Since their debut full-length Mrtav in 2013 and their split with Hazarder the same year, Croatia’s Hesperian Death Horse has never been a band to take the easy road toward musical composition. What began as a journey combining sludge and doom metal with avant-garde influences has quickly become an out-and-out exercise in engagement with the weirdest atmospheres metal has to offer. Their latest release, Živ (Croatian for “Alive”), is the middle album in a trilogy which began with Mrtav (“Death”) and will conclude with Rodjen (“Born”) in 2020.

While Hesperian Death Horse utilizes traditional rock instrumentation, the music is anything but conservative. Album opener “Saol” sees the band kicking things off in a subdued but ominous manner, with the guitars choking out twisted clean arpeggios, sounding a bit like early Kayo Dot at their most obtuse. When the distortion kicks in, the menace and tension become nearly unbearable. The atmosphere builds, and the shuddering music is joined with a repetitive mantra-like vocal. Hesperian Death Horse hovers here, the music seemingly static and suspended in air, which only seems to increase the sense of cosmic dread seeking release.

That release comes (somewhat) in the form of a sludgy cadence that is all too brief, followed by more of the un-grounded, dreadful riffing that came before. In the final two minutes of the song, the band works through various permutations of the previous riffs, now alternating the sections more quickly, each change seeming to come with its own harmonic shift. The tension reaches a fever pitch and then finally breaks into something almost like a traditional doom riff, but they never settle into a conventional drum beat to match it.

The second and third tracks, “Elu” and “Hayot,” bring to light another of the band’s primary influences, Norwegian masters Virus. “Elu” in particular seems to draw from the driving but angular motorik rhythms central to Virus’s sound. Hesperian Death Horse’s take on this style, though, sounds like it’s being run through a layer of abrasion which belies their sludge roots. “Hayot” seems to take those same ideas and drag the tempos through the mud, with the band teetering on the edge of grinding to a halt. The vocals are a somewhat histrionic baritone, weaving through the mix, albeit at a lower volume than that employed by the Norwegians.

The album closes with the fourth movement,“Liv (Horde)”. The piece returns to the static style of the album opener, the focus here being some sort of mutant sludge funk, entirely idiosyncratic and hard to describe. The chanting vocals return as well, joined by a repeating guitar figure riding over the top of the cacophony. Hesperian Death Horse describe them as “a narrator of psychedelic, nihilistic poetry of everyday stumbling from death to birth and between,” and in this light, the first and last movements can be seen as birth and death, and perhaps the static strangeness of whatever comes before and after. Are the chanting vocals the voices of something that exists both before and after life?

While it seems that Hesperian Death Horse maybe fighting an uphill battle trying to gain wider recognition from their home base of Croatia, there certainly exists an audience for this kind of adventurous metal, one that is dedicated and hungry for their next musical fix. Perhaps as the Internet erases at least some of the constraints of geography, this band can find their tribe who will happily seek out everything they release.

Todd Manning

Stream/buy Živ on Bandcamp:

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