Vanagandr - Storms of Empire (Obscurant Visions)

Pagan black metal (BM) shines when it channels a specific locale. Stangarigel made our 2022 list by luring us deep into their Slovakian homeland's beech forests; Havukruunu's pyrotechnic guitar rhapsodies hurl listeners over Finland's frost-rimed peaks; and Ayloss incites peasant revolts under his Mystras side-project, named after a medieval Greek fort famously caught in Sparta's socio-political orbit. When it's translating genuine fascination for a regional culture (and doesn't degrade into fascist jingoism), the harsh vocabulary of pagan BM can accommodate a surprising variety of disparate and distinctive sounds. By tapping their respective inspirations for mana, the aforementioned names add depth and narrative to their work, merrily marching under the same sub-generic banner.

Vanagandr is the creative outlet of an artist named Lögr, who specializes in an athletic and hawkish take on pagan BM that unveils the alpine power of the Pacific Northwest. Although he recently relocated the project to Atlanta (to join the One Void Collective), most of its output was forged in Seattle, just west of the Cascades. The spacious production and craggy songwriting on Storms of Empire feel shaped by these summits and the billowing forest fogs that crown them. While this wouldn't be proper Cascadian BM a la Wolves in the Throne Room or Agalloch without ubiquitous melody, don't be fooled—this isn't an atmoblack record. Lögr tactfully imbues his saber-rattling with tinges of warpainted melancholia, but he wisely prioritizes riffcraft over ambiance. These four songs zigzag like serrated steel, each glittering with instrumental and compositional nuance. "Mist and Arrows" showcases these intricacies best, marshaling slash-and-burn attacks that strafe and feint to regroup, before grieving the fallen with doleful Skarstad-esque guitar harmonies.