Svartidaudi – Flesh Cathedral

Truth be told, the Icelandic black metal scene is quite small. But one would think that a Nordic European island with fjord filled coastlines, subartic temperatures, and a penchant for violent volcanic activity, would foster a lot more black metal than it does. In fact during the 12th century, Cistercian monks spread rumors throughout Europe that the gateway to hell was actually located on this frigid rock. And after listening to Svartidaudi’s full length debut, Flesh Cathedral, I might be inclined to agree. If you haven’t heard of Svartidaudi (or Svartidauði – the strange letter is pronounced “th”) , it’s not surprising; the band has self-released three very limited demo’s and a split since 2006. Yet if you do a little research, you’ll find that Svartidaudi is constantly cited as Icelandic finest black metal act despite their paltry discography. In fact, when the band announced their first full-length was going to be released this year through Terratur Possessions in Europe and Daemon Worship Productions in the US, there was a flurry of online excitement as the community waited with baited breath. After some quality time with Flesh Cathedral, I now understand why.

Svartidaudi’s unique breed of black metal is an absolutely terrifying yet mesmerizing affair. At its core, Flesh Cathedral is a mix of dense melodic passages over groove laden drums and Deathspell Omega riff based dissonance. The album also features a doom like undercurrent throughout that showcases Svartidaudi’s uncanny ability to let a song’s malevolence slowly unravel itself. Instead of just an all out assault of black metal orthodoxy, songs devolve into simple rhythmic structures that are then used as the foundation for a wall-of-sound onslaught. Each 11-minute plus track has a certain immensity to it that gives Flesh Cathedral its thick all encompassing sinister atmosphere.

“Sterlie Seeds” begins our Icelandic journey with dark psychedelic distortion that segues into guitars and drums. A structure is introduced which is repeated over and over again amidst Viðar shrieks that forms the backbone for the entire track. Throughout all of its 15-minutes of brutality, the song has a certain ebb and flow of long atmospheric passages and melodic breakdowns. At the forefront is Þórir’s and Nökkvi’s marvelous guitar work that provides both rhythm and texture, demanding your ear’s full attention. “Perpetual Nothing” builds upon the prior monstrosity with more groove laden drums and dueling guitars. A massive breakdown around the 8-minute mark catapults us to the album’s apex and title track, “Flesh Cathedral.”

This 11-minute beast begins with guitars droning behind Viðar’s raspy chanting of what sounds like an ancient Icelandic incantation. Magnús’s drums then provide a steady cadence that gives the intro a sense of urgency and builds an incredible amount of tension before it lets loose. The song comes full circle with an infectious groove around the 7-minute mark that is just pure unadulterated evil. The album ends with an 18-minute epic that just exudes “black death” from start to finish. Unlike the other tracks where most of the psychedelia was relegated to intra-track glue, “Psychoactive Sacraments” actually fully incorporates these more cerebral elements as first class citizens. This song provides an extremely riveting end to a fantastic full length debut.

If there is any fault to be found on Flesh Cathedral, its the production. The album was mastered by Wann of Rebirth of Nefast/Myrkr fame and as expected is brickwalled. However, my main gripe is that each track is clipped needlessly throughout. I realize with a lot of wall-of-sound black metal acts this kind of mastering is fairly typical, but it comes at a hefty cost. The drum work throughout is marvelous but lacks a lot of impact because transients have been compressed into oblivion. Cymbals have that tinny sound because the highs have been trounced. Bass comes and goes depending on the passage. With all of that said, the mix does wonderfully blend Viðar’s intense vocals with the textured style guitar work that gives Flesh Cathedral all of its magnificent density. The bit of rawness I detect in the mix also further enhances some of the aggression present throughout the entire album. But with all of this said, I really hope that the soon to be issued vinyl release is mastered differently and provides a more dynamic listening experience.

I can emphatically tell you that Svartidaudi’s full length debut is one of, if not the best black metal record this year. Flesh Cathedral is an enormous statement release that should instantly put Svartidaudi on the extreme metal map. After each spin, I discover something new every single time. Its monolithic yet complex construction deserves to be digested completely in one full sitting to be fully appreciated. Flesh Cathedral is a must buy. Highly recommended.