Polar Veil

rating icon 8 / 10

Track listing:

01. The Tundra Is Awake
02. Older Than The Gods
03. Listen To The River
04. A Cabin In Montana
05. Eternal Meadow
06. Crepuscular Creatures
07. Ring
08. Homeward Polar Spirit

One of the underground's most respected enigmas, Mat "Kvohst" McNerney has been involved with a huge amount of great music over the years. The Brit's discography extends from the barbarous black metal of CODE and THE DEATHTRIP to the priapic post-punk of GRAVE PLEASURES, but HEXVESSEL is plainly his most direct and personal expression. What we have learned over the course of five full-length studio records is that this Finland-dwelling project is not restricted by the usual genre boundaries.

Emerging from moonlit forests with the extraordinary psilocybin sprawl of 2011's "Dawnbearer", McNerney's vision began with both feet planted in psychedelic folk, and with black metal present in spirit alone. By 2020's "Kindred", HEXVESSEL had gained muscle and mass, becoming fearlessly progressive and more tripped out and unpredictable than before.

One more mutation later, HEXVESSEL have all but abandoned the blissed-out, occult reveries of a decade ago. "Polar Veil" dispenses with the niceties and embraces its creator's icy, black metal instincts. The result balances McNerney's gently esoteric songwriting and nutritious arrangements with the grim, hissing scree of the Scandinavian lo-fi underground.

It's a change of direction that makes perfect sense. Little has changed in terms of atmosphere, but the means of expression has taken a dark turn. Black metal has often been a spectral presence on HEXVESSEL records, but "Polar Veil" embraces it wholeheartedly, albeit still within the eccentric, shape-shifting confines of McNerney's songs. "The Tundra Is Awake" rolls in on waves of frostbitten riffing and spidery melodies, with the frontman's sonorous voice as the only real anchor to past glories. A stately, despondent thing, it drifts and soars, changing pace halfway through to pointedly psychedelic effect. Atmospherically tethered to the depths of a Finnish forest in winter, the rest of these songs obey the same logic.

McNerney's songwriting voice is so distinctive and compelling that the persistent chime of black metal dissonance never overwhelms. Instead, the likes of "Older Than The Gods" and the slow-motion night drive of "Listen To The River" use HEXVESSEL's newfound penchant for frostbitten scree as the perfect launchpad for what is some of their most direct and accessible material to date. "A Cabin In Montana" is an obvious standout, not least for the audacious way it begins in full church-burning outlaw mode, before mutating into an undulating river of sludge, with McNerney adrift in a woozy and SWANS-like miasma of sound. Acoustic guitars and a sense of doomed serenity prevail during "Eternal Meadow"; a song that wears its love of BATHORY on its snow-covered sleeve. "Crepuscular Creatures" marks a possible peak of grimness on "Polar Veil": with a strange, lurching gait and a powerful sense of morbid dread, it adds a welcome touch of occult horror. "Ring" is even more hypnotic. Again firmly rooted in the tremulous hiss of underground black metal, it draws from doom metal's oppressiveness, floating a masterful, melancholy turn from McNerney across pitch-black waves of haunted psych.

The closing "Homeward Polar Spirit" is the most vicious and disorientating of the lot, and takes off with bitter fury, like a bonged-out DARKTHRONE on a runaway rollercoaster. As the song collapses in on itself midway through, another bewitching hymn to the night sky is born. It glides majestically towards some unknown horizon, sounding both tragic and triumphant, and HEXVESSEL's intuitive, soulful transformation is complete.

Author: Dom Lawson
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