Melodic death metal is a genre near and dear to this writer’s heart. Significantly formative to my journey as a metalhead and consumer of content in this genre, I cut my teeth on Finnish melodeath like Children of Bodom, Norther, Mors Principium Est, Kalmah, etc. Obviously, the Swedes in At the Gates are the forefathers of the entire subgenre. Following the giants, one of the hidden gems of a melodeath band was Before the Dawn. I was disappointed to learn that they had disbanded but was very glad to hear that the essence was being carried forward in Wolfheart. When their newest work, King of the North came across the desk, and I hit play, I was right back in high school getting excited about metal again. A strong start!
Wolfheart is the brainchild of Before the Dawn/Dawn of Solace’s mastermind Tuomas Saukkonen who is quickly becoming an absolute unit of prolific musicians with all his dense catalog of bands he has created and performed in. Wolfheart is now his settled home, and six records over eight years later, he has brought his new band into major focus. King of the North follows hot on the heels of 2020’s Wolves of Karelia that was simply put, an enjoyable slab of chunky, catchy melodeath metal. King of the North continues to forward that impressive foundation.
Opener “Skyforger” starts with a drawn-out low-tempo melodic intro riff lasting just long enough to lull us into a fall sense of a more relaxed vibe, before dropkicking us with furious tremolo-picked riffs over vicious blast beats, and we suddenly know that this isn’t your 2000’s predictable melodic death metal anymore! In contrast, “Ancestor” wastes no time telling us just how aggressive Wolfheart can be if they tried. A memorable mix of riffs and chugs, overlaid by the guest vocal feature of Jesse Leach (Killswitch Engage). As an author’s note, I am so excited by the idea of musician features from people specializing in different subgenres!
King of the North is an effective mix of slower rumbling melodic sections, and quicker, more frenetic arrangements and tracks. Tracks like “Knell”, “The King” and “Eternal Slumber” prefer to tone back the ferocity to write midtempo instant-earworm riffs, reminiscent of Viking metal bands like Amon Amarth and Ensiferum. Interspersed with these slower tracks are death metal bangers like “Ancestor” “Desolated Land” and “Fires of the Fallen” which perfectly punctuate our listening experience with gut-punching riffs.
The influences that Wolfheart draw from other veteran melodeath bands, as well as tropes from other adjacent genres, are gratifying to identify as you peel back the layers of this record. “Cold Flame” sounds like Jester-era In Flames, with a bit of mid-era Soilwork thrown in there for good measure. This track also has a breakdown-y riff that can easily be featured on one of those “Try Not To Headbang” challenge videos. The icing on the cake is the sheer guttural brutality that is Karl Sanders’ (Nile) vocal feature. “Fires of the Fallen” reminded me of Catamenia, another Finnish blackened melodeath band that sadly never pervaded into the masses. Furthermore, “Headstones” evokes more triumphant sounding riffs and chord work, very reminiscent of Viking metal, with hints of power metal. Tracks like these remind us that Wolfheart is a many-headed beast.
King of the North has solidified my opinion that Tuomas Saukkonen is a mastermind, a Viking bard incarnate, albeit this time as a metal musician. His riffs are amazingly catchy, and never come off as being needlessly dense and thereby pretentious. He understands the tropes of the genre and wields them with a mix of traditionalism and new flair to glorious results. This shouldn’t take away from the stellar musicianship coming from another guitarist Vagelis Karzis is dazzles us with traditional neo-classical melodeath solos, along with providing clean backing vocals. Clean vocals in metal are always highly divisive, but melodeath is a genre more accepting of that element, and Karzis does a great job of providing soaring cleans without sounding cheesy or hamfisted. In these clean vocal sections, Wolfheart veers closely into Borknagar territory, and that is high praise!
“King of the North” is a surprisingly unsurprising record of melodeath that will scratch that nostalgic itch while also throwing new tricks at you. Wolfheart is so very close to breaking through to mainstream greatness and albums like this one push them further towards that goal!