When VHÖL announced it was working on its debut for label Profound Lore in late 2012, a fair proportion of metal fans immediately went into paroxysms of anticipation, for good reason. The band’s line-up features Mike Scheidt, Sigrid Sheie, John Cobbett and Aesop Dekker, all of whom are artists of noted musical integrity in metal circles. While the term ‘supergroup’ might spring to mind when that collection of talent gathers, you can dismiss that thought forthwith. VHÖL has none of the bloated and disappointing hubris attached to that tag. Instead, what you’ll find on the band’s debut, VHÖL, is something produced straight from the heart, not from the ego. It’s an album borne from the core elements that drew the band members to (in this case, heavy) music in the first place, and that’s an element we can all relate to, whatever musical hue we favor.
The fevered anticipation surrounding VHÖL is, of course, irrevocably tied to the history of those in the band. Mike Scheidt (vocals) is also vocalist and guitarist for YOB—creator of mammoth doom works such as 2011’s Atma. Multi-instrumentalist Sigrid Sheie (bass) is also a member of neoclassical outfit Amber Asylum, and contributes keyboards and vocals to progressive/traditional metal titan Hammers of Misfortune. VHÖL guitarist John Cobbett is the mastermind behind Hammers of Misfortune, responsible for such well-regarded fare as 2011’s 17th Street. He also served in the ranks of the late and lamented San Francisco black metal band Ludicra alongside VHÖL drummer Aesop Dekker (Dekker currently also plays drums in Worm Ouroboros, and the much-revered folk and blackened-doom metal act Agalloch).
The wealth of experience in VHÖL is in no doubt, but the best thing about VHÖL is that it truly messes with any preconceived notions of what you might expect from a grouping of such influential doom, black and progressive metal musicians. While many fans may have imagined a hybrid of transcendental doom and soaring traditional metal, VHÖL contains none of those elements, at least not overtly.
Cobbett and Dekker initially formed VHÖL as a means to continue making music following Ludicra’s passing, with the aim being to increase the speed and accent the grime. VHÖL certainly hits the mark. It harkens back to metal and punk’s earliest years, allowing the band members to revisit their musical roots with furious abandon, and crossover is the key feature throughout. Black metal frames VHÖL, but D-beat streaked with proto-thrash and greasy smears of classic metal is felt strongly, with the influence of a raft of unsanitary and wicked metal and punk acts of yore featuring. A squalid, retro-mood pervades the album, but if we were to draw comparisons with any of the band members’ more contemporary work, VHÖL orbits closest to Ludicra. (That would be Ludicra sharing a triple bill with Discharge and Judas Priest circa 1980—with Priest being played at quadruple speed).
VHÖL hones the strengths of the band to its sharpest essence—see Dekker’s ceaseless, frenzied battering of his kit like a maniacal demon throughout. “Arising” and “Grace”, the album’s two best tracks, prominently feature Sheie’s magnificent grinding and crust-oozing bass, and her playing throughout VHÖL underscores the album’s wonderfully noxious stomp. Bringing Scheidt on board (who joined without hearing a note) was a boon. His vocal prowess is put to great use, alternating between graveled barks and ‘80s metal echoing howls, and on powerfully scrappy opener, “The Wall”, he throws in a Celtic Frost flavored grunt to seal the album’s vocal temper. “Insane with Faith” and “Plastic Shaman” hurtle forth with plenty of black metal bite, but you’ll also hear Amebix in them, as well as finding plenty of Motörhead and Mercyful Fate in the trampling momentum of “Illuminate”. Still, for all the viciousness, there’s plenty of virtuosity to be found too. Particularly where Cobbett’s solos and cleaner picked notes on “Set to Await Forever” recall Hammers of Misfortune’s harmonic uplift—that is, when he’s not too busy slathering all in frenetic deluges of old-school, contaminate-dripping riffing.
There’s abundant studded-belt and back-patch rhythmic chaos to be found on VHÖL, of both the 10-inch Mohawk and greasy mullet varieties. In places, it sounds like His Hero is Gone covering early Darkthrone, in others like Manilla Road on methamphetamines, sniffin’ glue and guzzlin’ beers with Dark Angel, Bathory, and Exciter (circa 1983’s Heavy Metal Manic). However, while it’s easy to throw out retro reference points—and VHÖL is a great piece of throwback filth—the album also deserves a nod for being so damn proficient at dispensing said filth without being remotely unimaginative or derivative.
All the mayhem on offer can’t disguise the fact that the four musicians involved sound genuinely inspired in reaffirming those face-melting, ear-splitting elements that sit at the core of heavy sounds. The overarching musical theme of VHÖL would suggest that raw sonics reign supreme, no matter which well the corrosive muck is drawn from. That’s an argument that’s hard to dispute here, and fans will no doubt be delighted to be bespattered in VHÖL‘s vintage ordure—even if it’s of an entirely different consistency, and has an entirely different stench, than they were expecting.
// Notes from the Road
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