Since the release of Barbaric Blood just over five years ago Balfor have undergone wholesale personnel changes. These mean that the only original band member still standing since that debut album is the singer, Thorgeir Berserk.
With that in mind, it’s not entirely surprising that follow-up album Black Serpent Rising is a distinctly different entity rather than a copycat follow-up. For those new to Balfor, they are a black metal band from Ukraine, a part of the world that is really starting to make an impact on extreme metal thanks to the likes of Drudkh and Khors.
While Thorgeir is now sharing studio and stage space with new band members the incoming quartet are not exactly novices. New drummer Khaoth has played with Khors and Hate Forest, Astaroth Merc on lead guitar was in Raventale while bassist Athamas will be known by some through Deferum Sacrum.
Line-up covered, what of the music? Well Black Serpent Rising is more atmospheric than its predecessor, in no small part down to the inclusion of some well-placed haunting female backing vocals, in particular on ‘Unbounded Wrath of Venom’.
Opener ‘Serpents of the Black Sun’ has a beefy chug line meaty enough to feed a herd of buffalo. After the initial energy surge it settles into a well-paced rhythm with some clever guitar arrangements sitting comfortably over a steadily pounding beat while Thorgeir works his vocal chords to good effect.
Tempo levels take a significant climb with ‘Dawn of Savage’ with the drumrolls thicker and the guitar grooves carrying some barbed wire jagged edges. Balfor’s compositions are well crafted. A few introspective phases are worked into the maelstrom to allow for a quick intake of breath before the momentum again slowly but surely begins to gather pace. By the time ‘Dawn of Savage’ reaches its choral climax Balfor have pretty much explored every nuance in their path.
‘Unbounded Wrath of Venom’ has a theatrical opening, full of pomp and grandeur before settling on a great rasping riff and then heading off into the darkness once more. Thorgeir’s tones are even huskier when they make their appearance for the first time and by the time he reaches the chorus there’s no holding him back as he bellows in demonic tones: I am the Venom, a Vicious Breed, I Feed onTerror, Horror Beckons to me.
The song climaxes superbly with some wonderfully haunting female vocals adding a further sinister dimension to the already blackened soundscape, Astaroth too making his presence felt with the late addition of a searing solo.
The aural attack is more visceral on the following ‘Heralds of the Fall’, the track less disciplined as the sonic kicks and punches land more frequently and with more density. This is not a valley to navigate without first taking precautionary measures as Thorgeir carves down any dissidents like a Sparta warrior. The song takes an unexpected, and yet welcome, twist towards the end when some cleanly sung deep vocals help deliver a surprisingly human perspective against the backdrop of feral fury and carnage.
Thorgeir again alternates between familiar blackened death delivery and some impressive cleanly sung sections on ‘Among the Fallen Ones’, another impressive number bulging with battle cries and stirring deeds of the warrior, reminiscent in places of Insomnium in full flow.
Album closer ‘Crimson Stronghold’ brings the curtain down impressively with blastbeats falling from above like a foreboding hail storm and an oppressive atmosphere that sees Thorgeir at his most strident.
Black Serpent Rising is an accomplished release with the behind the scenes crew as experienced as the line-up. The melodies are not hard to find and the vocal mix of harsh rough edged with occasional clean cuts blend together well. Equally there’s no danger of the ice melting around Balfor as the inherent hostility and harshness ensure that Black Serpent Rising will meet with approval from most black metal disciples.
The album was recorded at More Music Studio in Kyiv, Ukraine and mixed and mastered by Shaddar (who’s worked with the likes of Khors). The package is complete by some great cover artwork by Ukrainian artist Nurgeslag who has worked with Rotting Christ in the past.