Exile: tough and desperate raw BM songs with an individual flavour

The cover artwork is based on a photograph of Arnold Bocklin’s “The Isle of the Dead”; the artist himself painted five versions of the work from 1880 to 1886. Four versions still exist, the fifth version (on which the cover art is based) was destroyed in Berlin during a World War II bombing raid and only the aforementioned black-and-white photograph of it remains.

 

Vrag, Exile, Germany, Schattenkult Produktionen, CD SKP076 (2017)

“Exile” is a very fitting title for Vrag’s most recent recording: in case your name is Rip van Winkle and you’ve just woken up after a very long sleep, Vrag is now a trio who moved some years ago from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania. Those of you who’ve never heard of Tasmania, it’s an island state of mysterious misty Ice Age landscapes, exotic temperate rainforests, weird animal species that might be extinct or still alive, and a history of European genocide against the original Tasmanian hunter-gatherers, being an island prison for the most hardened criminals and host to Australia’s worst mass murder incident in which 35 people were killed and 23 injured by a lone shooter. Living on an island with such a history and an odd reputation for insularity – it’s the butt of Australian incest jokes, same way as parts of Appalachia are the target of incest jokes among Americans – should suit Vrag with their focus on darkness, alienation and isolation, madness and the band’s contempt for mainstream Western society, its corrupted institutions and the conformity these foster in people.

The band has always served up some of the most raw and aggressive old-school BM with a vicious edge, yet always with an ear for distinctive and punchy rhythms, strong bass lines and the most infectiously catchy melodies. At the same time, they don’t hesitate to use synthesisers and ambient effects like reverb or a cold atmosphere where these can add nuance and an individual flavour to the music and they’re not averse to nicking elements from doom, death, hard rock or folk where these might suit. On “Exile”, Vrag show no signs of flagging or mellowing in this respect: though their overall sound is still a bit thinner than it could be, the songs are still very individual and able to stand on their own as singles if need be, and have a cold, frosty ambience that gives them a rounded, slight three-dimensional feel.

For those keen on raw full-throttle attacking BM aggression there are tracks like “Cold Air” and the ragged, almost punky anthem “Youth Against Christ”. Other tracks have more emphasis on melody, riffs and sometimes a distinct groove. The most interesting songs though are later ones starting with “In the Cold Light of Solitude” where atmospheric BM, hard rock or melancholy doom elements join the raw BM to create fairly complex music pieces. Bass guitar sometimes takes a lead role on “Death Fetish” and staccato guitar riffs and clappy percussion beats appear on the title track. It’s details like these that make “Exile” and other Vrag recordings worth repeated visits.

The album does sound like a collection of songs more than it does a whole work of tracks that might share a common definite lyrical or musical narrative. The fact that most of “Exile” (the album) was recorded way back in 2009 and 2010 may partly explain the anthology nature in which half the album sounds like the work of young hungry musicians with nothing to lose and the other half is more considered and conserves the aggression of quite long songs. While I still think Vrag need a thicker, boomier sound that suits the tough music, there’s plenty of raw savagery and a ragged desperate edge to the self-contained songs.

These guys could be leading comfortable lives writing pop pabulum for reality TV shows claiming to find the next big singer but no, they follow their inner muse where it leads – isn’t this a path more worthy of pursuit?

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