Review: Hexvessel ‘Polar Veil’

Hailing from the dark forest, progressive folk rockers Hexvessel have been on a path which their founder Mat McNerney describes as, ‘a free spiritual journey and a musical odyssey with no boundaries’. Over the course of their career, which now enters its fourteenth rotation, the band have released five differing albums of psychedelic-influenced explorations that have evolved and mutated with time and taken in musical touchstones such as gothic, black metal and doom. This ranging approach to their craft has seen them previously nominated for two Finnish Emma (Grammy) awards, two Metal Hammer awards and three Prog Magazine awards, winning two Finnish Femma awards and landing several times in both the national and alternative charts in their native Finland.

Hexvessel 'Polar Veil' Artwork
Hexvessel ‘Polar Veil’ Artwork

Their last outing, Kindred, released in 2020, was a mystical folk journey that draws parallels with Green Lung’s occult-flavoured music, albeit in a more European manner than the ‘Hey Nonny Nonny’ Wickerman stylings of the Reading crew. Released just before the great lockdown, it was the perfect soundtrack to wandering in the woods with its blues-laden, acid-enhanced, King Crimson-style mysticism.

Sixth and latest album, Polar Veil takes a detour from the picturesque, lush greens and autumn reds of previous releases for the icy isolation of the Sub Artic North in what they describe as a ‘Cold, metallic hymn’ to the frozen loneliness that saw McNerney holed up in a homemade studio in his log cabin during the winter of 2022. Drawing on solitary themes and haunted by primal forest spirits, this is an album informed by reflection and spiritual transcendence that attempts to continue his mission to explore natural mysticism through music.

The dramatic, frantic picking of The Tundra Is Awake shows the bleak black metal roots with a harsher sounding edge that belies McNerney’s musical journey. Not quite blackgaze territory, it does feel akin to the work of Chicago’s post black metal trio Chrome Waves (minus the warmth) as the track almost waltzes with the sombre haunting vocals. Incredibly stately, there is a passionate lament to the windswept composition that permeates through the opener and is carried through to the atmosphere conjured throughout Polar Veil’s eight tracks.

On Older Than The Gods, the long, ringing echoes are augmented by Okoi from extreme metal duo Bølzer providing guest vocals. Dense and slow, but dripping with melody as the band builds, his contribution adds contrasting, buried harsh shouts that layer the already brimming track with further subtle inflexions over its mournful, glacial doom pace that is capped off by a mesmerising solo.

Similarly, Listen To The River features Ben Chisholm (main collaborator and multi-instrumentalist with Chelsea Wolfe) on keys and strings. Here Hexvessel hark back to their earlier sounds, particularly second album No Holier Temple, as they blend environmental warnings with lyrics drawing from British folk horror writer M.R James. The jarring, open orchestral feeling helps the ominous sorrow conjured by the words and even the light touches of the additional instrumentation do little to dispel the heavy feelings of dread.

The band’s song craft is as tight and ambitious on this album as anything they have ever put their name to…

A Cabin In Montana sees the return of the scything black metal guitar with some creative drum flourishes from long-term stick wielder Jukka Rämänen. The vocal shouts turn this into a towering dirge that buffets the listener back and forth in the hard-hitting rise and fall of the music. The correlation to the Midwest state is probably being trapped in the titular cabin during the cold winters that match the environment of Polar Veil’s muse.

This pace continues on Eternal Meadow with the pummelling double bass drums and the buzzing guitar. When the band drops into a calmer, more introspective piece, it feels not too dissimilar to Deafhaven or Alcest rather than the pagan rituals of Kindred, albeit blown in on the harsh winds of the Sub-Artic region. However, the closing impassioned vocals are simply stunning and worth the price of admission alone.

Crepuscular Creatures snaps you out of this joyous moment almost immediately as the band heads into what they describe as the ‘more avant-garde end of the album’. The meandering interplay between the guitar and the lingering notes of Ville Hakonen’s bass makes this grim passage almost ballad-like. McNerney croons and drawls his way through the lyrics that hark back to the gothic influences and comes across like something that Nick Cave or Dead Can Dance might have recorded after a bout of hypothermia.

The penultimate track Ring sees another guest appearance, this time from Nameless Void of Negative Plane who performs a dazzling guitar solo, but before that, the music positively crawls as the vocals go from lonesome to choral, matching the increasing progression before collapsing back again. The climax tries to balance itself between doom pomp and circumstance and black metal fury.

Finally, Homeward Polar Spirit shrugs off the ear-splitting feedback to create a jangling hum that is a blur of notes and monk-like intonations that ends the album in a strangely majestic, but churning maelstrom. The second half of the track shares a (ahem) kindred spirit with the more experimental moments of Jim Morrison and company, either on An American Prayer or Strange Days, lending credence to the assertion from Noisey that, ‘Hexvessel are The Doors misplaced and found wandering the vast forests of Finland’.

Over their career, Hexvessel have drawn a lot of weighty comparisons from Pink Floyd to Sisters Of Mercy as McNerney has tried to articulate his vision. Even in this latest cold-struck missive from the frozen wasteland, there is a tangible organic feeling to the music and the irrepressible bond with nature that runs through their work is not shaken off. The band’s song craft is as tight and ambitious on this album as anything they have ever put their name to, striking a balance between that elusive ability to create lysergic-influenced psychedelic prog whilst simultaneously making listenable music.

Label: Svart Records
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Spotify | Twitter | Instagram

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden