As they approach their tenth year of existence, Malokarpatan remains one of the most interesting and exciting metal bands to listen to. Where other bands in the black and heavy metal spaces have pushed outwards towards new experimental forms that transcend their original genres, the Slovakian band has done the opposite. Each of their albums has captured the spirit and sound of the earliest incarnations of black and heavy metal while bending and molding things into something new, and each release has rewritten the script. Malokarpatan’s earlier days were rawer and focused on a primal energy of sorts, where later efforts like Krupinské ohne have moved towards more epic and sprawling songwriting alongside polished production values. For album number four, Vertumnus Caesar, the group has continued this transformation, incorporating a significant amount of 70s prog and even classical music alongside powerful heavy metal and ominous black metal.
If this is your first time experiencing Malokarpatan, as instead of launching right into a heavy metal lead that will make you want to fist pump or a murkier black metal one, “Na okraji priepaste otevíra sa hviezdny zámek” kicks things off with airier melodies and instrumentation that makes it sound like you’re going into a medieval court. It’s an effective, moodier opener that leads well into the soaring heavy metal on “Kočár postupuje temnomodrými dálavami na juhozápad”, where the guitar work seems to bend and dance alongside the galloping drum work. While the album length is similar to 2020’s Krupinské ohne, the average song length is a bit shorter and this allows Malokarpatan to explore a wide range of styles on each piece without stretching things out too far. It’s a lot to take in at first listen, as you’re met with some immediately catchy riffs the first time through, but with each additional spin the songs reveal new details. Sometimes you get a period of powerful, haunting guitar melodies that fall somewhere between early black metal and classical arrangements, while other moments go straight for powerful and catchy heavy metal, but the transitions are flawless and there isn’t anything that feels out of place. One of my favorite moments early on is the transition between the end of the title track and “Vovnútri chlácholivého útočišta kunstkamru”. The lumbering heavy metal fades out and flute, keyboards, and a wide range of other instruments weave a beautiful, mysterious melody that sounds like it would fit as the backing of a Shakespeare play. But then just as suddenly the next track comes roaring in with a scorching NWOBHM lead that immediately has me pumping my fist and running around the room. These types of shifts are what sets Malokarpatan apart, as the classical and progressive elements are woven into their DNA rather than being stylistic afterthoughts. Closer “I hle, tak zachádza imperiálna hviezda” is also worth mentioning as it showcases the most progressive rock elements, offering some genuinely beautiful moments that then lead into the more metallic leads. There’s plenty more I’m not mentioning here from an instrumental standpoint, but that’s to encourage you to dive in for yourself and pick out everything at work on Vertumnus Caesar.
HV (now going by his real name Vladimír Moravčíkin the credits) took over on vocals when Temnohor left the band, and as I noted in my review of Krupinské ohne it was a smooth transition. The vocals are the one area that still has the most black metal influence, as the raspier screaming brings a harsher edge to the material and makes everything a bit more ominous. Vladimir is cramming a lot into each verse too, and with Malokarpatan being gracious enough to upload the lyrics in English to Metal Archives you can follow along with the narrative as you listen. In addition to the harsher side, there are also chanted choirs where Svarthen from Aeon Winds joins as a guest, while the closer also has Necrocock (ex-Master’s Hammer) contributing to the cleaner pitches. You do get a sample at the beginning of the title track, and it’s hard to tell if the intro to “Maharal a Golem” a sample from something or an original composition but this aspect has been scaled down compared to some of the band’s past discography. Overall, the vocal arrangements suit the tone Malokarpatan is going for on this album and as with the instrumentation, not a minute feels wasted or unnecessary.
Every Malokarpatan album offers something a bit different while still channeling that 80s heavy and black metal spirit, and Vertumnus Caesar is no exception. It pushes even further into progressive, classical, and folk influences and emphasizes heavy metal a bit more than black metal, making this the most unique sounding entry in the band’s discography to date. There’s also a perfect balance of immediate hooks and nuances that only become clear the more time you spend with it, ensuring that listeners will get some real mileage out of it. No matter where they go stylistically, Malokarpatan is capable of putting their own spin on it, and that continues to make them a genuinely exciting band to follow. Vertumnus Caesar is available from Invictus Productions and The Ajna Offensive.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg