Livslede by SunkenRelease date: September 18, 2020
Label: Vendetta Records
Opening with the sounds of water lapping gently, with waves of feedback following suit and some gorgeous piano chords, Danish black metal quintet Sunken guide us into their sophomore album, Livslede, in a beautiful, yet unassuming way on ‘Forlist’. This introductory track segues into the epic ‘Ensomhed’, a twelve and a half minute behemoth, that, despite its soft opening is probably the heaviest piece the Danes have to offer out of the four full-length tracks on this LP.
‘Ensomhed’ features transcendental tremolo-picked guitar work throughout. The rhythm section creates a solid foundation for this euphoric tapestry to be woven, with the bass work sympathetic to the guitar’s crescendos and massive melancholic yet melodic diversity. The drumming drives Sunken endlessly forward during the whole of Livslede, giving us sumptuous fills peppered throughout the albums forty plus minutes, taking risks at times when a simple pattern would do but which are instead subject to intricate, subtle playing performed to perfection. At one point later on the drumming even takes centre stage.
Sunken are impressive sculptors of magisterial, towering black metal compositions. ‘Ensomhed’ is jaw-dropping in just how many twists and turns it takes during its extended length, but the song feels completely as one from the very first time you listen. It can be deconstructed, but it is more than the sum of its parts – from the primal black metal of its furious opening (after its short connection to ‘Forlist’), to its otherworldly final minutes, with sung vocals nestled in the mix, creating a sense of grandeur as they fluctuate between use as ‘voice as instrument’ and a delivery vehicle for the lofty subject matter the song tackles. You can feel an ‘ancient wisdom’ permeating this song, channelled from nature and the ocean through the minds of beings who are conscious of their own mortality and their brief contribution to the world around them. It’s depressive black metal with the uncanny ability to uncover deep truths that can, in turn, set one free of such a bleak outlook. It’s a sound Sunken had with their debut album Departure but which the Danes have not only amplified on their new album, but perfected.
Take ‘Foragt’, the second lengthiest track on the LP, at a minute shorter than that which came before it. ‘Foragt’ approaches their sound from a completely different angle, the guitars sounding undeniably black metal in scope, but audibly glittering in ways that are unmistakably reminiscent of the shimmering, grandiose post-hardcore sound of the early 2000s. It’s quite remarkable how the band manage to subsume different influences, hold them up to the light, but make them their own, and make their relative strengths new facets of their black metal dichotomy. There’s the aforementioned post-hardcore in their cauldron of sounds, as well as genres more accustomed to a black metal pairing, such as post-rock and shoegaze, but Sunken are also bold enough to incorporate the blueprints of noise rock and
‘Foragt’ is also the track that features the aforementioned focus on drums, when, at its midpoint the previous whirring, furious guitar and bass work and vocals dripping in gut-wrenching anguish recede, falling back to naught, to leave the drums centre stage. Previously the band had already been painting a grand vista, with the track providing sublime, inventive black metal flourishes yet again. Synths also play an important role once more, bolstering an already robust, almost overwhelmingly emotional sound, with root notes pillowing the entire track into soft edges, before allowing the guitars to cut through. This is until we are left with the drums relentlessly proceeding, with a precision that draws the listener in and allows for the rest of the band to enable a massive switch up in sound for a good few minutes, with us being treated to some harmonies that would make Alcest envious. The fact that the band then manage to bring back the ferocity of ‘Foragt’s opening, but without reverting to the previous riff of vocal pattern, is astonishing. The track quite literally ends as a shoegaze punk hybrid shot through the lens of Scandinavian black metal. It’s a trip, and the tracks dulcet drawn out final notes are needed to catch one’s breath and take in and reflect on what’s just happened.
There’s little time to marvel too long though, as Sunken then deliver the most surprising track on Livslede, and its high point, too. ‘Delirium’ is a nine-minute track that begins with an exquisite bass line and delicate guitar picking before, slowly, subtle synthesizer and economic drumming begin to fill out the framework of the track and soft, mournful spoken word begins to be uttered. It’s sad, lost, and deeply melancholic music (‘Livslede’ means ‘depression’ or ‘worry’), but, similarly to ‘Ensomhed’ provides us with another door to the minds of the quintet, and the musical worlds they create are utterly beautiful, despite their roots being found in sorrow. ‘Delirium’ is absolutely astonishing and well worth the price of admission alone.
Final track ‘Dødslængsel’ is sublime, too – a track that feels as if on a constant crescendo, flying ever-upward through the skies, searching for something, be it meaning, light or escape. The guitars are at their most sumptuous and effervescent here. The production throughout Livslede is really a thing of beauty in its own right but coupled with the glorious musicianship exhibited on’ Dødslængsel’, we reach for the stratosphere and manage to clutch at the ineffable. As the blinding light begins to dim, we are left with the sounds of water lapping again, a tide perhaps waning this time, drawing back and suddenly, inevitably, silence. Somehow the few seconds after the album finished felt like they were part of Sunken’s artistry – I felt a profound loss at the lack of sound from the band. A mournful pang that Livslede had ended. Tellingly, I have often found the compulsion to listen immediately once more, the water buoying me back to the surface of my own emotions, as ‘Forlist’ beckons ‘Ensomhed’ to stir its dark wrath.
Livslede is a stunning atmospheric black metal album that is by turns musically explorative and emotionally torturous, much in the vein of Afsky, Ultha and Sun Worship. This LP utterly blindsided me, though. Sunken were a band I was deeply impressed with when I listened to their debut record, but I was not prepared for Livslede. The five-piece have leapt considerably forward in their abilities as musicians and in their songcraft, with each of the four tracks proper bringing so many different styles, emotions and techniques into play – each being completely their own piece of art, while having a cohesion that makes the album one of the most rounded LPs so far in 2020. The production is absolutely unsurpassed in black metal this year, and as the ‘sixth member’ brings as much to the table as the rest of the band do. Livslede is essential listening if you’re a fan of black metal in 2020, and, quite frankly, essential if you’re not.