Two years have passed since the last Horna album, with little activity beyond a couple split releases. So the band's latest full-length, Hengen Tulet, has been much-anticipated. I was quite wary of this record, due to the disturbing pattern of poor choices that have plagued both Horna and Sargeist in the last few years. My initial impression was quite negative, but repeated listens have allowed many of the guitar melodies to seep into my subconscious and to grow on me a bit. Horna has long been one of the few bands managing to keep the black flame burning in the dark times. Still, there are elements of this recording that are off-putting and it struggles to compare to the classic works that preceded it. In some aspects, it displays a marked improvement over some of the shortcomings of the previous offering, but it is not without certain flaws that work to ruin this album. Some may be disappointed, so the best approach would be a cautious one.
There are two significant things that are severely detrimental to this release: the production and the vocals. After Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa, and then especially following Sargeist's Feeding the Crawling Shadows, I worried that Shatraug would continue down the path of horrible production. Sadly, this concern has turned out to be very much justified. One guess would be that the cleaner and more accessible sound on Sargeist's Let the Devil In triggered a reaction toward future recordings and he has sort of gone overboard in trying to avoid repeating that 'mistake'. As a passionate fan of the old Moonblood demos and rehearsals, an immensely lof-fi and necro sound is actually very appealing to me, so this isn't a matter of the production not being 'good' enough. It sounds like they recorded with modern, digital technology and then tried to 'dirty it up' in the studio, after the fact. The various effects do nothing to help the music and actually make it more difficult to enjoy. One of the most perplexing things has to be the decision to mic the drums so thoroughly and to make them so loud in the mix, burying the haunting riffs underneath a lot of unnecessary clutter. Also, whatever awful effects they used for Spellgoth's substandard vocals did them no favours, as well. His voice really does not fit Horna, anyway, and he is vastly inferior to his predecessors Corvus and Nazgul. For that matter, even Shatraug's vocals would be a vast improvement over this ridiculous, Manson-esque poser.
Regarding the music itself, much like Askel Lähempänä Saatanaa, Hengen Tulet is rather mediocre when compared to earlier Horna albums. For over a decade, the band was on the right track, probably peaking with Envaatnags Eflos Solf Esgantaavne. Yet, in recent years, the consistency and reliability of this band has come into question and can no longer be blindly trusted. In the past, the focus was on the dark and mournful guitar melodies as well as the tormented vocals, creating a very obscure and often nightmarish atmosphere. Here, one has to listen several times to get accustomed to the clunky sound created by the loud drums, bass and pointless meandering of the main riffs. Shatraug's trademark songwriting style is still evident, with some decent melodies here and there, but they serve merely to remind one of past glories. This is evident in tracks like "Amadriada" and "Saatanalle". That is not to say that the material is bad, but that it mostly fails to live up to the expectations that some would have based on previous recordings. That said, the compositions are still clearly rooted in the old days of Black Metal, with obvious influences from the '80s and early '90s. The overall vibe is more aggressive than most of what the band has done in several years, with a lot of intense, fast-paced tracks. Most of this would be on-par with an album like Hiidentorni, if only Spellgoth were even half the vocalist that Nazgul was. Unfortunately, his distorted shouting just does not belong. Tracks like "Nekromantia" and "Ikuisuuden kynnyksellä" slow things down enough for the riffs to breathe a bit, but the Manson-wannabe manages to spoil those to a degree as well. The former is a bit strange and sticks out, with some rather bluesy riffs that are slightly reminiscent of old Danzig. As for the latter song, it is definitely the highlight of the album. It is here, finally, where the guitars step out of the shadows and work to create a darker atmosphere and to convey a feeling of mourning and dread. This is immediately negated with the completely out-of-place and upbeat "Sodan roihu", as well as the filler tracks that follow, so one may want to just stop the disc after track 7.
The sad thing is that even Hengen Tulet's best moments pale in comparison to the likes of "Musta Temppeli", "Marraskuussa" or "Baphometin Siunaus". The old school Black Metal feeling is here, it's just buried under a lot of refuse;. i.e. terrible production and totally pathetic vocals. This album would have sounded much better with a different mix, a raw demo-quality sound that focused on the guitars and left the drumming to the background. No amount of effects or studio trickery can replicate genuine rawness and Horna should have known better. While the record isn't a bad one, and is likely leagues ahead of most of the current crop of bands, it fails to live up the the standard set by the rest of the band's discography. Hopefully, they use a different studio next time, as well as dump the urine-soaked frontman and find someone more suitable for one of Finland's most respected Black Metal entities. Worth a listen, but do not expect too much.