As slow as some of their riffs are, heads have turned correspondingly fast toward Swedish tone constructionists Monolord. They leave little mystery as to why. Their 2014 debut, Empress Rising, garnered vast attention with its onslaught of riffs and volume-as-ritual appeal, and their sophomore outing, titled Vænir after the largest lake in Sweden an released, like the first LP, by RidingEasy Records, is sure to follow suit. Comprised of six tracks that offer minimal variance from the band’s central ethic of earth-moving low end and buried-deep watery vocals, Vænir taps into a kind of neo-primitivism in stoner-doom riffing. The point is that it should be overwhelming, and there are times where it is. With elements repurposed from the likes of Sleep, Electric Wizard, a keyboard-less Ufomammut, and even some of YOB‘s spacious minimalism in a midsection break on Vænir‘s closing title-track, the Gothenburg three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Thomas V. Jäger, drummer Esben Willems and bassist Mika Häkki conjure a sound that’s at once simplistic and increasingly easy to see as their own, pushing into deep, chest-vibrating rumble while keeping enough of a handle on their songwriting as to make Vænir a memorable experience for more than the impact factor. That’s not to take away from that either, however. Primarily, the impression Vænir leaves is like a flag planted on a holy mountain, Monolord staking a claim on a time-honored ritual of volume and sonic excess. It is heavy, in other words. Very heavy. It knows it’s heavy and it knows that heaviness is something worth celebrating. By the time the explosive opener “Cursing the One” is through with its nine-minute rollout, arguing against it seems futile.
There is a large difference between those who worship heaviness and those engaged in building their own temple of it, and to Monolord‘s credit, they seem engaged in the latter, poised toward the development of an individual sensibility within a tricky host of familiar impressions. As much as Vænir‘s tones could be heard as a godsend for heads itching for that ever-elusive (until you look) next nod, the real miracle of the album is that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Häkki‘s bass and Willems‘ drums are essential to this, as they manage to keep a song like “Cursing the One” or its more open, loose-swinging follow-up, “We Will Burn,” together, but the atmospheric effect of the vocals, awash in effects and universally deep in the mix — purposefully obscured — isn’t to be understated. Not only does the placement of Jäger‘s voice give it the opportunity to slice through the wall of distortion created by the guitar and bass, which it does effectively throughout Vænir, but it makes the whole thing sound even bigger and otherworldly. “We Will Burn” shifts into Conan-esque rolling groove in its back half, finishing by hammering down a stonerly-headbanger of a riff that leads into the classic-styled intro of “Nuclear Death,” which sets up a comfortable mid-pace push with wraparound drum fills and a crashes only to pull the rug out from the whole thing as it approaches its fourth minute. A thudding slowdown is met by a watery verse and grueling solo, and while the pace is revived somewhat with a kick-in from Willems, the impression is made. “Nuclear Death” would seem about as far into the abyss as Vænir wants to go, but in truth, it’s really just the beginning of the album’s next stage.
The first of two cuts on Vænir to top 10 minutes, “Died a Million Times” is the most landmark hook included, and Monolord put it to good use. Its opening minutes set a quicker tempo, and before a line of vocals arrive, the song is already catchy, a stoner bounce counteracted by the fact that it should be too heavy to even get off the ground. It does though, and a quick verse leads to the chorus, which plays off the title line to particularly memorable effect — as much as Vænir has a signature moment that summarizes what the record is about, “Died a Million Times” is it. Verse and chorus cycle through again and a stop leaves just Jäger‘s guitar to act as a bed for a sample from the 1960 film adaptation of H.G. Wells‘ The Time Machine, Häkki‘s bass coming in shortly before the captured lines, “I don’t much care for the time I was born into/It seems people aren’t dying fast enough these days,” signal a return for Willems and full-tonal burst, leading to a combined solo and final chorus that crashes to an end with rumble and amp noise to carry it out, leading into the two-minute interlude-plus of “The Cosmic Silence,” a sort of “Planet Caravan”-meets-“Paint it Black” progression where the guitar and percussion are as obscure as the vocals have been all along. It’s a stylistic turn that fits well where it is but is perhaps late in arriving — I don’t know what it would do to the vinyl structure to have something similar, or different for that matter, earlier in the album too — though its purpose seems to be as much to allow some recovery between “Died a Million Times” and “Vænir” as to establish its own quiet, serene psychedelic vibe. Ultimately, it succeeds in both, and when “Vænir” kicks in, its slow, crushing churn feels all the more weighted for the lead-in. “Vænir” breaks roughly into three movements: the early plod, the spaceout and the final jam.
Of those (and yes, it’s a simplified categorization), the middle spaceout probably adds the most to the context of Vænir overall. The lumbering initial progression and the well-rode capper reaffirm a lot of what has worked all along on the record, but its in that expansive soundscape of guitar that the closer really establishes its own dynamic, following impulses that have, again, been there the whole time, but reinterpreting them similarly to how Monolord has successfully taken the lessons of their key influences and used them to create something new from them. A relatively new band (formed in 2013) of experienced players, the chemistry between Jäger, Häkki and Willems is markedly developed even for a sophomore outing, but there’s a sense that Vænir isn’t the sum total of what Monolord have to offer stylistically. That is to say, while their sound has been well established over their first two albums, the trio has also still left themselves open avenues for progression should they choose to pursue them. Whether they will and what shape their evolution will continue to take is anyone’s best guess, but with Vænir, they effectively demonstrate that Empress Rising was no fluke and that their intention is to leave a footprint befitting the deep heft they bring to bear across these songs.