King of the North

This is probably going to sound really stupid, which is something I’m not exactly unaccustomed to doing so… Oh well. It’s easy to forget sometimes that our favorite bands and musicians are, well, artists! In every sense of the word. They create, the evolve, they strive to grow and follow their artistic journeys and trust that their instincts will guide them to creating the purest form of expression. For me, following that journey is the best part about it all. Being able to take a step back and see the big picture, to give context and hopefully a greater understanding of who our favorite artists are, and what makes them uniquely them.

When I reviewed Wolfheart‘s Wolves of Karelia two years ago, I approached it thinking, frankly, that the band, and particularly mastermind Tuomas Saukkonen, was pretty much cooked. That his furious work ethic and insane rate of creative output had finally caught up with him and his particular brand of metal. But before that released, he took a step back from Wolfheart to revive one of his oldest projects, Dawn of Solace, and I still believe whole-heartedly that the re-focus was exactly what the doctor ordered, giving him a refreshed perspective and redirecting his creative process. As a result, Wolves of Karelia was a revelation. Not a “return to form” of their first two incredible albums, but a whole new beast entirely – one with renewed focus and ferocity. It was one of my favorite albums of 2020, and my favorite album of their career.

Well if Wolves of Karelia showed a band re-sharpening their fangs and getting back into the hunt, King of the North is a band finally utilizing the full strengths of the entire pack to become the apex predators they always had the potential to be. It’s Wolfheart‘s greatest, most complete effort yet.

Signs that this album may be ushering in a sort of new era for the band started when they released their first single, “Ancestor,” with a guest appearance from Killswitch Engage‘s Jesse David Leach. While the song began with typical Wolfheart ferocity and fire, the chorus gave way to a gorgeous melody featuring Jesse’s fantastic clean vocals. The result was utterly intoxicating for me, with the cleans creating huge sense of balance to Saukkonen’s bellowing lows and muscular guitar work, and I vividly remember my first reaction being, “Damn, now I really wish Wolfheart would fuck with more cleans.” It seemed like the missing piece bringing the whole thing together. As it turns out, I got my wish – and the results are exactly as I had envisioned. With the addition of guitarist and new clean vocalist Vagelis Karzis (who used to play live with Rotting Christ), this is now a band ready to attack from all angles, surrounding it’s prey with a mix of fast, muscular brutality, and cunning subtlety and grace.

Tracks like the epic opener “Skyforger,” and the stunning “Headstones” are using every tactic in the book – the former announcing itself with an enormous intro melody that has all the pomp and swagger of a band extremely confident in what they’re about to unleash, and doing so without hesitation. Tuomas’ signature growls enter the fray with an explosion of furious guitars and drums. This all sounds fairly typical of the band, before everything but the drums and bass shut down and slow to a spacious, eerie crawl. Karzis’ cleans then enter the fray, and even with Jesse Leach’s guest appearance on “Ancestor” serving as a foreshadowing of the band’s direction, the new wrinkle still blows you away. It’s just such a nice break from the more typical Wolfheart storm, and when the guitars ramp back up and Saukkonen retakes the vocal lead, it hits with that much more impact.

I’m also very happy to hear King of the North continue the band’s more recent trend of making concept albums. Saukkonen is a tremendous story teller, and now with the new wrinkles being added to the band’s sound, they’re even more suited to telling these tales with a greater sense of mood and clarity. The super heavy, angular “The King,” struts with the sense of power and poise of the character the song boasts, where “Knell,” a song about a character forcing themselves not to give in to the grips of death, hits with an icier, more dire tone that allows you to really visualize the story playing out in your mind. And when the band wants to unleash their attack and bash your brains in, they’re still more than capable of creating the necessary intensity. One listen to “Cold Flame” (featuring Nile‘s Karl Sanders) or “Fires of the Fallen” and you’ll be gasping for breath trying to keep up.

As usual, it’s Saukkonen’s distinct guitar melodies and solos that carries the day, and though it probably doesn’t even need to be said, they’re fantastic. His melodies continue to be second-to-none, and his solos can easily be picked out of a crowd of his Scandinavian counterparts. Whether it’s Wolfheart, Dawn of Solace, Before the Dawn or any of his other billion projects, you know it’s Tuomas playing guitar, and it’s a quality that I think you can only find in maybe a couple handfuls of musicians around the world. His mastery of piano and orchestration also continues to play such a huge part of Wolfheart‘s sound, perfectly accentuating the cold, desolate lows and the epic, blood-pumping highs of the album. If the guy wanted to get into movie scoring (and Gods know he’s a guy who loves to keep himself busy), I think he’d find success very quickly. Get a hold of Danny Elfman pronto.

There are so many little nuances and decisions made by the band on King of the North that make it such a huge success that I could go on writing for days about it. I’m not going to do that, nobody wants to read that. I’ll just leave you with a plea to get this thing in your hands as soon as possible, because it’s not every day you get to hear a band really come into full form like this. This is a band whose journey has been much greater than its years (I don’t know why but it blows me away that they haven’t even been around 10 years yet), and who knows – this may not even be the destination they’re ultimately seeking – but if we can get more of this from the band moving forward, I’m all-in. King of the North has solidified the band as just that – they are the new kings of all Scandinavian Melodic Death Metal. Argue whatever you want, I will not (for now) be convinced otherwise.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
September 13th, 2022


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