The darkest recesses of Sweden’s unfuckwithable metal legacy have long since been a part of the nation’s furniture, and to this day its distinctive din pumps vigorously and unapologetically through the hearts of emerging bands worldwide. Situated half way between the country’s capital and the spiritual home of melodic death metal that is Gothenburg, Vanhelgd (fortunately pronounced ‘Vanhelgad’ – no tongue swallowing required) are no strangers to the scene, yet their relatively short existence thus far betrays their much more vintage sound. Rooted firmly within the repugnant roar of Swedish OSDM, the quartet’s evolution since 2008 debut Cult of Lazarus culminated in their first truly impressive release – the painfully overlooked and rather excellent Relics of Sulphur Salvation.
Clearly discontent with loitering restlessly in one place for too long, Vanhelgd’s latest offering, Temple of Phobos, comes as somewhat of a surprise. The tempo drops considerably from the raging turbulence peddled on previous releases – something particularly noticeable when considering the blistering end to Relics… – yet those hoping to rekindle past neck injuries should not despair, for the lack of pace merely makes way for an entirely heavier and more pounding death-doom persona. New and compelling elements are also introduced, with ‘Den klentrognes klagan’ bringing forth sonorous chanting and ominous horns, the former weaving its way onto the album’s title track and intensifying the sense of bombast that appears sporadically throughout.
The general atmosphere moves with a distinctly morose weight behind it, with ‘Gravens lovsång’ proving memorable thanks to its mournful melodies and menacing embrace. Mattias “Flesh” Frisk’s vocals sound more depraved than ever, sitting somewhere amidst Asphyx throat-ruiner Martin van Drunen’s degenerate holler and Nergal’s defiant growl as he spits forth his multilingual venom. Opening track ‘Lamentation of the Mortals’ becomes the statement of intent that sets up the rest of the album, and despite odd moments of uninspired songwriting and scant dynamics, what emerges is a well-produced and crushing slab of death metal executed with enough conviction to turn heads and enough variety to keep things interesting.
Until this point, Vanhelgd have always sounded more convincing whilst peddling hammer-and-tongs death metal, yet Temple of Phobos is the sound of a band wholly comfortable within their newfound drudgery. The mid-paced tempo is a recurring factor throughout – something even the blast-beating and tremolo picking cannot quash – but rather than weighing the album down in a derisive wash of monotony it becomes the pounding, all-conquering strong arm that not only keeps the album afloat, but furthermore becomes its principal fist-raising, head-banging fortitude. For those still not convinced, the enthralling charge of closer ‘Allt hopp är förbi’ is recorded here in both ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ versions, and it’s the punishing offensive of the former that proves to be the most devastating.
Vanhelgd have enough tricks up their proverbial sleeves to prevent Temple of Phobos from being lost within some forgotten vault of average releases, and despite it taking a turn for the non-essential-listening at times, the shift in direction still intrigues enough to maintain interest, and brandishes the death-doom hammer confidently and defiantly to keep the Swedes loitering near the top of the ODSM underground.