I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say this but Tolkien’s legendarium isn’t just fantasy to me. Sure the stories contained in The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion are all fantasy, indeed the beginning of fantasy as we know it today. But it’s more than that. It was more than just stories to Tolkien; they were a mythology. The stories of the feats of Tulkas and Oromë are as real to me as the stories of Fíonn Mac Cumhaill and Brendigeidfran. They are a created mythology meant to help us understand the world we live in; the virtues of the heroes are virtues we are ought to strive for. How do I know I’m not the only one that feels this way when it comes to Tolkien? Draugûl, the one-man project of Hellcommander Vargblod, the frontman of the illustrious Khaospath, blends mythology and folklore (mostly of the Nordic variety) with Tolkien. His latest masterpiece, Winterspell, is a crowning piece of pagan black metal.
I try to not to gush on albums I really like. It makes me ramble more than I already tend to at best and as unprofessional at worst. But there are times, and albums, like these that make me think “So fucking what?” I’ll get it out of the way now. I loved this album. Even though I’ve been busy reviewing dungeon synth for the last month, I’ve been listening to Winterspell nearly every day. Normally this kind of listening power is reserved for the “big guys” like Gorgoroth, Graveland, or Summoning. With Winterspell, Draugûl enters that elite group. This album proves that Draugûl is doing what I pray every band does: it gets better with every album, each album is a step forward in terms of musical and vocal talents, production, and lyrics. In my humble, nonmusical, opinion that is the best thing any band, artist, or musician can do. Chronicles Untold, the previous Draugûl was a great piece of musical literature, Winterspell leaves Chronicles Untold in the dust. To put it another way, if Chronicles Untold (a brilliant album in its own right) was a 7 then Winterspell is a 10.5. There is simply no other way to say it. Winterspell is amazing. It’s only March now but I think we have a front runner for album of the year. Yes. It’s that fucking good.
Musically, Winterspell is a step above the rest of the pagan, folk, and Viking metal that I’ve listened to. Vargblod has an intimacy with his instruments, and understanding of their capabilities you don’t see with many artists. He is a singular talent, a virtuoso of black metal. We, as a community, need more men that write and perform music at this level. He weaves melodies and harmonies together that stir the emotions of the listener effortlessly. Winterspell manages to wield riffs with deadly accuracy. There’s a different tone in each song and in each song a new emotion is explored in response to the folkish tales. I’m a huge fan of Vargblod’s vocals. On Khaospath, he doesn’t have much of a chance to really show his range. On Draugûl, though, he runs wild! On Hagalaz especially, his clean vocals show off how powerful they can really be. I kid you not I thought he had brought in A.A. Nemtheanga of Primordial fame to help add some spice in the vocals. No. That’s Vargblod. If Khaospath ever wants to do a Primordial cover, they could very well surpass the original. Listen to that song and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.
So much folklore is passed down orally that each time you hear a story, even if you’ve already heard it, the story is different. The very same can be said when those same stories are presented musically. Take my favorite song on the album “The Fall of Gondolin.” It’s a story that, as a Tolkien fanatic, I know very, very well. I’ve read the story in the Silmarillion, all the alternate versions in the Histories of Middle-Earth, and the Unfinished Tales; I’ve heard it analyzed and dissected, I’ve heard it on audiobooks, and I’ve heard it put into song. The way Draugûl tells the story is different and unique. It doesn’t stray for the material of course (to do so would be a cardinal sin in the world of Ringers and worthy of death) but a new spin is put on the tale, it’s more epic from a new perspective. Depth has been added to a tale that I thought was as deep as it could get. The only think I wish Draugûl had been able to do is make the song longer. It’s over five minutes but I felt the epic feel of the song and the material could have warranted a song at least twice that length. Even so, Vargblod is smart enough not to just cater to my, admittedly crazy, whims. He knows what he’s doing when it comes to song structure so I’ll trust him. He separates the Tolkien mythology from the Nordic mythology even though they could almost be indistinguishable. Verily, he uses a lot of elements and atmosphere in both sections. It’s fitting, seeing that so much of the legendarium was inspired by Nordic folklore to begin with.
I could fill a book with analysis from Draugûl and all the albums (don’t tempt me, I just might!) but boiling it down, it would say this: in a new age of music and a new age of passing along folklore from person to person, Draugûl is telling tales the way they need, no deserve to be told. Each Draugûl album from the Voyager in 2013 to Winterspell in 2017 has grown and progressed and improved. Winterspell is a near perfect album, a blend of black metal, folk, and mythology that we need these days. It’s a 50-minute opus nocturne that accentuates the brilliant shadows with a smoky, foggy atmosphere in a way that only Draugûl can. This album gets the Resounding Seal of Approval for sure!
Listen and support the music!