I’ve long been fascinated by Iceland’s music scene, its metal scene in particular. For such a small country with such a low population it’s surprising how many quality bands they produce. Svartidauði, Wormlust, Sólstafir, Angist, Carpe Noctem, Mannveira… Suffice it to say that they have a thriving metal scene. And if you know anything about the aforementioned bands then you’ll realise that Sinmara have some serious pedigree, as they feature former members of Svartidauði, Wormlust, Rebirth of Nefast, and Slidhr. Sinmara are a black metal group from Reykjavík, Iceland. They formed in 2008 under the name ‘Chao’ but renamed to Sinmara in 2013. On their debut full-length ‘Aphotic Womb’ Sinmara blend occult and mystical orthodox black metal with unparalleled atmosphere and brutality.
To me, Sinmara embody everything that black metal should be. It’s atmospheric but never too slow as to lose its ferocity; heavy and aggressive but never monotonous or one-dimensional. The spacious, cavernous production does wonders for the band’s sound, allowing each instrument enough room to breathe, with the bass being given a fair and prominent place in the mix unlike many black metal bands. ‘Cavernous’ is a good word to describe the production on the album; if you close your eyes in a dark room you can imagine yourself in some grim and kvlt cave and picture the band actually playing the music right in front of (or around) you. It makes for some compelling atmosphere.
The introductory track ‘Katabasis,’ though overly long, sets the tone and atmosphere of the album. The word ‘katabasis,’ for those who don’t know, is a Greek word which means a descent into hell or the underworld. (my A Level in Classics is clearly paying off!) And I think that neatly captures the essence of this album’s sound: it really is like a descent into the underworld. Songs like ‘Verminous’ and ‘Shattered Pillars’ are mammoths of chaotic malice and aggression, blending intricate riffs on two guitars dueling it out over some massively impressive and complex drumwork from band member Bjarni. The longer-than-average song lengths give Sinmara more room to flesh out their ideas, such as in Shattered Pillars with its eerie, dissonant riffs over complex drum fills and even blastbeats, which bring Deathspell Omega to mind. Throughout this album the guitars twist and turn in a really evil and menacing way, plunging ever deeper into the underworld, the duelling guitars like two writhing serpents wrapped around one another in an infinite, venomous embrace.
‘Stygian Voyage’ is entirely instrumental yet they still manage to write a haunting and compelling song. There are elements of beauty lying just beneath the murky surface of this song, a sense of vain hope in the midst of all this chaos and evil. Technically complex this song may be but it never becomes pure guitar-wankery, and as the song fades out with a few minutes to go the atmosphere is ramped up further as the katabasis continues; Haunting whispers, distant drums of war, cries of pain, and a very faint acoustic guitar: all of this leads into the eponymous track ‘Aphotic Womb’ which kicks the door off the hinges. Slower than some of the previous tracks, the band take that as an opportunity to create many more layers of atmosphere. “So my soul ‘fore thy wrath does tremble with woe. Hear my lament!” cries vocalist Ólafur Guðjónsson, whose vocals are perhaps my favourite element of this album. His vocals bring to mind Deathspell Omega and Valkyrja; gritty, deep, and immensely compelling in his delivery.
All of these elements come together on the final 10-minute track ‘Mountains of Quivering Bones’: The atmosphere; the complex and eerie guitarwork; the heaviness; the coarse, gravelly vocals; and a keen understanding of songwriting; all come together to form one cohesive masterpiece of black metal. In fact this is the first time I think I’ve ever listened to a song 10 minutes in length and found it no less compelling in the middle or towards the end than a more concise 5 minute song. This is the highlight of the album for me. I found myself absolutely entranced by it; the chords and riffs are weirdly hypnotic, and when that guitar pierces through the eerie darkness at 6:40 that’s when the band takes it all to the next level.
This track represents how Sinmara are far greater than simply the sum of their individual parts; it’s not only their ability to write a good riff or a compelling vocal hook that puts them on that next level, it’s their ability to take all these ideas and combine them in a way that feels totally natural and totally fresh, despite none of these individual parts being particularly groundbreaking. This is an album I’ve been waiting for for quite some time and it honestly does not disappoint. The introductory track may go on about two minutes longer than is really necessary but aside from such minor niggles I’ve found myself totally enthralled by this album. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go listen to it again