"Proclaim your best intentions with all your heart from atop the highest hills, you are naught but the substance of the life you choose to lead." So says the epigraph for Colorado-based Velnias' recent album, RuneEater. It's a suitably uncompromising epigraph for a black metal album. The packaging too, is appropriate—black embossed booklet illustrated with woodcutty images of wolves and skulls and scenes of robed medieval figures inflicting gruesome harm upon one another. Elaborate faux-calligraphy fonts reprint what I assume are lyrics like, "Your life shall burn but for a breath, whilst I shall stand forever!" So, everything is in order.
Maybe too much in order. RuneEater disappeared into the mess on my desk for a day or two, and I was taken aback upon realizing I didn't really care if I ever found it again. "Taken aback" because the music isn't bad at all. On the contrary, Velnias creates perfectly pleasant doomy blackness, sweepingly plodding and ploddingly sweeping, with the vocalist shrieking like a demon and demi-classical Renaissance acoustic interludes providing breathers from all the Sturm und Drang. The production is unusually crisp and clear; every ominous drumbeat and feedback wail detonates with evil crystalline precision—the grim apocalypse recorded by audiophiles.
Maybe it's that perfection which is the trouble. Or maybe it's just that Velnias' commitment to its tropes is so thoroughgoing that it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for innovation (or, in my case, for interest). I like a lot of black metal and a lot of doom metal, but the bands I tend to really fall for are those that are a little willing to push the form. I adore Botanist, for example, who uses hammered dulcimer to create bizarrely folksy blackened dirges; or Pyha, for whom extreme low-fi becomes a kind of towering sonic assault; or Khanate, who treats doom as glacial noise rock performance art; or even Om, with its crass New Age silliness.
But Velnias has no dulcimer, nor any New Age silliness. RuneEater is just what it says it is on the flat black tin: metal sans gimmick and metal sans surprise. The album is the journeyman equivalent of the semi-anonymous bluegrass band you might find playing a state fair; or of the semi-anonymous electric blues act you might find at a Chicago downtown festival. Velnias makes music for fans of the tradition; they don't need to change it up.
I'll happily listen to semi-anonymous classic Bill Monroe-style bluegrass anytime, anywhere. On the other hand, I never need to hear another semi-anonymous Chicago electric blues band again. Semi-anonymous journeyman metal falls between those two. It's not something I necessarily seek out, but I'm happy enough to hear it if it's playing.
I think it would be great if Velnias could perform at a state fair or a Chicago festival: it's about time we recognized metal as the folk culture of our time. But be that as it may, RuneEater is something of a keening, slow-motion death knell for my own metalhead ambitions. If you're really in the scene, if the music is really your music, you should like the actual thing itself, not the arty variations, nor the poppy sold-out addendums. By all rights, I should be judging Botanist and Khanate by Velnias, not the other way around. Velnias is "the substance of the life" it chooses to lead—it's metal, metal, and nothing but metal. Which is keeping it real, or keeping it dull, or both, depending on how you look at it.