By Nathanas Trismegistus
Vassafor – To the Death; released, on all formats, August 7, 2020 by (who else) Iron Bonehead Productions. Despite continuing to dwell in relative obscurity today, Vassafor has existed since the olden days – the strange aeons – of black metal. However, the New Zealand unit never released any music until 1997. After their first demo, imaginatively titled “Demo I”, the band split up, only to reform, in 2005, and release a second demo, also imaginatively titled “Demo II”. Vassafor would not release their first, proper full-length album until 2012, but the build-up to Obsidian Codex was marked by some concise, but interesting, EPs and a compilation, released by Dark Descent Records, which, I think, really put them on the map. After another vast gulf of time, Vassafor released their follow-up, Malediction, in 2017. And here we are, in 2020, with the third, full-length assault by the warrior-occultists; an oblique, diabolical deathmarch to bloodstained glory.
To describe Vassafor’s musical style merely as black/death would be inaccurate. There’s definitely a lot more going on here. Elements of doom and thrash (if you can believe it) also comprise the infernal landscape of Vassafor’s musical domain. Their riffing style is, of course, similar in nature to that of Black Witchery or Teitanblood; though, on this album the interplay of rhythm and lead guitars is more akin to what Teitanblood was trying to achieve with their latest release. The closest possible comparison I could make would be with fellow Kiwis, Diocletian. But, imagine if Diocletian wrote songs that were more melodic, far more varied, and considerably longer. Seriously Vassafor songs clock in anywhere from three-to-five-times the length of your average Diocletian track. One Vassafor track could contain all the movements of an entire Diocletian album and that’s not an exaggeration, I think. And the fact that Diocletian is far more popular than Vassafor is an injustice, in my opinion.
The opening – and titular – track expresses the premise of To the Death very well; it is dark, bellicose assertion of apocalyptic mysticism. Tracks 2 and 3 continue the trend of smothering anxiety. I would have said that To the Death was the most succinct and trimmed Vassafor album, simply due to the stellar pacing and brisk tempos, but track 4 does seem like ultimately pointless and redundant padding. Tack 5 has a vicious, aggressive attitude which I thoroughly enjoyed. Track 6 has a lecherous allure and discomfiting brightness to it, but the vocals are so qualitatively dissimilar that it is sort of distracting; though, this may be due to use of a guess vocalist (it’s anyone’s guess who it is). The closing track truly is a journey, and probably – between 2 and 5 – one of my favorite tracks. The only real departures I can detect in the style of this specific album are the weird, whispery vocal segments (when you listen to this album, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about) which are so sparse one might wonder why they even bothered to include them. Certain riffs do culminate in an almost Baroquian fashion. This is also probably Vassafor’s least discordant album, or, rather, the riffs in To the Death alternate more frequently. One might be tempted to call it meandering and aimless composition, but I think this is, perhaps, only true to a lesser extent than previous offerings by the band. I think the songs reach a satisfying conclusion even though the listener might not immediately understand what that conclusion is. The songwriting, overall, is rather complex and, as a result, can be inscrutable. But, upon repeat listens, the point becomes increasingly evident.
The main issue I have with the production quality of Vassafor releases is that they simply have too much low end. They are all just overloaded with echoey bass, particularly with the percussion. And I get that this is a conscious, artistic choice and I wouldn’t begrudge them for achieving the sound that they are aiming to achieve. It is very murky, oppressive, and claustrophobic; but, it’s just not that dynamic. Certain musical artefacts, some of its personality, just gets kind of lost in the bellowing drone, and that might put off a lot of potential listeners. As much as I loved Nyogthaeblisz’s debut last year, it had a similar problem, and I know VK (the guitarist/bassist/vocalist of Vassafor) mastered that album, so he’s probably solely responsible. To be fair, though, the guitar leads (which are solid throughout) do manage to shimmer through the dour mix; and when it works, it does work well. Also, that ever-elusive analogue warmth is certainly present; this album feels like my taint after a trek through a sweltering, tropical rainforest (in a good way).
This album is the sonic equivalent of an atomic eruption, violently ascending, rending the clouds, and eclipsing the stars with baleful, thermonuclear refulgence. I would put To the Death at the same level as Malediction. Maybe a little higher. Technically better on certain fronts, especially the songwriting. It is definitely longer; in fact, it is the longest Vassafor release to date (if you don’t count the cassette version of Obsidian Codex). Just over sixty-five minutes of seething, despair-inducing, apocalyptic black/death metal. It has been a while since I listened to Obsidian Codex, so I’d have to go back and listen to it again, but for the purpose of this review I’ll go on record as saying that To the Death is the best Vassafor release yet. It is, without a doubt, the best release, in its category, this year. If it were up against, say, last year’s Sammath release, or even Hellvetron’s, then this would probably only get the bronze medal. (I do wish Vassafor would take notes from Sammath’s production quality.) LEAGUES better than Diocletian’s futile effort, though. Excellent work, nonetheless. I’ll buy it. Highly recommended listening, essential listening for this year!