Polar Veil by HexvesselRelease date: September 22, 2023
Label: Svart Records
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how much of a musical chameleon Mat McNerney is. He has contributed to some of black metal’s strangest landmarks, most notably Dødheimsgard’s freewheeling extravaganza Supervillain Outcast and the never-quite-beaten early works of progressive outcasts <code>. Even his reinvention as a forest-psych druid with Hexvessel has changed drastically over the years, not to mention his simultaneous spearheading of post-punk worldbeaters Beastmilk / Grave Pleasures. Why is this all getting mentioned now? You all know this already, right? Maybe it’s because Polar Veil feels like a summary of McNerney’s output to date, an album that transports black metal’s hostile chill and the slick, effortless cool of post-punk into Hexvessel’s world of magic, nature, and timeless storytelling.
Composed and recorded at McNerney’s log cabin during the winter of ’22, the most immediate realisation with Polar Veil is that it is unmistakably a winter album. Much of the album’s guitars are executed with a bristly, chilling absence of low end, focusing on the buzz and crackle of the second wave’s hallmark sound to provide a backdrop of noise and howling hostility. From that basis, the more familiar aspects of Hexvessel are then brought into play, with McNerney’s haunting croon singing tales of nature’s voices, souls and denizens as they defy human experience and rationale.
While there are a few occasions where their adherence to the past threatens to undo the evolution that they have undergone, ‘Crepuscular Creatures’ being a notable outlier that could easily have been an outtake from Dawnbearer’s recording sessions, there has been a concerted effort here to twist the familiar into new forms. ‘Listen To The River’ is an eerie, psychedelic sprawl across frozen lakes and hypnotic auroral skies, Ben Chisholm’s music-box keys adding a touch of tranquillity as imposing as it is familiar, while closer ‘Homeward Polar Spirit’ pairs Jukka Rämänen’s blastbeats and McNerney’s frantic tremolo guitars with a shamanic vocal turn in a way that never quite sits right. The elements juxtapose in a way that feels intentional, an avant-garde sense of opposition challenging the listener to make it work themselves (which it arguably does).
Though black metal has influenced McNerney in some way for much of his career, his forays into gothic and post-punk have featured heavily over the past few years, meaning its inclusion here was almost a foregone conclusion. Opener ‘The Tundra Is Awake’ is touched by its icy charm, like Nocturno Culto doing a guest spot with Bauhaus, but ‘Eternal Meadow’ fully commits to the piece, furious drumming and muttered spoken word giving way to a toe-tapping chorus that McNerney belts out with obvious gusto. An acoustic interlude and a final, soaring flare-up of atmospheric metal might shift the songs later moments to more reflective places but it’s those immediate, driving early moments that provide the energy at the song’s core.
It’s of note that Polar Veil feels like the first Hexvessel record where singles have really been ‘a thing’. The album as a whole has a conceptual coherence that rivals anything they’ve put out in the past yet each song has its own voice and distinctive spirit, with the album’s three singles (so far at least) the loudest and brightest. ‘Older Than The Gods’ had the job of introducing this latest shift in tone so it has an arrogant immediacy to it, with melancholy and bittersweet vocal turns giving way to raucous shout-alongs courtesy of Bölzer’s Okoi. ‘Ring’ came next, a sinuous slab of gothic doom and proto-metal, Ville Hakonen’s grinding basswork and a jankily memorable solo from Nameless Void making it likely Hexvessel’s most traditionally heavy cut in their extensive history, but ‘A Cabin In Montana’ is maybe the album’s showstopper. Woozy, dreamlike melodies, an undulating riff that will stick for days and McNerney’s voice veering from defiant to insidious from one line to the next making it one of those rare songs that could define an album, perfectly match it or transcend it entirely depending on the time of day (for the full effect, the video, composed entirely of footage from wildlife documentarian Tommy Tompkins is a beautiful accompaniment).
Despite featuring many of its traits, there is never really the sense that this is Hexvessel’s ‘metal’ album. Instead, it’s more of a reset that, on the back of two of the band’s most restrained and pastoral releases, felt necessary. It’s a clever use of the tools available to craft another chapter in their story and to examine their surroundings with new eyes and intentions. Nature isn’t all sun-dappled forests and misty mornings. It’s cold, it kills, starves and wounds, and honestly, it just doesn’t give that much of a shit about you. Just as on every album before this, Hexvessel show a reverence to the earth in all its messy, complex and beautiful glory, and that’s why Polar Veil isn’t some errant outlier. For this bunch, it makes perfect sense and it likely will for anyone who has been listening along too.