Review: Zhrine – “Unortheta”

Over the past few years, Iceland’s metal scene has exploded in popularity. This year has seen Svartidauði perform in the United States and support Primordial on a tour across Europe, while Misþyrming performed as an Artist In Residence at the legendary Roadburn festival after just one album to their name. Zhrine seem set to continue that winning streak with their debut album ‘Unortheta’, taking elements of black metal and death metal and combining them to create that something far greater than the sum of its parts.

I’m going to get straight to the point here: Zhrine‘s greatest strength is their ability to write fantastic songs. Other bands might be heavier, more technical, or more avant-garde, but Zhrine‘s ability to write beautiful, haunting, deeply unsettling  music is so many steps ahead of most other bands it’s almost silly. And that’s even more impressive considering this is their first release together as Zhrine, having been previously known as Gone Postal before rebranding as Zhrine to mark the change in musical direction from that past project. For such a young band to come out with such a well-written debut album as Unortheta is a rare thing. It’s not an easy thing to articulate or explain, but whatever good songwriting is – it’s present on Unortheta in spades.

The music ebbs and flows in a very natural way, with the musicians seeming to follow wherever the music takes them. Moments of real magic bubble up to the surface and the band capture them, perfects them, and then move on. The best moments never overstay their welcome, nor do they feel contrived or melodramatic. Transitions are seamless, never jarring or drawing attention away from whatever ritual is being performed here.

Though on the surface this is some blend of black metal and death metal, it seems to me that the similarities are mostly aesthetic – the distortion, use of blastbeats, etc. But it’s pretty rare for the band to launch into a really heavy or brutal section of pummeling blastbeats and distorted riffs, though perhaps Spewing Gloom and The Syringe Dance come the closest with their taut, dissonant Deathspell Omega-inspired riffs and aggressive percussion. The off-kilter rhythm and prominent bass of The Syringe Dance make for a disorienting, challenging listen.

In many ways the structure of this album more closely resembles a post-rock album, particularly due to the focus is really on developing and exploring powerful musical ideas where the vocals are almost redundant. This is music performed in, and ideally heard in, a trance-like state. And unlike many black metal bands, on Unortheta, the bass has a very prominent place (see Utopian Warfare and The Syringe Dance in particular) and the album benefits greatly from it. Not only that, but it seems to me from videos that he actually performs a double-bass!

There is something very special and very genuine about this music. For all its darkness and gloom, there is something very human and very real about Unortheta – everything about this strikes me as genuine artistic expression in its rawest form. The cryptic, ominous lyrics only add to the sense that one is bearing witness to something as genuine as it is deeply unsettling. Utopian Warfare brings visions of “Dried up black oceans, endless waves of blood soaked sand.” The Earth Inhaled tells of ‘Desolation, foul achievements. In pride, in glory, build this rot called empire. Repulsive acts and foolish judgments lead the herd. Hopeless, and bound to suffer.’

More than almost any other album this year, Unortheta is about closing your eyes and allowing the darkness of the music to envelop you. It almost feels like it would be inappropriate or disrespectful to listen to this in a casual setting. This is music that demands your undivided attention and will swallow you whole if you allow it. It strikes me as a ritual they’re all participating in, and they’re asking us to bear witness to it. Terrifying; beautiful; often brutal, but frequently gorgeous in a really twisted way, this is an album of labyrinthine complexity and twisted genius. This is a bleak, unrelentingly misanthropic album from beginning to end, and for that reason will not appeal to everyone. But for those who can stomach it, this is an incredibly rewarding listen with hidden depths so vast and rich it boggles the mind that this could possibly be a debut album.