Monday, September 30, 2013

Forestfather, Black Chalice, Lamentations of the Ashen Reviews: From The Dust Returned

From The Dust Returned offers thoughts on the new slate of releases.

Proof positive of the power of online networking, Forestfather is a project long in gestation which was finally brought to light when original member Kveldulf (from Chile) inevitably collaborated with a pair of prolific US musicians, Jared Moran and Michael Rumple, who, between them, in particular Moran, have written and released a wealth of other ventures across numerous genres. In listening to Hereafter, though, you really can't tell that there's any sort of cultural gulf or distance between the members, because the five tracks here flow seamlessly across an emotional, folkish, black metal landscape; dark in a reflective sense but largely built upon crescendos of loss and rustic reverie. A number of styles are distributed equally across the 37 minutes of content, and more importantly the vocal arrangements offer a rather unique mesh of timbres that are simply not something you'll hear on many recordings in this niche.

There are probably four central themes to Kveldulf's playing here that are given even face time through the record. Bright, hazy drifts of chords performed at a moderate pace reminiscent of the mid-period Drudkh records, which are anchored by the most potent bass lines on the disc. Tasteful, folksy acoustic licks that transition rather well in and out of the distorted escalations. Dreamy, shoegaze-like, minimalist melodies that stretch into the highest elevations of rhythmic pitch on the record, while canvasing the other instruments (great example of this is after the 1:00 mark in "Ethereal", which is very true to its title) and creating some of the most haunting and effective instances of the experience. And lastly, there's a more savage, traditional black metal ethos with intense, melodic picking supported by the hammering double-bass lines. This was most impressive in the first half of the track "The Emerald Key", which had patterns that instantly summoned nostalgia within me for Borknagar records like The Olden Domain and The Archaic Course, not to mention Enslaved around that later 90s era. Shimmering, well-plotted, yet as solemn as a wall of granite.

I wouldn't necessarily say that the majority of the riffs here were equally memorable, but each cut has at least a few to distinguish it among the album as a whole, and Forestfather has a number of other distractions to help balance out any tedium I might have felt during the less interesting progressions: the foremost of which is the multi-pronged vocal attack here, in which a number of sharp, clean lines tend to take you by surprise. Far from a common commodity in this genre, Rumple's performance nevertheless sheds the strange Scandinavian soaring of an ICS Vortex for something more dagger-like and unnerving in shape, with some soothing and expressive harmonization that adds quite a lot to the rural imagery conjured up through the chords; not to  mention the crazy screaming in the back-end of "All Tears to Come", which is bloody fantastic. I wasn't half as immersed in the black snarls here, which are really par for the course, but in fairness there are some individual instances where the lines become wretched and ugly enough to really stand on their own. But I'd actually go so far to say that I would have preferred more of the harmonies here, since there are entire swaths of the record filled only by the rasps that don't feel nearly as refreshing.

Bass lines are silk-smooth, really finding their stride during the mid-paced sequences of the album where a groove is established to bolster the sad and pretty high-end picking patterns. The drums also feel fairly loud and natural without becoming obnoxious or drowning out the other performances. A lot are performed with a laconic, rock sensibility befitting the ebb and flow of the guitars, but numerous double kick sections and loud, abrasive fills help to challenge some of this tranquility; and there are some outright blasted components like in the latter half of "The Emerald Key" or in "The Days Ever-Done" which are more or less like a Frost/Pure Holocaust-era desperate charge through a blizzard. But, really, it's a testament to the variation here that even the percussion-less pieces, like the intro and bridge in "The Days Ever-Done" hold the attention through their composition and never give the listener any urge to be anywhere else. There's a dramatic egality across Hereafter, between its calms and storms, which seems meticulously structured without ever revealing any semblance of robotic predictability....

...that's not to say I loved every track equivocally, and was, in fact, rarely blown away here, but there was indeed something pleasant and compelling about the experience which rarely put me to sleep. For a debut, Hereafter is strong and self-assured, the sort of rustic acclimation that many black metal/folk artists seem to strive for without achieving. I felt transported to some woodland riverbank where a rucksack of supplies awaited my arrival, and then departed on a journey worth taking. Forestfather is not particularly 'evil' or sinister as far as black metal goes, nor is it happy and summery, but more like a long autumn afternoon hike when you are standing in the shadows of the trees just as often as a clearing, surrounded by withering foliage. A curious evolutionary nook between folk-era Ulver, Olden Domain Borknagar and the quixotic current flavors of bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, Woods of Ypres or Alcest...but certainly not restrained to these, there's really a lot of potential appeal here for anyone who wishes to whittle away his/her sorrows in a campfire headspace beyond the eavesdropping of humanity.

Review: Here

I'm often at a loss as to what constitutes a demo recording or an 'official' album, especially in the metal underground, where the latter can often prove just as important or substantial as the former. In the case of the Submission demo by Black Chalice, it probably has something to do with the studio process and the original intentions for the material. This is actually a considerably longer work than the Obsidian album I covered, and recorded the year before. Strangely enough, it offers some of the added variation I felt could have strengthened that work, but at the same time it's a little less consistent overall, and there were a few points at which I felt myself nodding out. I guess this better deserves the brand of 'death/doom' than Obsidian, because the growls here reign supreme, and it definitely possesses a more mournful, crushing, funeral pall, but texturally I also felt it a little dryer, less saturated with the imagination of that album.

Submission opens with a four-minute instrumental constructed from clean, sad, scintillating guitars that eventually builds into a union of chords and single picked melodies, and then beyond that comes the really heavy stuff. There's still a combination of drudging, filthy chords and melodies, but the former feel a little more gratingly tuned, and the latter seem slightly less tethered to the bottom line. The drums are really underwhelming here, faint beats that barely support the huge, ugly riffs canvased above them, though they pick up steam in the bridge of "Regret" when they start hammering away. The guttural vocals take on a maudlin, almost monotonous drift as they would in many recordings of this field, and they don't really distinguish themselves as being particularly weighted or brutal. "Submission" itself features more clean guitars, and some of the submissive, clean vocals that are commonplace on Obsidian, but it also has a pretty weak transition and then picks up into what is basically an admixture of driving, older Katatonia-style guitars. I found "Cornea" more to my liking, though the rhythm guitar distortion seems to clip a little and nearly bust out of its own recording.

The last track, "Wain" seems to come from a separate recording session and has a more repressed quality about it. Melodic vocals, groovier riffs and a bass-heavy, Sabbath like substance to some of the riffing in the bridge. Perhaps an attempt to make inroads to a more antiquated style of doom metal, but it does seem a little out of place with the rest of the material, and sloppily constructed so that the riffs don't exactly flow into one another in a meaningful way. That said, I actually did enjoy the project of Patrick using his clean vocal style over this more psychedelic riffing aesthetic, I only wish he were louder. Lyric-wise, Submission was quite good as the other Black Chalice material, especially the song "Regret" where I really enjoyed the closing line: When will we be sorry? We will be sorry. Still very personal and deep, wrist-cutting and depressing, but perhaps a bit more image-laden. Ultimately, I think this was a work borne of experimental intentions more so than Obsidian, but some of the songs drudge on a little much without many ideas of note, and "Wain" just didn't fit for me. Not without a few moments, but I simply felt more rewarded by the experience of Obsidian.

Link: Here

What hit me the hardest about Obsidian is just how abrupt the album begins, especially for a death/doom record. No lengthy, pretentious acoustic passages to kick off the experience, no treacherously slow build into the solemn and crushing riffs. This one just dumps a bucket of sorrow directly over your noggin through a miasma of churning, burly doom metal progressions, haunting and tonal clean vocals that hover below the loud swell of the chords, and a foundation of dreamy atmospherics that seem as if they could only been inspired by a dreary, overcast New England coastline. Or at least that's how I'll imagine it, since Black Chalice is the work of one Patrick A. Hasson of Maine, who some underground pundits might recognize from his black metal oriented projects Auspicium and Avulse.

But even more important, this album got me nostalgic for what must be my favorite doom metal epoch, the 90s, when the strong presence of the British scene was joined by an emergent Swedish wave of Gothic-tinted bands. For instance, some of the emboldened chord patterns here recall the first two Lake of Tears records, but then Patrick is constantly splaying out resonant melodies beneath them that remind me of Paradise Lost (circa Icon). Granted, this is marginally more solemn and funereal in disposition than those albums, to the point that it might even appeal to fans of stuff like Evoken, but this guy clearly dug out the roots of the genre and avoids the droning, endless excess that the style has often fallen into, even on the longer pieces "Heliocentric" and "Obsidian" that make up about 21 minutes of content between them. Some might balk at the stiffness of the drum programming, or the oft calamitous resonance of the production in general, but this tape is nothing if not consistently eloquent and oppressive in equal turns.

Naturally, he gives himself more space to explore in the wider tunes, like "Obsidian" where the drums drop to a sparse cadence, the drudging bass-lines rumble beneath a glaze of harmonies; or "Heliocentric" where he produces these warm, climactic fusions of the grainy rhythm guitars and melodies. But most of the material is based on the same, steady formula of dirty chords and drifting vocals. The singing is strangely subdued, and this might also prove a turnoff for those accustomed to the vocals being on top, but in reality this just gives them the substance of another instrument in the mix. He doesn't exclusively stick with this one style, capable of belting out the dirgelike gutturals most equate with the genre, but it certainly feels more drugged, numbing and ultimately unique. I did feel at times like the album might have benefited from further variation, perhaps some vocal-only passages or tempo shifts, but as it stands, four tracks in 33 minutes isn't quite enough to wear out its welcome by turning the same few tricks repeatedly.

All in all, a fairly unique style here that rewarded me with the escapism I seek of it. The lyrics are personal and cautionary as opposed to poetic and image-heavy; dealing largely with depression, alcoholism and the confines of the human condition, but at the same time their humble. Patrick isn't speaking to you through some pretentious haze of Gothic grandeur, but more on a person-to-person level, and it helps to ground the epic quality of the music, to 'reel it in' if you will. You know, I just had to make a fisherman joke because I'm an asshole, and because there's just something so contemplatively coastal about this...lighthouse doom...a walk on the rocks, breakers spraying your toes with cold, salty tears. Obsidian isn't perfection by any means, but it IS an experience, and there's not a lot more I could ask for in a niche of metal that I sometimes find to be the antithesis of compelling. Recommended for your next gray afternoon.

Link: Here 

With three tracks eclipsing 15 minutes each, one of which nears the 23 minute mark, EKIMMV is an album that demands a large degree of patience and contemplation from the listener. It's a demand that I'm not sure is consistently warranted, for while there are some pleasant and engrossing riffing progressions throughout, and the sole musician behind Lamentations of the Ashen, Bon Vincent Fry, is adept enough at building layers of tension and sadness through a mixture of fell snarls, atmospheric tremolo picking and subtle bass contours, these behemoth compositions seem to drift, drift, and drift some more through a series of overt, patchwork transitions. So, the earnest attempts to imbue them with highly necessary variation tends to meander, never quite achieve a climactic payoff, and only a handful of the rhythm guitar patterns really stick.

Interestingly, the wordy song titles like "Eventide Sentinels Bedecked with Ineffable Twilight" and "Viperine Shades Linger Quiescent Among Erstwhile Passions", while lovely, seem to really set up the expectations that this is going to be quite indulgent and channel a Romantic, poetic sensibility which I feel it definitely does accomplish. This is clearly true of the lyrics, which have a classicist sense of wonder in capturing their imagery which dial back centuries. The rhythm guitar structures are largely rooted in tremolo picking sequences, which encapsulate an antiquated, Gothic longing rather than the sinister despotism I generally equate with much of the black metal genre. This is statuary black metal, regal and lonely and meant to elate the listener's spirit to a state of soaring and sadness, not to repeatedly prod the audience with aural pitchforks, and I don't believe anyone seeking out such an aesthetic would be ultimately disappointed with what Fry concocts here. He also doesn't shy away from anything: understated, atmospheric synth pads implemented sparingly across the course of the record. Samples in numerous languages. Solemn, ambient drops within the meat of the metallic content. Or cleaner, sparkling guitar passages that could be just at home in an alt rock context as this. Predictable this is not, but at the same time the pieces seemed to be wedged into the puzzle at random.

Where I find no faults at all would be the production, which is impressively clean, and even without losing the emotional depths of each instrument. Guitars are bright enough to cut right into the imagination, but gain a little power and traction when blossoming into denser chord patterns. The drums sound live and fresh, with an effortless capacity to handle the variety of beats through lumbering kicks and steady snare strikes, not to mention there are some experimental percussion sections as you'll hear in "Viperine Shades..." that might take you by surprise. The bass is pretty bleak and smooth, often just wallowing along in the wake of the guitar but always somehow managing to add another tonal tier to the experience. Fry's rasping is nothing necessarily out of the ordinary, but he generates enough of a nasty sustain that it fits the mood of the music rather well, even if there are few individual lines that I might consider gripping or interesting. Most impressive are the subtle nuances, sounds you'll hear on the edge of perception that are constantly woven in and out of the music; even if they're just synth or feedback, they often generated a compelling, panoramic effect. I'll also note that Patrick A. Hasson of Black Chalice lends his clean, haunting vocals to the track "Veiled in Clairaudient Litany" which felt like it veered into a minimalistic Dead Can Dance territory before picking back up with the guitars.

Ultimately, though, I found myself struggling to retain interest the more journeys I made through this. For one, the 5 minute instrumental intro, "...of Wraiths in White", which is essentially a piano leading into some glaring feedback and then a few droning notes, seemed the driest and least worthwhile piece on the whole album, and might just have been left off. The outro, "Ascent into the Empyrean", built on angelic synth choirs, also seems a fraction cheesy and not living up to its potential. As weighted and swollen as the three primary tunes are, they're far less irritating and decked out with generally more interesting ideas. Just not always configured into the most climactic or emotionally resonant progressions, so I often had to dig around to find a few truly inspirational moments. That said, EKIMMV's conflagration of components does feel somewhat if not entirely original, and fans of dreamier, spacious bedroom/basement black metal which doesn't adhere to any specific set of rules might find this a journey worth experiencing.  

Link: Here

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