vargstenen'. It has melody brimming from it, loud guitars, folk tendencies, driving rhythms, a Jews harp and that damned addictive acoustic guitar. I could guarantee that if you like the aforementioned bands then you'll like this album, all the ingredients are there but whereas Ensiferum are more hook driven and therefore immediate, Manegarm are perhaps more interesting which as we all know breeds longevity. As I have said before 'Vargstenen' is not an easy listen, the guitar tone is very course and the constant thrashing takes a while to get used to, but once you've battled through these aspects the aural pot of gold awaits for you.
It's not often a band from Sweden sings in their own tongue which is a shame as it's extremely palatable and fits the music wonderfully, excelling on the quieter moments with its poetry like quality. I'm still not convinced that such Viking metal is the music of the barbarian hordes but it certainly feels right, and even by the band's own admission they are "a tribute to our ancestors, our Swedish mythology and to the heathen flame that burn inside every man, but just as much a try to wake up that heathen flame in those who haven't found it just yet." Perhaps I'm one of those ones whose heathen flame hasn't awoken yet but listening to 'Vargstenen' is helping me fulfil that aim.
* This review was hindered by a keyboard that doesn't contain all the Swedish vowels.