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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Review: Asgaard – What If…

Label: Szataniec

Date: March 4th, 2022

There’s much to discuss about this record, so I’ll get right on it. No witty introduction, no humor, personal thoughts… Asgaard is an old Polish band which makes its return after a decade long silence. “What If…” is their seventh album since their inception in 1994.

Also, Asgaard is a band that made a few significant steps in different directions throughout their career. Keeping one foot firmly on the dark side of the musical spectrum, they roamed about and keep roaming on this album as well. While you couldn’t quite place them within the extremes of metal, they were never far away either.

However, on “What If…” they make a distinct step in that direction. It is very much audible that darkened rock music takes over the gothic or doom metal. Gothic rock? Perhaps, but that’s still not a complete description. What’s more, it is not even close to completion. It’s just the basis for this album.

“What If…” can be observed twofold. First, and the one that will surely capture the majority of people, the record is a fairly catchy attempt at dark rock / metal. At times it even comes close to what was once dubbed “love metal”. The (in)famous attack of gothic metal on the unsuspecting audience of mainstream media. There are clear moments where Asgaard lurks for the fandom of The 69 Eyes or To/Die/For. These sorts of melancholic melodies and atmospheric surges are what captivates the listener at first.

The record then seems easily digestible. Filled with one hook after another and ready for mass consumption.

But, there’s the other side of the coin. And it is in the perfect blend of the two that Asgaard shows all of their creative genius.

Upon attentive listening, you can find so many differing aspects of the Poles’ music that there’s a question whether I caught them all and will I be able to present them in this short review. I even have serious doubts about whether the band members themselves can list them. They could have just happened to stumble on them in the creative process.

So, behind this glittering outside, there is, of course, a significant input of gothic and doom metal. Or rock, because Asgaard doesn’t form a straight line between the two. I would even say that they have intentionally blurred it. Think about the crossroads in the legacies of Katatonia or Anathema. The Gathering maybe, without the female vocals.

There’s a lot of acoustics present on “What If…”, but there are also substantial moments when the band pushes with full strength. This duality is omnipresent in the lyrics, too. The words (apart of the two songs sung in Polish language which I do not understand) are focused on the internal struggles of a man. Questions with or without answers, questions of spirit, surrender or endurance when faced with adversity of the heart and mind… A lot of those are opened and left lingering above the listener’s head. For each individual to answer to him or herself.

Speaking of lyrics themselves, they are somewhat on the shallow side, but luckily not too much. They are not all about sweet embrace of love and similar passions, though they touch at certain points. Still, they are relatable and should make everyone ponder on the topics at hand.

Back to music, aside of the mentioned, influences clearest to the ear, you can find a multitude of other incentives to “What If…” For instance, the keyboards sneak in a couple of folkloric pieces. These are just hints, but show another side to the already versatile band. Still, it needs to be said that the keyboards seem to be a bit shy in the final mix. Of course, it is good that Asgaard did not turn into a fake symphonic band, but there is definitely a bit more room for the keys to shine.

On a couple of tracks, the Poles use some sampling. At first, it seems out of place here, but yet again, Asgaard did not put them there just for the fun of it. They thought about these fragments and these parts need attention to fully apprehend. Once they sit in, they sit together with the rest of the soundscape quite nicely. That weird phase of Moonspell’s career could be a road sign, if you will.

I would also like to mention a significant progressive fusion on “What If…” It is not only in the masterful use of instruments, which is obvious and sort of a must for a band that is soon to celebrate three decades of existence. The odd time signatures are present on occasion as well, but there’s another thing that whispers “progressive” to my ears. It is the unexpected solution to a whole lot of instrumental wanderings. Unpredictability, if I may put it in one word.

And then, when you put together this unpredictability with the catchiness I mentioned in the beginning, you must be confused. How do these two work together? Basically, I had no idea prior to putting “What If…” to action. But they do! That’s why I said that it is the greatest aspect of the new Asgaard record. Again with the duality.

For the very end, much more than an honorable mention for Bartłomiej Trzos who did a sensational job with the album’s design. I have a digipack which is fitting like a glove to the magnitude of the album. The art hidden within is stressed out to the max. It keeps in itself the nervous strain of a troubled mind. The striving and the strife, unsurmountable objectives and abject failures. Sisyphus on the verge of nervous breakdown. Such a pairing with the topic of “What If…”

Asgaard granted themselves a whole decade for the completion of this album. It is up to the fans to grant them another decade, if necessary, and have yet another treat such as this.