When was the last time a band switched lead singers without slowing down? Throughout rock history, there’s plenty of precedent for this kind of thing. It’s happened again and again: Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, Genesis, Van Halen, Iron Maiden. In each of those situations, the band became radically different after the big change-up. Plenty of those times, the band got shittier. Still, those bands stayed together, at least for a while; often, they became bigger than they’d ever been with their previous singers. But those were all decades ago. The bands were already big, established names. Could anything like that happen today? And could it with a band who isn’t already fucking huge? We might be about to find out.
At home in Norway, Kvelertak are fucking huge. The band routinely plays up near the top of the bill at the gigantic metal festivals they’ve got over there. Their first three albums all charted in Norway’s top three. They’ve toured with Metallica. They’re a big deal! Everywhere else in the world, though, Kvelertak are total cult monsters. They’re a wonderfully peculiar band — Scandinavian vikings who sing in the Norwegian language and who shape the roiling screeches of black and death metal into fist-up classic-rock-singalong material. They’ve always had the kind of personality that you can hear even through the built-in language barrier, and that’s why critics like me have fallen in love with them. So what happens when that personality changes?
In 2018, longtime Kvelertak frontman Erlend Hjelvik, owner of one of the most fearsome growls in recent memory, announced that he was leaving the band. Almost immediately, Kvelertak replaced him with Ivar Nikolaisen, former singer for a couple of bands that had toured with Kvelertak. Nikolaisen is an inspired choice. He clearly understands what’s always made Kvelertak great — that strange and difficult balance of grimy underground-metal seethe and grand, theatrical melodic pomp. He screams nearly as hard as Hjelvik. But the tone of Nikolaisen’s voice is different. It’s higher and cleaner. Nikolaisen can do clean singing as well as throat-shredding screaming, though he still does more of the latter. It’s a gradual but distinct shift. The Kvelertak that recorded Splid, the new album, is clearly the same band, but you can immediately hear the difference.
The one big, obvious immediate divergence is that Nikolaisen sometimes sings in English, something that Hjelvik never did. He doesn’t do it too often. Splid only has two songs in English, but they’re both monsters. On “Crack Of Doom,” Nikolaisen trades off lines with Mastodon co-leader Troy Sanders, and the shit that they yell is just awesome: “Born with a lack of PMA! I got judgment day in my DNA!” “Discord” has a lot of that same raging, balls-out absurdity working for it: “We fell down in a ditch! Picked up a BC Rich to cure our aching itch!” Until I saw those lyrics, it never even occurred to me to care what Kvelertak were singing about. But those lyrics rule. So I went ahead and fed the rest of the Splid lyric sheet through Google translate. Some highlights:
• “Ten thousand years of fucking fucking hell!”
• “Carcasses and donkeys glide quietly past!”
• “Surrender to the hegemony of the owl!”
• “Titty mammon’s cock in the middle of a bright day!”
• “Go to war in pure euphoria! Either die in blood than live in shit!”
• “Roughly supply yourself to Ragnarok!”
• “Useless fucking cock, how are you going? All these 10 you have spent on total idiocy!”
• “Open up your tummy cup! Shut up and enjoy your horrible body!”
• “Grow up, get a life! Misanthropy, so damn 2009! You start to look like a fucking Playmo! Empty inside, plastic outwards!”
Obviously, all of this is absolutely fucking dope. (Just as obviously, most of it is probably horribly, clumsily wrong.) There’s a lot of stuff about Vikings and Norse legends, though not in the fascist way that Norway’s original black metal bands sometimes used that imagery. (Kvelertak have always been staunchly anti-fascist.) One song has a title that translates as “Fuck This Hole.” There’s stuff about the pernicious forces of capitalism and conformity, and there’s a surprising amount about tea, which maybe means something else over there. Even after looking at translations, I don’t understand plenty of it. I’m probably not supposed to understand most of it.
Point is: Kvelertak are still devoted to kicking all varieties of ass in every aspect of their presentation, lyrics included. Musically, Splid continues the trajectory that the band’s been on for a while now, moving from the outright blackened D-beat insanity of their self-titled 2010 debut and beyond the bigger, richer choruses of 2013’s Meir and 2016’s Nattesferd. The band recorded Nattesferd themselves, but for Splid, they’ve gone back to Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, the man who produced their first two albums. The sound, grand but still crusty, nails that exact perfect combination.
Parts of Splid sound like early-’80s crustpunk or early-’90s black metal. Parts of it sound like pure guitars-up ’70s arena-rock blare. There are a few weirdly pretty acoustic moments that sound like prime radio-grunge and a few other weirdly pretty acoustic moments that sound like neoclassical mid-’80s Metallica interludes. But Kvelertak’s great gift is the way those moments all slide together — the way they can sound like Morbid Angel and Van Halen and Disfear and Thin Lizzy and Every Time I Die and Bad Company and Soundgarden all at once.
Splid makes for enormously fun, friendly rage-out music, music as giddy as it is ferocious. That sound must be a tough one to figure out, since literally nobody else has pulled it off. But Kvelertak didn’t just figure out how to make this all-hooks chaos. They figured out how to keep making it after getting themselves a whole new singer. Once Splid starts to stampede all over you, you might even stop noticing that anything is different.
Splid is out 2/14 on Rise Records.
Other albums out this week:
• Tame Impala’s long-awaited The Slow Rush, which we’ll discuss in further detail soon.
• Justin Bieber’s marriage album Changes.
• Katie Gately’s stark, intense, haunting experimental LP Loom.
• Cindy Lee’s post-Women pop experiment What’s Tonight To Eternity.
• The Men’s scuzz-rock return Mercy.
• A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s last-minute announcement Artist 2.0.
• Summer Camp’s cinematic indie-popper Romantic Comedy.
• Mush’s clattering postpunk debut 3D Routine.
• Tennis’ breezy indie-pop effort Swimmer.
• Turia’s atmospheric black metal excursion Degen Van Licht.
• Carly Pearce’s self-titled pop-country LP.
• Huey Lewis & The News’ endurance statement Weather.
• These New Puritans’ compilation The Cut (2016-2019).
• Store Front’s Task EP.
• Mutually Assured Destruction’s Fever Dream EP.
• Typecaste’s Between Life EP.
• Choice To Make’s Vicious Existence EP.