'Arntor' - Windir (89/100)
In my mind, it is lamentably difficult to dissociate Windir's music from the ill-fated demise of the band's frontman and songwriter, Terje "Valfar" Bakken. That he met his end in a cold of a snowstorm feels drearily appropriate for the music he played in life, and might even seem amusingly ironic, were it not for the fact that friends and family lost a loved one that night, and the black metal scene lost one of its brightest composers. It has been over a decade now since his passing, and people still have his memory in mind when they listen to Windir. His ghost hangs over the music, and begs us to wonder what other masterpieces he might have conjured in the time since fate's deadly trick.
Yet, in spite of the supposed sensationalism that surrounds this and many of the other tragedies in the Norwegian Second Wave, it has never been enough to overshadow the music itself. People might still speculate over the circumstances of Valfar's death, but it's the brilliance Windir exhibited in their vastness of composition and arrangement that keep them sticking around. Arntor was the first Windir album I ever listened to, and it was an all-too rare case of a Second Wave album striking me as a work of genius on my very first listen. The pagan scene is replete with bands that wish to emulate Windir's approach, but none have managed to surpass the formula they perfected on Arntor. The only other artist I can think of that blended traditional black metal with such melody-focused songwriting is Dissection, and given the ever-legendary regard that band earned over the course of two or three albums, it's not bad company for Windir to be in at all.
The strength and significance of melody cannot (read: cannot) be overstated on Arntor. While melodic songwriting tends to get a bad rep in black metal and other 'artistic' genres for being simplistic, cheesy or both, Windir are anything but. The closest thing I could liken their style to outside of bands that influenced them, or were themselves influenced by, would be the Romantic-era classical composers, who gave up some of the pretense of High Classical orchestration to make way for a more sweeping and straightforward beauty. At least four of the seven tracks on Arntor give the staunch impression of classical music performed as black metal. Even (perhaps especially) at the band's most fast-paced and aggressive moments, the guitars are soaring through intensely melodic passages. They are not 'hooks' per se so much as vessels for a conventionally beautiful and sweeping atmosphere, made potentially inaccessible to outsiders of metal fandom only by the merit of the aggressive drumwork and raspy shrieks to be generally expected from the genre. To say that I might bring up Arntor to someone who was looking to first get into black metal shouldn't imply it is simply a gateway to be dismissed once a listener acclimates themselves to more extreme pastures; Arntor is conventionally very beautiful, but it is so at no cost to its depth and longevity.
"Arntor, ein windir" is the song that has engrained itself in my mind the most, if only because it was the 'lightbulb moment' that demonstrated to me how bloody fantastic the rest of the album was bound to be. For Windir, the handling of melody and harmony are one and the same; much like a classical composition, there are often at least a couple of melodies vying for attention, and it is the way they connect and interplay that really matters. Windir occasionally bring clean vocals to bear, but their use of melody in far more in line with the expected Viking formula: deep-pitched, chant-like, and rich in harmony. While Arntor stands out most for its brilliant guitar writing, the more typical elements of pagan metal are executed just as well.
"Kong Hydnes haug", "Svartesmeden og lundamystrollet", and "Saknet" are, in hindsight, just as impressive and beautiful as "Arntor, ein windir", and possibly even bolder when it comes to the overall composition. While the first two are obviously separate tracks, they flow perfectly together, operating from the same tonal origin in such a way that it sounds like one is an inventive variation on the other. While the first three of these tracks are almost uplifting in their soaring melodic appeal, "Saknet" is a much more melancholy piece; without losing any of its conventional beauty, the album's final centrepiece is both predictable in its style, and startling in its refreshing emotional perspective.
There are, of course, three other tracks on Arntor I have glazed over. While they're all solid movements and don't threaten the album's relative 'masterpiece' status, I find it difficult to hold them on the same level of regard as the 'Big Four'-- judging from what I've read on a few other reviews, this tends to be a pretty common criticism. "Byrjing" falls into the done-to-death category of 'synthesizer album intro', the likes of which you've come across a hundred times on other albums of this sort. It's decently atmospheric and more purposefully composed than at least ninety of those mentioned intros, but it does little more than to set the table for the main course. "Kampen" and "Ending", on the other hand, are pretty standard pagan-black metal tunes. "Kampen" in particular is a nice surge of chest-bumping drinking energy in between the two larger epics, but it does sound like Windir were operating on a much less ambitious wavelength with these tracks. Even so; I disagree with the notion that these tracks have no place on Arntor. While they'll never be considered highlights for as long as the album enjoys a listenership, they offer a contrast and reprieve from the jaw-dropping atmosphere. They're solid pagan tunes, but what's more; they stand as a reminder of just how excellent and distinguished the best songs really are in comparison with most of the genre.
Although my personal listening diet often gravitates towards the cosmic end of black metal over its earthly, pagan counterpart, Arntor stands as a masterpiece of its style to my ears, and probably the best album Windir ever put out in their time. The melodic writing is some of the best I have ever heard on a black metal album. Despite his age, Valfar inspired the confidence of a true composer. Whether or not the material is consistent is unimportant when the sum of the parts is so rich and expressive. Everything is in its rightful place. Windir lives on!