This album was a late-year, come-from-nowhere gem, and I owe thanks to Austin Lunn of Panopticon for making me aware of it. Lunn does a “best of” list for NoCleanSinging.com each year, and his taste is always impeccable. Panphage is no exception.
“Drengskapr” is a concept album, divided into seven parts depicting moments in the saga of Grettir Àsmundarson, an Icelandic saga. Grettir spent much of his life as an outlaw, due to the fact that while his intentions were good and he performed some heroic deeds, he had a terrible temper and just plain bad luck. He was exiled from his birthplace of Iceland, then sailed to Norway and was eventually sent away from there, and upon returning to Iceland was quickly branded an outlaw after being falsely accused of setting a deadly fire. His last days were spent on an island off the northern tip of Iceland. The violence and tragedy of the saga are well-rendered by the turbulent black metal found on the record, and the vibe of each song matches the topic of that segment.
The first notable characteristic is the production — it is savagely raw and icy, but not too thin. There’s enough flesh on it to pack a punch, so it achieves a nice balance of being true to a blackened aesthetic while not being anemic. But it’s one-upped by the awesome vocals, which are delivered in a coarse, barking style. They really shine, though, when they become violently deranged, such as on “Landrensningen.” Here they sound barely contained, like emanations from a wild beast pacing its cage, ready to attack anything that gets too close to the bars. Later in this same incredible track, the utterances devolve into crazy, malicious retching that is an absolute delight. On the other hand, there are also some clean vocals here too, done in a very Viking-esque chant.
Musically, Panphage is pretty stripped-down in sound, though frosty tremolo guitar melodies do anchor most songs. “Landrensningen” has an epic Viking metal intro, and the seas on which it rides boil and churn, followed by an incredible melodic attack. “Glam Rider Husen” is also melodic, but more of a straightforward rager, with a classic heavy metal touch. Instrumental “Glamsyn” is placed smack dab in the center of the album, and uses its moody keyboard and ambience, backed by the lonely sound of wind, to effectively break up the black storms which bookend it. Of those storms, another highlight is the crushing “Utlagr.” It begins with surprising major chords, then switches to pulse-pounding fury before just plain rocking out. This cycle is repeated while exhilarating Viking cries are added, but it all culminates with a massive, grunted “UGH!!!” as machine-gun drumming and razor guitar riffs explode in grinding intensity that makes headbanging absolutely mandatory. More Viking chants are added to summon total fist-pumping rapture.
With its grim-yet-catchy take on black metal, its ability to go balls to the wall on aggression, and the uncanny vocals, “Drengskapr” is simply irresistible. Grab a tankard of ale and hail the gods (and Grettir Àsmundarson) with your Scandinavian brothers and sisters. Skol!