When the majority of people hear the word Iceland, they probably think “geothermal energy” or “hot springs,” maybe even “vikings” or, at a stretch, Björk. Personally, I immediately think “exciting black metal scene” and Sinmara are a definite factor in this. Their 2014 debut, Aphotic Womb, was one of the darkest, most dissonant records of that year, characterized by frenetic and even chaotic changes in tone and register. Their latest release, Hvisl Stjarnanna, is equally gloomy and nihilistic in temperament, although its composition and arrangement are far more sequentially structured.
What sets this album apart, almost immediately, is its slower, more relaxed pacing. Here is a band completely comfortable in their delivery of misanthropic moods, with no need to set blistering tempos to convey their miasmic message. The immediate effect of this approach is a definite plus point; individual instruments shine through the mix, possibly in part due to the stellar production talents of Icelandic black metal’s go-to guy, Stephen Lockhart, aka Wann of Rebirth of Nefast and Wormlust and erstwhile bassist for Sinmara themselves. The real winner, in this case, is the bass, whose counter-melodies provide much needed low-end balance to the discordant, treble-rich guitars that typify the Sinmara sound. It’s a mature decision, and one that speaks favourably of the potential for further evolution, musically speaking.
Melodic lead passages (“Mephitic Haze”) are a fairly new contrivance for Sinmara, and one that works particularly well in the slower, more introspective format that Hvisl Stjarnanna presents. Even when there are shifts in the mood (such as the break into “The Arteries of Withered Earth”) these feel more like a drawn breath released than a sudden or unexpected fluctuation.
Sinmara and Ván Records have made a full stream of Hvisl Stjarnanna available if further convincing is necessary.
The vocal performance shares its rasping, throaty delivery with other Icelandic acts, including Svartidauði and Misþyrming, but combined with the lowered tempos, the overall effect reads more in the vein of Mgła or Drudkh. “Crystal Stars,” for example, feels more like a contemporary atmospheric black metal track than the vitriolic ferocity Sinmara’s back catalogue would suggest.
The overwhelming achievement of Hvisl Stjarnanna is its capturing of moods, though. The title translates roughly as “whispering stars” and the music matches this, crafting soundscapes of bleak, vacuum-like emptiness with shimmering moments of melodic brightness scattered throughout. The whole is tied together by a thematic thread of mythic content relating to the band’s namesake, the dark sorcerer goddess consort of Surtur, the Nordic lord of the fire realm Muspelheim. This malevolent darkness spills through into the music admirably; Sinmara evokes visions of death, loneliness, and otherworldliness, all with a confidence made manifest in intelligent, unhurried songwriting.
Hvisl Stjarnanna Track Listing:
01. Apparitions (7:25)
02. Mephitic Haze (7:31)
03. The Arteries of Withered Earth (5:50)
04. Crimson Stars (6:58)
05. Úr Kaleik Martraða (7:23)
06. Hvísl Stjarnanna (7:14)
Run Time: 42:22
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Release Date: Ván Records