“Air guitar! C’mon!”
The last time Scandinavian north stars Kvelertak released an album, Donald J. Trump wasn’t President of the United States of America. Let that sink in a little bit. Four years feels like a lifetime. Suffice to say, a lot of shit has gone down in the intervening period between that hellish 2016 and our equally messed-up present, where it seems that any hint of a trajectory towards some form of a positive future has wildly careened off an existential cliff. The world as we know it has moved on and, evidently, so have Kvelertak.
In 2018, much to the shock and despair of dedicated fans, the group part ways with lead vocalist and frontman Erlend Hjelvik. Almost immediately, the band announced his replacement in the form of Ivar Nikolaisen, a long-time friend and self-confessed fan who’d previously appeared as a guest vocalist on the rollicking ‘Blodtørst’ from their stellar self-titled debut album. Meanwhile, the following year also saw original drummer Kjetil Gjermundrød switched out for incoming member Håvard Takle Ohr. All of which brings us around to 2020 and the release of Kvelertak’s fourth full-length album, ‘Splid.’ Our first official taste of the band anew, and as a famous Frenchmen once put it: ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
Listening to ‘Splid’ (roughly translated as ‘Discord’ for those playing at home) and reflecting on the evolution of Kvelertak’s sound throughout the 2010s, it’s clear that despite the ups and downs and merry-go-rounds, it’s business as usual in their party riff department. With LP#4, these rowdy Norwegians are now officially the definitive time-travel chameleons of rock’n’roll: a wild, untamed beast in ever-changing skins. Whether it’s through fits and bursts of 70s arena rock, 80s thrash metal urgency or stiff-fisted 90s d-beat punk, the sextet do it all and they do it impeccably well.
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Opener ‘Rogaland’ bursts through the speakers with bright, clean choruses and shimmering, harmonized leads, encapsulating the radiant energy that has become this band’s hallmark. However, it’s on single ‘Crack of Doom’ where things take a turn towards the future. For a start, Nikolaisen’s vocals here are sung in English, which, for a band that has prided themselves on a distinctly Norwegian career identity, this comes as a welcome surprise for the linguistically-impaired. Propelled along by the serpentine, thrice-pronged chugging riffs of Vidar Landa, Bjarte Lund Rolland and Maciek Ofstad, alongside guest croons over glorious power chords from Mastodon’s Troy Sanders, it’s a track that finds Kvelertak at their most self-assured and triumphant.
Shorter cuts like ‘Necrosoft,’ ‘Discord,’ and ‘Uglas Hegemon’ (a playful nod to the band’s humble origins with ‘Hegemony of the Owl’) dazzle with direct examples of the band’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink musical thesis: Thin Lizzy licks here, frostbitten blast beats there; anthemic, gang-vocal party-down choruses, brooding Darkthrone tremolos rubbing against saloon-style piano keys; overt Turbonegro worship on speed. Lead single ‘Bråtebrann’ starts slowly with Marvin Nygaard’s bass thrum complimenting cheeky harmonic leads before the track truly catches fire with a break-neck pace, a Queen-esque choral chant chorus, and Nikolaisen announcing the solo break with a totally non-ironic declaration of metal machismo: “Air guitar! C’mon!”
Purportedly a concept song about a lost skeleton that is finally found and buried once more, the real gem of ‘Splid’ is the off-kilter center-piece ‘Fanden ta dette hull!’ (which, hilariously, loosely translates to ‘Fuck this hole!’), and it starts as nothing less than peak-Kvelertak: catchy riffs over Nygaard and Ohr’s rhythmic lock-step, contrasted with Nikolaisen’s expressive shout crashing against glorious harmonized leads. And then, right around the half-way mark, it hits you like a bolt of lightning from a Norse god — a full-blown blitzkrieg of furious, angular thrash riffage, cracking snare hits and a fusillade roll of thunderous toms. For the next 90 seconds, everything goes straight to hell as the sextet mainline adrenaline and channel the raucous spirit of heyday Metallica and Slayer. With a psychedelic outro as the third act, the track remains one of the most dynamic and electric in the band’s entire catalogue.
Ever ones to push the musical envelope, Side-B of ‘Splid’ finds Kvelertak trying on new sounds and getting a little weird. When ‘Tevling’ started up, I had to do a quick double-take mid-train ride, as the intro sounded like an 80s jukebox ballad — think The Police’s ‘Message in a Bottle’ or even a fuzzed-out rendition of Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’. ‘Stevnemøte med Satan’ and closer ‘Ved bredden av Nihil’ play out like throttled, mid-paced rockers, and the sprawling, eight-minute epic ‘Delirium tremens’ is the band at their most expansive and progressive (even if it does feel like an incongruous collection of jam-room freestyle moments most of the time).
The obvious thing about ‘Splid’ is how much the album — down to its title, musical content and overall thematic resonance — reflects where Kvelertak are as a band right now. As guitarist Vidar Landa states: “It describes the feeling of what the lyrical content is about, the way we see the world today, and the way things are changing... It’s getting more polarized. ‘Splid’ sums it up. It’s an album you can bring to a party but also put on your headphones out in the woods in the Norwegian winter. It’s Kvelertak.” Ultimately, ‘Splid’ not only puts to bed any doubts about Nikolaisen’s ability as a vocalist and frontman but also about the group’s future. It lets Kvelertak confidently return to doing what they do best: bringing the riffs, being best mates with Dave Grohl, and rockin' the fuck out.
‘Splid’ is out now via Rise Records. You can find physical copies & digital copies of the record here.