From a musical perspective, Norway is pretty much known for two things: A-ha and Satanic “black” metal, with some long-haired protagonists going a teensy bit too far by burning down churches and committing murder.
In this context, Extol have been a breath of fresh air ever since they formed back in 1994. Not only do they embrace their musical heritage (bassist John Mjaland lists A-ha’s Scoundrel Days in his top 5 albums of all time), but in their four full-length studio albums they have out-brutalised, out-thought and out-smarted most of their black metal countrymates. And all this while singing (okay, screaming and a-shouting) lyrics that indicate they’re probably more likely to be found inside one of the aforementioned churches.
Despite this, Extol are still primarily a cult act, unknown even to many otherwise clued-up metal fans. In theory, Blueprint – their second release for respected label Century Media – ought to change this situation. It is consistently good, sometimes brilliant, and the songwriting is more straightforward (and therefore more accessible) than the progressive, time-twisting Cynic and Believer-influenced death metal of old.
However, herein lies Extol’s potential problem. There have already been murmurings of disquiet from some of their fanbase as rumours took hold that Extol were going to “go soft” on this album. To some extent, Blueprint is less extreme than before. However, Gloriana and, in particular, Pearl are utterly, well, glorious pearls that are stonkingly fine pieces of music, period. Yes, there’s a touch of the Deftones about them, particularly in Peter Espevoll’s minor melodic singing, but if Chino Moreno and his crew write anything as good as this pair of tracks on their new album, then hats off to them.
Elsewhere – apart from the reflective but rather maudlin Lost In Dismay – Blueprint is still pretty damn heavy and although there are overlaid, eerily melodic vocals supplementing Espevoll’s death growls at various points, these enhance the intensity of the brooding atmosphere, rather than watering it down.
The likes of Soul Deprived, Essence and Void feature urgent, rabid guitar riffs to keep the old-schoolers happy, while David Husvik’s drumming has to be heard to be believed – not pummelling in archetypal thrash metal fashion, but jazzy, off-beat and yet still punishing.
And Blueprint doesn’t just mix things up vocally and on a heaviness level. In Reversal slows things right down to make its mammoth riffs heard, while the similarly restrained, grandiose gothic ending to Things I’ve Found is a cradle of pure joy, rather than a grim Cradle Of Filth, if you catch my drift.
It would be a shame if Extol’s willingness to increase their musical horizons was to lead to the Catch 22 situation of reaching out to some new fans at the expense of losing their current set. Blueprint is varied, wide in scope and impressively versatile. In any genre of music those are rare qualities, but in death metal and its ugly relations, it’s almost unheard of. To use a certain Norwegian band’s words, you’ll be Hunting High And Low to find a better album than this, this year…