From the opening strains of “Syndefall,” it’s obvious that what you’re hearing is a Kampfar record: Dolk’s unmistakeable rasp, their unique high/low-end balance and just the right mix of dissonant melodies and pummeling rhythmic work are all clearly at play on Ofidians Manifest (grab a CD, LP, MC or shirt from the label here and/or a digital copy here). However, as matters progress, it quickly becomes clear that this is not the same Kampfar that has been consistently releasing quality black metal with just the right amount of classical compositional sensibility since 1997’s Mellom skogkledde aaser right up until their most recent, 2015’s Profan – which quite deservedly ranks among my top ten black metal albums of all time.
The impression of Kampfar-yet-not-quite-Kampfar is wholly reinforced by the album’s first single, “Ophidian”: the tremolo introduction melody, Dolk’s clean (yet still dredged form the pits of perdition) screams and the jarring soft/hard shifts in arrangement all speak of historical Kampfar, but the overall polish and consideration given tells a different tale. Factor in the stellar music video production (courtesy of Grupa 13, long-time collaborators with and consequently co-creators of the current visual identity of Behemoth) of this album, with its themes of madness and medusae, and you can see the pride Kampfar take in their artistic output.
This argument for Kampfar’s artistic and creative commitment is only strengthened as the album progresses: guest vocals by Agnete Kjølsrud (who famously added her talents on Dimmu Borgir’sAbrahadabra in 2010) on “Dominans” and Marianne Maria Moen on “Det Sorte” provide a softer feminine foil to Dolk’s signature anguished vocal delivery – which nevertheless shines throughout. The choruses overlaid on the faster-paced “Natt” also show a willingness to experiment – but this is no surprise, given Kampfar’s willingness to break the black metal mold as far back as 2011, when they released their single “Bergtatt” re-arranged in the key of D Major, an absolute kvlt faux pas if ever there was one, as a bonus track on the Mare album.
Check out the video for Kampfar’ “Ophidian” here:
For the purists, “Eremitt” is Kampfar in its most recognizable form, but what started as my favourite track for this reason, has become overshadowed by the newer sound which still bleeds rawness while presenting a more refined product, although the subtle keys on this track are still one of the most chilling elements on the entire album. These are echoed to perfection later with on-point harmonic squeals: another example of the power of considered composition over rough-and-ready demo jamming.
Despite their two-decades-plus experience, Kampfar are not content to sit back on their laurels: overcoming health struggles and personal problems, the band pulled together after what most thought would be their last album and have evolved Norwegian Black Metal into a class of its own: the end result is heart-wrenchingly authentic in its delivery, yet stone-cold and precise in its production. If Ofidians Manifest is indeed a new dawn for the band, it heralds a new age of genre-defying, intelligent musicianship that manages to draw inspiration from its black metal roots yet surpasses these beginnings and shapes something unique, fresh and convincing. More importantly, where other groups stray into the sub-genres of symphonic or folk black metal, Kampfar remain firmly and defiantly embedded in pure blackest metal while still growing as artists and musicians.