Kuolemajärvi (self-titled): a debut album of depressive yet catchy BM pop songs

Kuolemajärvi, self-titled, Russia, COD / Der Schwarze Tod, CD (2020)

I may just have found the sleeper cult black metal album of the year. The last couple of tracks together are just incredible and worth the price of this self-titled debut. Kuolemajärvi is a BM project with ambient and experimental electronic influences hailing from the Republic of Karelia, on the border with eastern Finland in northwest Russia, drawing inspiration from the natural environment and the Karelian culture and spirituality. That two Moscow-based labels (COD and Der Schwarze Tod) see fit to release this recording about the same time may say a great deal about Kuolemajärvi’s potential. According to COD and Der Schwarze Tod’s Bandcamp pages (they both have the same information about the project), the music and lyrics were all done by one person so Kuolemajärvi looks like a solo project but at present not enough information is known about it.

The six tracks have no titles but are numbered I to VI, yet the music on all of them is different enough that the album becomes a collection of songs though a life-cycle narrative can be traced through them. The first track is a forbidding atmospheric piece with cold-blooded reptilian vocals spilling more saliva than lyrics while shrill lead guitar wails overhead and a sludge beat bangs occasionally beneath the deep fuzz. It’s hardly the stuff from which great albums arise but from here on things are looking up, apart from the depressive mood. Track II is DSBM gone pop with a surprising head-banging deep groove, a distinct riff motif and great key-change moments of transformation. The reptile vocals have been cleaned up and are starting to sound human. The formula of near-danceable beats, catchy Odin-pop tremolo-guitar melodies and riffs, and distorted swamp-monster vocals, all etched with a shimmering cold ambience, continues through subsequent tracks.

It’s with Track V that the album hits its peak: with lyrics adapted from a poem by famous Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (died 1980), it’s slow and depressed, dark and heavy with melancholy, with a guitar sound and riff that strangely reek of abandoned gold-rush mining towns half-buried under sand dunes while a blazing desert sun blasts down on them. The guitars gradually become more raw and noisy while a deep sonorous vocal chants over them. The song keeps surging ahead as if burrowing into its own dark extinction destiny. The album closes with a highly atmospheric and experimental instrumental mood piece, trippy and trance-like, and spooky to boot, as though death has just occurred and the soul is already floating into space, lost among electronic bleeps and bloops, cricket noises and controlled droning guitar.

Across the album the mood ranges from melancholy and depression to outright despair and abandonment in spite of the beguiling poppy nature of the songs. Each track is more or less distinct (the middle ones a bit less so) and the album improves out of sight with the last two. While Kuolemajärvi does not exactly reinvent the wheel of pop-sounding BM, there is a very adventurous aspect to the music with a number of songs having an experimental air in their tones, textures and atmospheres. The simple structures of the songs may not amount to much and some listeners might find them monotonous, even unfinished. In spite of the lack of complexity and the general downbeat nature of the music and its theme, the music is infectious, almost toe-tappingly so, and the mood and depressive riff on Track V are so unforgettable, they need a post-apocalyptic /post-industrial collapse movie dedicated to them.

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