Less than two years after their major label debut Sky Swallower, Vattnet Viskar return with an album that is a lesson to other metal bands in creative maturity and effective songwriting. Their sophomore effort Settler is far more than just a step forward from the band’s debut; it demonstrates the greatness that can happen when a group of musicians have the same goal and deliberately chart into uncomfortable territory. While the Vattnet Viskar’s debut saw an admirable blend of decidedly American black metal with the cinematic, sludgy crescendos of Isis and Neurosis, Settler takes far more risks and is leagues above the “blackgaze” bands that currently saturate Bandcamp. Built upon a foundation of extreme metal that aims for emotional catharsis as its end goal, Settler is just as poignant as it is downright furious, unrelenting in its quest to take listeners on a dynamic journey through the highest and lowest of emotions in the human spectrum. Settler as a whole is a sure sign of Vattnet Viskar’s current vitality and willingness to stretch themselves into new sonic territory.
My talk with guitarist Chris Alfieri yielded the information that Vattnet Viskar had more time to immerse themselves in the recording process with producer Sanford Parker. Parker’s thumbprint is definitely noticeable on Settler’s mixing job: Guitars layer upon themselves with icy melodies soaked in reverb, ghostly synths float behind walls of austere, crushing post-metal, the bass rumbles, the drums pound, and Nick Thornbury’s vocals are saturated with distortion but seated high in the mix, making his raspy yells sound like a face-to-face encounter with the embodiment of rage and pain combined.
One characteristic that makes Settler so successful is how much the songwriting has developed; while Sky Swallower was made of longer songs split up by short interludes over the album’s runtime, Settler is simply eight strong songs that complement each other, and even with two longer cuts running slightly over 6 minutes, the album leaves its mark in memorability and replay value all while clocking in far under an hour of running time.
Starting with a blistering drum fill, “Dawnlands” erupts with speed and fury, its melodic tremolo picking dripping with as much passion as melancholy. Hold tight, though; we’re not off to a typical start. Soon, a section starts that, while still definitely metal in presentation, has rhythms and melodic bass runs more typical of post-hardcore. When these two worlds combine with Vattnet Viskar’s penchant for thick atmosphere, the results are cathartic and mesmerizing. “Colony” follows suit with an angular, stuttering riff before launching headway into a verse that amplifies the beauty of the best elements of the band’s debut, but lest we get comfortable again, they lurch into sludge territory as vocals, soaked with vocoders and feedback, chant binary code. (It’s weird and awesome.) The last half of the song blasts with the melodic sensibilites of Dissection framed in a rhythm that, strangely, would be welcome on Deftones’ Saturday Night Wrist. There is no such thing as “normal” metal on this album; even the most orthodox moments, such as the crushing doom roots of “Yearn,” are surrounded in nearly uplifting ambience. My personal favorite track, “Impact,” is simultaneously the most aggressive and beautiful track on the album, nearly heart-rending in just how gorgeous it is.
Settler does what every sophomore album should: Build on the successes and high points of previous efforts while stretching into new sonic territory, adapting new influences into an existing sound and still maintaining identity. In this case, Vattnet Viskar’s effortless blend of black metal and post-metal works far better than most of their contemporaries, and with the band drawing from a number of non-metal influences for this album (see: the Deftones-cum-Enslaved groove of “Heirs” and the title track, which are based more around the interplay of bass and drums rather than guitars), there is no wasted runtime. Taken as a whole, Settler is an incredibly dynamic and engaging album, but the individual tracks have distinct identities. The Thrice-indebted beginning of album closer “Coldwar” leads to the album’s brilliant final climax, a melodic, soaring, and memorable guitar solo – something which hasn’t been attempted in Vattnet Viskar’s sound, and it pays off beautifully, ending Settler on a high note, like suddenly arriving at your destination of a sunny meadow after a long, brutal journey through the night.
I had high expectations for Settler, and Vattnet Viskar far exceeded them. In a time when a lot of black metal bands are shoegazing and getting lost in how much delay their pedals produce, Vattnet Viskar girded their loins and chose to write a passionate, cathartic, and memorable album from start to finish, never once getting lost in pretensions or over-ambition. Even though we’re only halfway through the year, Settler may well be contender for album of the year status, and at worst, stands head and shoulders above the lesser known bands on major metal labels.
Interview with Vattnet Viskar guitarist Chris Alfieri
Dustin G (BGM): First of all, thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. I know the band’s plate is pretty full right now with the release of Settler and the upcoming tours. Let’s start with Settler itself: It’s definitely still distinctly Vattnet, but you’re integrating some elements that weren’t as fleshed out on your debut album Sky Swallower: Guitar melodies that deliberately revolve around major keys rather than minor, more pronounced post-rock influence, and even some math rock. I noticed it the most on “Impact” and “Colony.” Was this a natural progression that just happened when you started writing new material, or was it a more deliberate choice for the band?
Chris A: We went into the writing process for Settler with no walls or expectations put up. Whereas before, Nick (Thornbury – Guitar/Vocals) and myself took a very direct and specific approach to writing, this time we wanted to incorporate any and all ideas from the four of us into the album. We wear our influences on our sleeves, and knew that writing an album that encompassed all of them would make the most sense, and be the most genuine piece of art. At the end of the day, we all just wanted to make a record that we wanted to hear.
DG: What were the major factors in influencing how Settler was written, both musically and lyrically? On a similar note, were there any big differences in how you approached the songwriting and studio time with this album?
CA: The process for coming up with riffs was much the same, Nick and myself both write best alone in our houses on laptops or iphones, and then present them to the group. This time however, instead of directing the part to the other band members, we allowed everyone to morph our parts into what they wanted to play as an accompaniment. Musically, not much changed for myself as far as influences. I take a lot of direction from the environment around me, whether that be a physical state or emotional state, the music created is a cathartic release of that pent up energy. Lyrically, this album is the antithesis of Sky Swallower’s look at outward reality, and more of a statement in regards to an inner journey.
The recording process was much different this time however, we recorded out in Illinois at Earth Analog Studios. We were able to immerse ourselves in the recording process, and lived directly above the studio with our producer Sanford Parker. We worked tirelessly day and night creating our art, but never felt the stress of everyday life or home. It was a much more relaxed and introspective experience.
DG: The artwork for Settler has been pretty contentious for keyboard warriors. I personally love it just for how different it is, but give us a rundown of the overall concept of the album and how that ties to the artwork.
CA: We knew the artwork would be polarizing, and even felt some push-back initially from members of our team, but we saw no other option for an album cover. The art, created by Josh Graham, was a recreation of a training photo of Christa McAuliffe. Although most assume this cover emotes positivity and happiness, we ascribe a wide range of emotions to the cover. The bliss of embarking on a journey, the unknown results of said journey, and the will to do it anyways. In many ways, that is what Settler is about.
DG: As someone who has seen you guys live (you killed it in Lexington last fall, btw), it’s clear that the live aspect of Vattnet Viskar is hugely important for the full impact of the music, and I can honestly say that you have more energy on stage than many of your peers. For your tour with 1349, which you just finished, you inevitably had a lot of metal “purists” in the crowd. How did you anticipate people reacting to the new material live?
CA: We never go into any situation with expectations, which is something that has taken me 32 years of living to realize. At the end of the day, we all put on an intense show, it just may be a different form of intensity than others. We get a cathartic release from our live shows, and strive to be different every night. As long as we accomplish that, then I feel fulfilled. I believe the crowds will accept the energies we put forth as genuine, and that’s all I can ask for. If a “purist” dismisses us based on looks, then I feel that is 100% their loss and not ours.
DG: Let’s take a broader focus : Vattnet Viskar has always been lumped into this whole “post-black” movement. I think the term is pretty dumb, myself; I’ve always considered Vattnet Viskar a metal band, period, with a great ear for dynamics, atmosphere, and texture in your songs. That being said, it’s clear that you have no issues with taking the “staple sounds” of metal and really turning them on their heads, especially on songs like “Impact.” How have you handled the backlash from “purists” that has come your way?
CA: Put simply, we don’t handle it at all. That is something ascribed to us from another mind, and another’s experiences. I can only control what I put out there, and the reasons behind it. If someone else goes deeper than that with their own assumptions, I will not waste my time attempting to rationalize their beliefs. Our only goal is to not recreate something which has already been created, which I feel is rampant in the current music scene.
CA: The touring lifestyle can be taxing, mostly physically. Keeping yourself in good shape is key. None of us truly take pride in our bodies as a physical art form, but we all know our limits and know when it’s time to reign ourselves in. Emotionally, keeping in touch with friends and family at home constantly keeps my mind in a calm state. Dealing with an extreme anxiety disorder over my lifetime, I’ve learned many tricks to keep my thoughts at bay, and because of many years of practicing these techniques, I feel I’m very prepared for this lifestyle. Reading also helps a ton.
DG: Of course, a customary question: What’s being listened to in the van while you’re on the road? I’d imagine that playing metal every night would make you NOT want to listen to it all the time, haha. Tell us your musical guilty pleasures if you have any.
CA: We rarely listen to metal on tour just due to the fact that after being screamed at all night by other bands, I couldn’t handle another second of it. Personally, I listen to a lot of soundscapes and movie soundtracks. Bands like Tangerine Dream, Infinity Shred, and a lot of Bruce Springsteen usually calm me down throughout the day. In the van, we listen to a wide variety of music. Lately it’s been the new Pianos Become the Teeth and Mastodon records which have been on repeat.
CA: We’re out on tour all summer, come to a gig and say hi.
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Dustin is an educator, musician, and writer based out of northeastern Kentucky. He’s the angry young gentleman behind the sounds of Old Thunder and has an infatuation with the works of Cormac McCarthy. Coffee loves him, and he loves coffee.