For those of us who watched the swift rise of black metal during the mid-to-late 90s, the eventual trajectory of Gehenna's career was something of a surprise. With links to the early church fires and a string of stunning and distinctive releases, the band had credibility, originality and accessibility on their side – everything necessary for a healthy, steady career you’d have thought. But while the band’s early symphonic and bewitching compositions looked set to rank them alongside the likes of Emperor, their dramatic deviation into more urban and death metal-inspired territories with 1998’s Adimiron Black and 2000’s Murder threw a lot of fans off the scent.
2005’s WW saw a return to black metal territories but was only followed up by occasional live performances before the band, once again, edged into the shadows. Returning a massive eight years later, you could forgive the band for opting for the safe option of a return-to-the-roots album. Instead Unravel drives even further into the dry bitterness that has been an undercurrent of the band’s sound since 1996’s Malice.
The piano intro to opener The Decision might suggest a return to the keyboard-heavy efforts of yesteryear, but if this brief inclusion is a hint at what’s to come, it’s only in regard to the album’s sombre nature. As the first slow, discordant riff creeps in, it becomes clear that Gehenna are still very much a law unto themselves. Largely avoiding overt attempts at either melody or brutality, this album captures Gehenna at what might well be their most doomy, bleak and monochromatic yet, a rather brave move given that this is essentially a ‘comeback’ album.
Sparse percussion, equally sparse croaked vocals and lengthy, embittered riffs that hint at Nordic gems of the past from bands such as Burzum, Darkthrone and indeed Gehenna themselves dominate on these mid-paced songs. Occasionally there are more pronounced nods to the past, such as on the catchy bridge on Nine Circles Of Torture or the synth refrain on the wonderfully archaic End Ritual.
For the most part though there’s very little attempt to texture the music here or add too many twists to the songwriting, making this an almost puritanical experience. And while that all makes it a slow grower, there’s a purity here that is hypnotic and ultimately rewarding.