REVIEW: VILDHJARTA – “Masstaden Under Vatten”
We have genres, we have subgenres, we have microgenres, and then we have nanogenres; niches so tiny that they are created and held together by one band and a very small list of copycats. The Swedes in Vildhjarta (Wildheart) are metal by genre; progressive metal is their subgenre, “djent” is their microgenre. But whether by conscious choice or by the weight of their favorable reception, invented their own nanogenre: “thall!”. This vulgarization of the word “thrall” (from the Warcraft series) started off as an insider meme via social media but has now become synonymous with the particular flavor of “djent” that Vildhjarta has been crafting since their inception in 2005.
Masstaden Under Vatten (Megapolis Under Water) is only their second release, ten years after their debut Masstaden in 2011. Fans of the band that were beginning to fret that Vildjharta were done for, should put their fears to rest because this record lives up to its name of being a massive piece of art. Masstaden Under Vatten takes no time with bringing the “THALL”. By which listeners are treated too heavily down-tuned extended range guitar chugs, jagged high register runs, tied together by ambient arrangements set up by guitars, and a smattering of keys. The off-timed jarring contrast of the chuggy low ends and the high register scrapes are part of the signature sound.
Opening track “lavender haze” doesn’t bother with an elaborate introduction, but opts for a more enjoyable gut punch. It is a powerful track and sets the stage for the rest of the record, but is fairly straightforward. It’s not until we get into the following track “nar de du alskar kommer tillbaka fran de doda” (When the Ones You Love Come Back From the Dead) that Vildhjarta really open themselves up. Masstaden Under Vatten features tracks with and without vocals, and while “lavender haze” was an instrumental, “nar de du alskar kommer tillbaka fran de doda” features vocals and gives an added layer of depth of emotion to a heavy track. The addition to the flowing ambient melodies serve as a great backdrop to the gigantic chords as well as the chugs and squeals. Halfway through the track the addition of ethereal male vocal arrangements blends perfectly thematically, and when the chopped ambience gets thrown in, we are treated to one of the highest points on the record!
There is no shortage of heavy Meshuggah-esque arrangements on Masstaden Under Vatten, but the riffs where the guitarists ramp up their “thall” stand out from the rest. In addition, the dropoff from a low-register chugfest into an ambient arrangement is the sonic equivalent of being shoved off a cliff into a long but graceful fall before you crash face-first into the abyss, expertly illustrated on “kaos2”. If the listener believed that they know the heavies they are in for with this record, “brannmarkt” (the fire market) will hit like a sledgehammer of dizzyingly spiral riffs. The minor-note progression interlude is truly ominous before a Thanos-like snap drives the point home. “Brannmarkt” is an example of the cohesive Vildhjarta experience! Mention must be made of the melodically driven “den helige anden (under vatten)” (The Holy Other (Under Water), for single-handedly showing us that Vildhjarta was not dead, and was writing new music, as early as 2019, a full two years before the release of Masstaden Under Vatten.
The next slap-banger is the appropriately named “masstadens nationalsang (under vatten)” (Megapolis National Anthem). Lulling us with an extended slide guitar routine, we are dropkicked by one of the more imaginative chug-squeal “thall” banter with almost pleasant Periphery-inspired clean guitar overdubs, before kneecapping us yet again, along with a few cheeky string-key taps. There really is nowhere to hide on these tracks. Tracks like “brannmarkt” and “masstadens nationalsang (under vatten)” go a long way to cement how inventive Vildhjarta continue to be, and how nobody in the game really writes the same music they do.
Guitarist Daniel Bergstrom IS Vildhjarta, the creator and mastermind of “thall!”, but he is strongly backed by guitarist Calle-Magnus Thomer, and drummer Buster Odeholm (of Humanity’s Last Breath fame). The addition of vocalist Vilhelm Bladen adds another layer to the dense tapestry. His rendition of Jens Kidman (Meshuggah) like grows add to the rumble of the gigantic low end. Clean vocal sections as seen on “kaos2” and “den helige anden (under vatten)” and “detta drommars skota en sloja till ormars naste” (This Dreamer’s Shot a Veil to the Snakes’ Nest)among others serve as a counterfoil and keep things fresh.
For a record like Masstaden Under Vatten that relies on layers, overdubs, and multiple densely packed arrangements stacked on top of each other, the production values are as perfect as they get in these times and are a true testament to the progress made in mixing, mastering, instrumentation, and other production tools. Every layer, every instrument, every element occupies its own space without carelessly bumping into and overtaking another.
Masstaden Under Vatten is clearly a record that relies heavily on a theme, both sonic and lyrical, and is meant to be consumed as a journey from start to finish, that fact is also it’s the biggest failing. This is an enormous record and can be extremely taxing to sit through cover-to-cover. With the off-kilter approach to songwriting chosen by the band, there are very few hooks to ground us to a particular track, and on the few occasions that hooks appear, the tracks are better served. There are several enjoyable sections on the back half of the record, but listener fatigue has already set in so deeply, that these sections fit in For example, it wasn’t till my third attempt, till I get to the choked chug-slide arrangement that makes “phantom assassin” so special. Even a few listens later, I truly have no idea what was going on with the “Sunset Sunrise/Sunset Sunrise Sunset Sunrise” double-track extravaganza! A lot of the writing on Masstaden Under Vatten, and Vildhjarta comes off as being akin to a writer’s stream of consciousness and an extended jam session. A heavier editorial hand would have pushed this great record to stellar heights.
Masstaden Under Vatten is a gigantic reminder of why Vildhjarta are Creators and Kings of the small corner of metal they have created. A weapon of hammer-and-blade, this record bludgeons and cuts with reckless abandon. Long Live Thall!