Napalm Records Report: Featuring Van Canto, Mortemia, and Varg

Napalm Records is back this month with another set of hard edged and metallic music. As I immersed myself in the sounds of the labels latest offerings, I found myself a little surprised yet absolutely wide eyed and thrilled by what I was hearing. Last month, I wrote about The Kandidate and Troll, two bands that gravitated toward the more violent and aggressive side of the metal spectrum. Hence my surprise when I gave Van Canto, Mortemia, and Varg their respective spins. While this latest group of artists is still metal in every way shape and form, all three have more elegant and delicate elements to their sounds. In other words, they’ll still shred the skin from your face, but they’ll do it with a loving smile instead of a grotesque scowl. Each band has something interesting to offer the genre of metal, and though I’m no master of all the various sub-genres, I’m willing to bet that they offer a new wrinkle to many of those as well.

Van Canto – Tribe of Force

Van Canto’s Tribe of Force is far and above the most eye brow raising disc I’ve heard since I stumbled on one of the many Apocalyptica albums. Now, I don’t expect every metal fan out there to succumb to this album the same way that I did, but I do expect a few Waveriders in particular to investigate Tribe of Force further and ultimately fall madly in love with it. The deal with this album is that it’s A Cappella metal. Yep. That’s right . . . all of the electric instruments (for the most part) are replaced with vocal performances. I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same exact thing. But I now stand before you and proclaim that the concept works and it works well. Instead of a rumbling bass line, we get to hear a baritone voice holding down the groove, a second voice coming in and adding a little texture and melody, female voices adding airy harmonies, and a lead vocal that is equal parts gruff and sweet. It’s all accompanied by a drummer and every so often, electric guitars sweep in to provide dynamic solos.

Though damn near every song on here is remarkable in some way shape or form, I found “One to Ten” to be one of the strongest, mainly because of the dynamics that the band show in the composition. Leading off with a female lead over the double bass drum and tongue twisting baritone bass rhythms, the song just picks up the listener and carries them on a figurative journey from one village tavern to another. The chorus is an uplifting passage and I’m constantly amazed by this group’s ability to work their voices together so tightly and give the music the necessary muscle to fit within the genre. The guitar solos are freaking awesome and I love how the band breaks down the piece to just the baritone rhythms before exploding into a flurry of sound again.

The greatest moment that Van Canto gives us is their interpretation of Metallica’s "Master of Puppets." No . . . really. It is an impressive, nay . . . phenomenal rendition of a classic metal song, and it’s all done with a choir of voices. It’s a testament to the heaviness of that song, as well as to Van Canto for working the voices to the point of perfection. If the voices had come in any different way, the song wouldn’t have any luster whatsoever, but to the bands credit, they tackled a beast of a song and gave it their own personal touch. Pay close attention to the break where traditionally Hetfield and Hammett would do their nifty guitar harmony thing, and listen to how these parts are nailed by the female vocals. As the song explodes into the “Master” chant, the baritone vocals return and I can’t help but be amazed at how these guys don’t lose their breath. This is an album for those who like massively orchestrated music and an appreciation for fresh takes on the art of metal performance. Other songs of note are “My Voice” and “I Am Human.”  

Mortemia – Misere Mortum

Mortemia came up categorized as Gothic Metal, and though I hear some elements of the Gothic stylings in their sound, I hear something so much more involved. There’s a complexity to the various guitar tones and the way they mix with the keyboards and harmonized vocals. These guys remind me of the heaviness of Dark Tranquility, mixed with the symphonic sounds of Therion, mixed again with the darkened progressive sounds of Ihsahn, mixed with the technical guitar heroics of Iron Maiden. Seriously . . . these guys seem to do it all, and as I’m sure you can guess, there are dynamics to the compositions that will consistently have you wondering what’s coming up next. I’m not certain, but I think a lot of the lyrics are sung in Latin, but seeing as the only exposure I get to the language is from looking at an encyclopedia or reading the covers of a bunch of metal albums, I could be totally off base.

“The Pain Infernal and the Fall Eternal” is spectacular in every way, shape, and form. Opening with a muted and muddy guitar riff, then suddenly exploding with clarity, the song takes another turn by having an operatic set of voices accompany the chord progression. Normally, that would be enough for me to nod my head in approval, but then as the vocals come in and sing the first verse, a group of harmonized vocals deliver the message, further accompanied by female vocals at the chorus. The song takes a darker turn as a demonic, screechy voice spits venom in the listener’s ear, and by this time, I’ve got my right hand hoisted in the air, horns waving in support. This song goes from awesome to breathtaking and just puts a damn big smile on my face. Note the guitar work at the solo and the subsequent musical break down. This song is a fucking epic!

“The Malice of Life’s Cruel Ways” opens brutally heavy with big fat chunky riffs and double bass. The vocals have that deep guttural and spooky quality to them, but I understand enough of the words to know that they’re being sung in English at this point. The groove is awesome . . . throbbing, pulsating its way into the soul, forcing the body to bob up and down. Once the song reaches the chorus, the operatic qualities return with a huge choir of voices singing in harmony. The breakdown after the second chorus is pretty damn slick, filled with string orchestration that creates a wall of tension before exploding in a volley of heaviness once again. “The Wheel of Fire” picks up where the previous song left off, heavy and filled with dynamic musical changes, and it’s at this point that I realize that Mortemia are flat out awesome! Aggressive enough for me to be immediately drawn to them, but delicate and musical enough for me to return time and time again . . . always keeping the music interesting, but never being too far over my head. Misere Mortum is an early runner up for my year end top ten list.

Varg – Blutaar

I think I read somewhere that Varg was Norwegian and Swedish for wolf, so that should give you some idea of the music that you’re about to hear with these guys. It’s heavy and dark, but filled with folk-y melodies that weave in and out of the double bass flurries, forearm straining guitar riffs, and scorched earth vocals. Varg are referred to as Pagan Metal, which simply means to me that these guys are very earthy, in tuned with nature and the natural spirits, whether they be light or dark. With that being said, the music encapsulates that imagery almost perfectly. Though I’m not doing back flips over the folk-y melodies, I do appreciate where they’re coming from and the musical dynamics that they’ve infused within the more brutal passages, especially when they break things down even further and work in the acoustic guitars. The stripped down approach really works well and allows for an even heavier feel when the distorted guitars return to the mix.

“Invictus” is just my speed with the bullet train tempo and blast beat frenzy that evaporates into a more mid-tempo groove through the verses. The vocals, in all of their demonic splendor, work fantastically throughout this track, conveying emotions filled with torment and struggle. The music has a natural vibe to it, capturing a feel as if we were hiking through a frost covered forest. But not a nature hike, but a migratory hike for survival. One steeped with danger and fright with every crunching footstep in snow and mud. The breaks that Varg throw into this song are well timed to capture the best senses of tension and the musicianship is masterful. My forearms are on fire just imagining these guys powering through the closing riff of this song.

“Sieg oder Niedergang” is a galloping episode of extreme metal fused with the best elements of power metal. If one imagines that they are already on some life and death trek across frozen wastelands, then this song captures the imagery of warriors on horseback in high pursuit after out little peaceful caravan. And if you so choose to imagine the song in such a capacity, the music becomes a little more frightening and, in truth, I feel my heartbeat elevating a few beats per minute. Definitely one of the more heavy songs on the album due to its slower tempo, “Sieg oder Niedergang” reminds me a bit of Iron Maiden or some of the NWOBHM bands, just updated and more immediate for today’s critical metal ear. Oh, and I looked up what “Sieg oder Niedergang” means and it roughly translates to “Victory or Decline.” Further songs of note are the title track and the haunting acoustic instrumental, “Nebelleben.”

- Pope JTE