Kauan are a difficult band to pin down. Having traversed the musical landscape from ambient to neofolk to post-rock to funeral doom to black metal, the only constant with Kauan's music is their relentless pursuit of wherever their artistic vision leads them, even if it means confounding their fans' stylistic expectations.
For the uninitiated, Kauan originally hailed from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk (the "Gateway to Siberia"), but now are based in Talinn, Estonia. To ensure everyone is thoroughly confused, they sing in Finnish. Their past two albums, 2015's Sorni Nai and 2017's Kaiho, were masterful explorations of ambient post-rock and neofolk—Sorni Nai, in particular, is a landmark achievement in those genres. But for the metalhead, those albums' primary connection to metal was atmospheric. The albums felt like melancholic atmospheric doom metal, but they had very little actual metal on them.
Much like Empyrium, with whom Kauan shares many fans, Kauan sought to make their 2021 full-length album, Ice Fleet, a synthesis of their many musical styles to date. A complete statement of who they are as a band. That means that for metalheads, powerful doom metal is back, albeit intertwined with the type of extended atmospheric, ambient, and neofolk sections that dominated the last two albums.
Just as Sorni Nai offered a musical interpretation of the Dyatlov Pass incident (in which a group of Russian hikers lost their lives under still unresolved mysterious circumstances), Ice Fleet offers a reading of a different wintery mystery–the 1930 discovery of a fleet of unidentified ships in Northern Russia, their passengers and crew preserved in place by the Arctic permafrost.
Even with the lyrics in Finnish, Kauan nail the mysterious melancholy necessary to transport the listener to the Arctic Sea. (For those who truly want to be fully immersed, the band has designed their own original 40-page tabletop role-playing game based on the album and available for pre-order). The expansive, contemplative compositions on Ice Fleet are equal parts introspective journeys and psychedelic soundscapes.
On Ice Fleet, Kauan mastermind Anton Belov, lays down layer upon layer of guitars drenched in tape echo, reverb, and delay, meshed with a lysergic spectrum of synthesizers and Finnish folk melodies sung in Belov's trademark, cavernously deep bass vocals. These parts are offset with unexpected passages of crushing doom metal punctuated by occasional black metal rasping.
The album's combined effect achieves exactly what Belov and crew set out to accomplish: using only music and a set of lyrics that most of their listeners cannot understand to nonetheless extract incredible amounts of pathos from their audience. These songs evoke powerful feelings of solitude, cold, and resignation to fate.
Ice Fleet is a stunning accomplishment and Kauan's most complete record to date. For most bands, releasing an album like Ice Fleet would represent a crowning achievement. For those Kauan fans who enjoyed the adventurous soundscapes of the previous two outings but missed the metal, Ice Fleet may well prove to be their favorite Kauan album. But, for me, the atmospheric parts on Ice Fleet, while very, very good, don't seem quite as spellbinding as the superlative parts on Sorni Nai and Kaiho. It's as if in turning their attention back to doom metal, Kauan's level of execution on the ambient passages slipped just a notch.
But these criticisms are minor. Comparing Ice Fleet to Kauan's past masterpieces lays a near-impossible task at Kauan's feet. Ice Fleet is still a compelling, powerful, emotionally resonant listen, even if is not quite Kauan's best work to date.