The Icelandic black metal scene is, to use the parlance of our times, popping off. Bands like Svartidaudi and Artsidr Lifsins have proven that the country's scene is endlessly exciting. There are surprising and unique takes on the genre throughout the nation's black metal bands. This is often coupled with a healthy respect for what came before. This is the context in which one might listen to Helfró’s self-titled debut album. Helfró is a project that essentially started as an Ophidian I side project. Now it has taken on a life of its own. This leaves us with an album about to be reissued by the legendary Season of Mist. There is a lot to fall in love with on this record, from the dual vocal attack to the punchy riffs. It’s a release that defies expectations and shows us that the band is on a path that is wholly their own.
The element that will immediately catch the listener’s attention here is, of course, the use of two vocalists. This feature shines particularly bright on tracks like “Katrín.” The duo has distinctly different vocal styles that create unique dynamics. The death gurgle and the twisted shriek are indeed two sides of the same coin, and both vital to crafting excellent black metal. While the band does tend to rely on the higher-pitched screams, the contrast is a key part of the sound. This doesn’t even touch on the excellent chanted cleans on tracks like ‘Hin forboðna alsæla’. The vocal approach seems to only develop on itself as the record progresses. It adds wonderful color to the compositions. If the band didn’t have this ability, a track like “Ávöxtur af rotnu tré” wouldn’t go nearly as far. This is just a small part of what gives Helfró their depth and what makes their debut album so rewarding.
It’s the punchy guitars that draw out some of the best aspects of the record though. The Immortal inspired churn of a track like "Eldhjarta" is crucial to how the band manages to conjure up bleak imagery. When the drums are driven almost entirely by blast beats, as they are here, the guitars become ever more important. This means that while Helfró operate largely within a traditional black metal framework, they are able to color their sound with some nifty frills. The tech-death chops of Ophidian I have obviously not left the duo. However, this is not a ‘technical black metal album’ by any means. Rather, it is a record that showcases a pair of musicians who are brilliant players but bring so much more to the table.
Helfró is an intense listen. That being said, the music isn’t quite as alienating as many of the band’s peers. Instead, Helfró deal in the great execution of tropes. Tropes that have been brewing in the black metal underground for years, if not decades. The depravity unleashed in a wonderfully twisted track like "Þrátt fyrir brennandi vilja" with its savage gutturals is unforgettable. The vocal assault is the stuff of legends. Few groups can match what these guys have done. It seems clear that many more will lose themselves in their demonic conjurations before the album cycle is through.