Vitskar Suden: the Faceless King

For those who pay any loose attention to what and how I write, this is yet another unabashed post heaping praise upon yet another release. So it goes this year: album after album, song after song. So many bands in the heavy underground are putting out career-defining material that shatters even the loftiest of expectations, it’s hard to keep an objective perspective. I’m not even going to try.

Vitskar Suden has pulled off something rare with The Faceless King. They’ve taken me back to when I was 14, exploring the world of heavy metal and prog for the first time. It doesn’t remind me of the music when I was 14: it makes me feel like I am 14, when everything was new and there was a whole world of music, waiting for me to explore. It’s not often that something sparks those kinds of feelings in me, and when it does I forget that I’m almost 60, and there’s still a whole new world before me to explore. This kind of album recalibrates my relationship with music in many ways, giving me a fresh perspective. Just like when I was a kid.

When I first got wind of this release through Ripple Music, I figured it would at least be interesting. The release notes stated, “Vitskär Süden explores the rock world’s eerie fringes, meeting at the crossroads of Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Wovenhand, Lord Vicar and Jaye Jayle.” While those are compelling reasons to check something out, those comparisons affirm my thoughts that comparing to other artists can be a double-edged sword. Those bands point to a general direction, but can also sway a person to turn the other way. I also can’t count the bands who had similar comparisons only to have me go, “WTF!”

This is not the case with Vistkar Suden, and I have to give a nod of respect to the Wovenhand reference. I do think it’s a good idea to specify things a bit more, though. There is a Pink Floyd element to The Faceless King, mostly from the Meddle and Dark Side era, especially in the arrangements and production. Bonedust and Dark, the 6th song, is one of the more obvious pieces that might remind one of Floyd, with a psychedelic guitar jam taking place on top of a simple bass groove. Personally, I think it’s a shadow of a reference, at best. Bonedust and Dark is very much it’s own beast, and if every time psychedelic guitars overlayed atop a pumping bass groove owes a debt to Waters and Gilmour, then we all might as well stop listening to anything new and just put DSOTM on infinite repeat.

As far as King Crimson goes, the early albums In the Wake of Poseidon, Islands and Lizard might be the most apt, but only from the unpredictable story telling and ability to lose oneself in the recording. Especially with a good set of headphones. Vitskar Suden do not sound like any of the incarnations of Crim, but they’ll definitely appeal to fans of their early stuff. Just don’t expect three drummers and a saxophone playing syncopated math rock.

I’ll also add a hint of early Rush to the mix as well, from Caress of Steel and the sword-and-sorcery of The Necromancer. Listening to that song last night, I couldn’t help but laugh at the rough awkwardness of that track, along with the awareness that I listened to it over and over and over again. 2112 is clearly superior, but the subject matter compelled me to listen to it to the point I had every bass line and guitar solo burned into my memory. The fact that it’s only half-written, makes no narrative sense, and Prince By-Tor shows up out of nowhere to save the day didn’t matter. I was hooked.

I have a similar reaction to The Faceless King 45 years later. Except, this time, the whole album is awesome.

There’s also been no shortage of horror/fantasy concept albums over the years. King Diamond comes to mind, Abigail being one of my favorites. Then there’s Opeth’s hauntingly stunning Still Life, which is still on regular rotation for me after two decades. Expand the concepts to science fiction or space, and bands from Voivod, Coheed and Cambria and the over the top operas of Ayreon’s can fill a few gigabytes of a hard drive or a few yards of shelf space. All told, I agree that Vitskar Suden comes from a very long, diverse, and proud lineage.

However, they don’t sound like any of those bands, and they aren’t simply re-visiting well worn territory. They’ve come up with an atmosphere and concept that’s surprisingly new, in execution if not entirely in content. The Faceless King is a surprisingly mature, professional and artistic accomplishment, avoiding operatic and symphonic tropes on the one hand, and blast-beat bombast on the other. The band takes its time on The Way Part 1, opening with atmospheric guitar wails and a slightly hypnotic bass line while the drums fade in and give us a sense of pace. It’s like walking into a deep fog as I listen to it, the wisps parting to reveal…clean and comprehensible vocals!

Not to be a dick about it, but it’s so damn nice to actually be able to hear and understand the words. Sorry man, but a lot of vocals are a bit like trying to decipher a death metal bands’ logo. Nothing wrong with that, and I’m not judging. But it’s fucking nice to hear a vocalist with a clear, articulate voice with expressive range and articulation. Just sayin…

Throughout the recording, the bass is carrying the chord progressions while the guitars weave and writhe around it. It’s extremely effective, and damn difficult to describe. Every note and effect serves the song, which is something I key in on repeatedly. While I appreciate technical fireworks and 64th-note arpeggios, they have their place, and this isn’t it. Vitskar Suden keeps things controlled and constrained, focusing on emotion and feeling rather than overpowering technique. The brooding sense of purpose and dread never lets up, and the instruments and vocals never get in the way or distract one from the overall concept. For me, that’s mastery.

Without giving the story away, right out the gate, it’s compelling stuff. Dark, mournful and just a bit pissed off. This is good vs. evil at it’s best, with a lot of ambiguity as to which-is-which, like any great anti-hero tale of betrayal and revenge.

If you’re with me so far, cool. This is awesomeness at a very high level. That’s only part of what Vitskar Suden has to offer. I strongly recommend that you order this, right now, if you have any interest at all, because while you can immerse yourself in this recording on its own, they’ve included an “optional” item that might only be available for a limited time:

This Dungeons and Dragons module is not just a throw-away “accessory.” Nor is it a goofy, geeky embellishment suitable for precocious teenagers hooked on Stranger Things and trying to be cool. It’s a vital link that fleshes out the story and concepts in a way a simple lyric sheet or short-story couldn’t possibly accomplish. Even if you’ve never played or want to play it, the module ties everything together and expands the narrative beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before. Just reading it while listening to the album creates a sense of immersion and connection that has to be experienced to be believed.

In short: Wow. Just…wow!

With gratitude to Purple SagePR for proving the music and material for this review!

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