From Gothenburg, Sweden, step Walk Through Fire with Vår Avgrund, released through Wolves And Vibrancy Records. The title translates in English to ‘Our Abyss’. A 75 minute extreme sludge/doom odyssey made up of seven tracks. You might be thinking of ultra-bleak bands like Khanate or Burning Witch and imagining utterly punishing granite slabs of horrible primal sound that tread a fine line between terrifying and tedious, and more often than not step over it.
The pursuit of single-minded extremity is something of a well-trodden path. It’s pretty easy to do badly, incredibly difficult to do well, and no doubt near-impossible to employ as a means of creating something vital and transcendent – but Vår Avgrund is both that, and the best album I have heard this year so far. A caustic, scathing, and potent masterpiece possessed of a barbaric wisdom that grants a sense of peace borne of pain and despair.
Prior to recording the album, the band studied the work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and released a live recording featuring interpretations of five of his compositions. Pärt’s delicate and deliberate simple repeating minimalism looms darkly over Vår Avgrund. His signature approach seems to be the source of the album’s intention. There are no riffs here in the traditional sense. This is a collection of slowly expanding pieces with precise skeletal arrangements that provide for steadily unfurling motifs that spread and swell under a heavy cloud of oppressive atmosphere.
While the album has the persistent crushing heaviness of sludge and the lone sorrowful melodies of doom – albeit buried in hopeless filth, it’s not so overwhelming as to be eventually tiresome and ineffectual. The band often relents to leave a sole instrument alone in the expanse. The drums and bass are utterly primitive in their approach, maintaining a sustained momentum, but they also construct economic frameworks that provide ample room for the guitar to sprawl and spread like a malignant fog. The organ gifts an atmosphere of perpetual dread that settles into a familiar and comfortable constant as the rabid vocals gnash and froth.
With carefully placed chords, exacted rhythms, and a masterful control of tension, release and space, every sound and silence on the album serves the experience of the whole. It reminds me of the dark chamber music of Univers Zero, with everything working in unison toward the same intent. There’s a deeply powerful but subtle dynamic to the compositions that allows for the atmosphere to gradually seep into your being. Shifts in texture and tone are so natural as to be almost imperceptible. Rather than crush you with uninspired and wearing brute force, this music crawls. It drags you in, drags you down, and all the while discordant melodies and all-consuming ambience gradually surface and envelope.
A caustic, scathing, and potent masterpiece possessed of a barbaric wisdom that grants a sense of peace borne of pain and despair…
The vocals are a sustained seething rage, human and pained and visceral. Each intake of breath, each wretched gurgle, each fleck of spit, is utterly palpable. The lyrics are incredibly negative, missives from a self-imposed prison of suffocating pessimism. However, the experience of listening to this is a gateway to somewhere far beyond merely a monochromatic nightmare of complaint. It takes vision and conviction to create something with such scope and purpose. Vår Avgrund demonstrates incredible skill and dedication. To create something so extreme and singular, with the same repeating motifs and themes, consisting of compositions that exceed 10 or 15 minutes, while maintaining tension and atmosphere and a perfectly realised sense of motion, release, and reflection – is simply incredible.
The introductory Avgrund is two minutes of clean but discordant guitar, dark chords decaying as they disperse and explore before leading to the pacing rhythm of Den Utan Botten as drums and bass emerge from black murk. There’s such brilliant song craft at work as the tone gradually shifts and the atmosphere constantly develops.
Vägar Mot Slutet features an incredible performance of guest saxophone from Malin Wättring, calling to mind the bleak and harrowing coldness of David Bowie’s Berlin instrumentals. The sense of pain and loss is overwhelming. A funereal beauty that moved me to tears. It’s been some years since I heard something that evoked such on-the-brink harrowing pain as this. Seldom does music possess such powerful weight.
This album clearly isn’t intended to entertain, but neither is it about meaningless extremity for its own sake. It’s composed and dynamic within its boundaries and results in vivid imagery. Listening to Till Intet Gjord I imagined a slow ascent from cursed pits, the skeletal drumming and crushing chords marking every laborious step upwards, the organ a faint but undying beacon of persevering hope before all falls silent save for guitar left untethered in cavernous hopelessness. But there are some moments of striking beauty in the darkness, usually communicated through mournful guitar and organ, as can be found on Ett Inre Krig.
The repeating chords and beats of Tragedin sound like a cleansing before an abrupt shift to silence which is broken again by lone guitar. A simple motif but with such arresting power. The bare space is neither tense nor pregnant, just cold, inhumane, and uncaring. Eventually, the band drop out completely to leave just the haunting, droning sounds of organ to close the album in understated fanfare.
No doubt many will find this too repetitive, too bleak, too much – but while Vår Avgrund does evoke a relentless void of abject misery and burning pain, there is much beauty here, and perhaps even redemption. This is the sort of album that seems to call forth your failures and sorrows for a great reckoning with the past. If you submit to the experience, immerse yourself in the world, there’s a feeling of stoic transcendence here, a deep state of resolve, a place of greater understanding and acceptance.
Most won’t even start the journey, a lot won’t finish it, but if you too find solace and catharsis in carefully crafted extremity that’s both harrowing and vast – I’ll see you on the other side.
Scribed by: Josuph Price