Finland’s Hagalas are often promoted as a death metal band, but as with so many Scandinavian acts, their music has far more depth, and more of an interest in actual melodies than your average death-based act. Yes, the four songs on their ‘As A Unit’ EP come weighted down by some very aggressive vocals, but most of the time, frontman Kailie Kohonen’s approach doesn’t even venture into the old school growls and grunts associated with the genre. In fact, it’s fair to say that plugging them as a death band is to sell them short. Very short.
The EP’s opening number ‘Rampant’ opens with a high octane riff that draws influence from as far back as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in terms of punch and tempo, occasionally sounding like a modern twist on classic Judas Priest. With a great presence and tone set in place, the tempo increases and the verse thunders forward as if Soilwork have experimented with something retro, when dual guitars pierce through pneumatic rhythms before a slightly yelpy vocal stokes up the tension. For fans of twenty first century metal, there’s plenty about the core of the track that’ll be recognisable as coming from Scandinavian climes, and as the band shift gears further, launching into a chorus that injects a dirtier sound and a few deep growls, Hagalas assert a real gift for a powerful presence. It’s here that any death influences become clear, but they’re used to colour a much larger arrangement rather than drive it as a whole, so those averse to such intensities need not worry; the extreme elements here are fleeting and the taut and tough melodies soon return. With the rest of the number settling into a mood that falls somewhere between classic In Flames and the melodic end of Lamb of God, this is a four minute workout that shows off a broad range of Hagalas’ talents in a way that’s guaranteed to please fans and intrigue first time listeners.
Offering even broader melodies at the outset, ‘Animal Farm’ works a few heavy beats against a heavy, yet lilting melody that threatens to venture into the realms of pirate metal but, thankfully, doesn’t quite go there. The lengthy instrumental intro is merely a vehicle for guitarists Antii and JM to indulge in a great twin harmony, laying down a very retro melody with a modern twist, before the music gives way to sharper, more jagged riffs. The verse is one of the EP’s more intense, since the sharp grooves are more concerned with crunch than tune. Kailie delivers a very scratchy vocal, but as before, there’s a bigger focus on melody as the performance gains momentum. By the mid point, the earlier guitar melodies return, take their late 80s tones to underscore a crushing groove and vocal that could easily have been lifted from peak In Flames, and steer the rest of the performance in a way that shows a band brimming with confidence. As before, the contrast between melody and aggression is key, and although a few of the vocals are very abrasive, to write this band off as another European death metal vehicle would be very much doing them a massive disservice.
Released as a digital single at the end of 2021, ahead of the EP, ‘Destination: Genocide’ shows a slightly different side to the band yet again, when spacious, chopping riffs suggest metalcore interests. The combination of the jerky and jagged with Hagalas’ typical, solid approach to melody results in a superb slab of metal where the growling vocals and punchy riffs draw from early Killswitch, but retain a very Scandinavian flavour throughout. Although the jagged riffs may dominate, the best musical moments come from a couple of musical interludes that are largely instrumental. The first introduces a busy melody where the guitarists get to work with an almost prog metal riff, weaving their tough sounds in and out of each other; the second, teases with a four note burst – almost as if dropping a musical morse code – on an ascending scale, again taking cues from older 80s metal and dressing it in much larger boots. For lovers of melodic metalcore and dense sounding progressive death metal, there’s a huge amount of great music here to dissect, whilst a vocal moving between impassioned growls and intense husks of noise shows Kohonen’s range in a very impressive way. If you only choose to explore one track out of curiosity, this almost certainly shows Hagalas in their broadest and most accessible shape. It’s easy to see why it would have been chosen as part of the EP’s early promotional cycle – in terms of progressive metal (as opposed to prog metal), it doesn’t come much better.
Last up, the title cut presents yet another change in mood, showing how this band still has more to offer. Those who’ve become quickly accustomed to the band’s heaviest sounds will surely be surprised by a clean intro where ringing guitars and warm bass appear to call back to Iron Maiden’s ‘Murders In The Rue Morgue’ with a more prog metal twist, and cold, atmospheric instrumental sections where soaring, almost bluesy guitars cry out above yet more slow, proggy backdrops. There’s a general spaciousness to these linking parts that’s almost as much about what the band chooses not to play, but for those who love a crushing riff or three, there’s still a sledgehammer sound present elsewhere that’s classic Hagalas. With intermittent doom-ish riffs and a long coda where the band drop into something that sounds like an unholy mix of Soilwork and Lamb of God, the heavier parts are terrific. They don’t necessarily bring anything new to the table – they don’t need to – but in terms of allowing the vocal to cut loose, there are a few moments where they instigate some of Hagalas’ most adventurous sounds to date. A musical yin and yang, it’s one of the band’s most impressive tracks, but not especially one that would appeal to first time listeners, since the quieter parts are genuinely accessible but not especially representative, and the heavier parts rely a little more on the progressive death angle of the Hagalas sound. Overall, though, it leaves the EP with something epic; six minutes of sonic intensity that truly suggests a band on the rise.
Although some of the vocals might hamper the band’s chances of breaking through to a wide audience beyond metalcore, melodic death and Scandinavian metal circles, this EP is seriously great for the style. All four tracks present some superb riffs, and although the hooks are sometimes buried in a huge amount of intensity, Hagalas are as solid as many other Scandinavian bands’ working within a similar remit. For those who enjoyed previous works from these guys, there’s plenty here to entertain, and there’s also a strong potential for this to become regular listening for the many fans of Soilwork, In Flames and their ilk. In terms of heavy workouts with semi-melodic hooks, this really is that good. With better production values than ever before, too, Hagalas now ready to escalate the ranks of underground bands, and ‘As A Unit’ can claim a place for one of the best metal releases of 2022.