I like the beats and I like the yelling: Dawn of a Dark Age, Lantern, Vengeful Spectre

Dawn of a Dark Age: La Tavola Osca (2020)

‘La Tavola Osca’ is the *checks notes* sixth studio album since 2014 from the Italian black metal solo project known Dawn of a Dark Age. Previous releases were a tribute to the six elements, each album consisting of six songs, and the first four albums being thirty-six minutes apiece; funny how life works out sometimes. I point this out simply because ‘La Tavola Osca’ feels like a debut album. A technically competent one maybe. But for an artist keen on introducing new elements to a mellow, epic black metal format it’s a little unfocused to say the least.

This album succeeds in integrating the neoclassical, clarinet led passages into the black metal segments. The extended instrumental intro is not served up devoid of connecting dots to transition us into the metal segments. The guitar melodies that lead into the metal passages are often directly informed by the phrasing of the clarinet and vice versa. Although we could use less spoken word over the top of this, as it adds nothing of musical value to the piece and only serves to extend the minimal tendencies of these passages for longer than necessary.

One key player in this tense interplay is the drums. When the metal instrumentation picks up they are serviceable, but where they really shine is the dramatic builds and crescendos that serve to transition us from one segment to the next. Because Dawn of a Dark Age really take their time in layering up these dramatic transitions, the drums are given space to work in some expressive fills that almost play the part of lead instrument. Repeating the same patterns with ringing chords as an accompaniment. Of course this technique is nothing revolutionary, but it is exemplified on the first hald of ‘La Tavola Osca’.

Once the black metal takes over there’s really nothing remarkable about it; a kind of more dynamic version of Drudkh with some knockoff mid-period Opeth riffs (yeah), all fine and drab. Things get worse when the clarinet is repurposed from the neoclassical segments to replace what should be a lead guitar…let’s just say there’s a reason that the guitar is such an enduring instrument for lead work within metal contexts. Whilst I don’t speak from an abundance of experience on classical instrumentation, I will say that the more bespoke and specialised an instrument, the greater the risks in moving it across from one style to another. For instance, a piano, whilst a fairly complex piece of machinery as an instrument, requires little talent to hit a note or two and go from there, it’s just pushing buttons with rhythm, hence its suitability for an array of different forms. It’s a blank canvas from which a multitude of endless beauty can arise. The violin, whilst a beautiful instrument in the right hands, requires a degree of skill and practice to even hit a single note, which limits its adaptability across styles. As with the clarinet, which shines when set to laid back acoustic guitar, yet is woefully out of place shredding over metal riffs. It is a delicate instrument, suitable for sustained notes and fragile melodies as demonstrated in the opening to ‘La Tavola Osca’, but try and imitate a shredding guitar solo with it and all clarity falls apart.

Beyond that the main problem with this album is wasted talent. From foe proggy black metal, to endless passages of spoken word, all marring what would be a pretty intriguing piece of neofolk if we lifted the metal instrumentation out entirely, which – bar some interesting drum work in places – brings nothing but hollow pretension to the table. We have no but choice to come down hard on this fucker and call it what it is: musical hubris hampering what could have been a great release into something average at best, obnoxious and pointless at worst. You can’t shove a clarinet into some recycled 2010s black metal riffs and call it ‘boundaryless’; well, I suppose you can, but we’re having none of it.

Lantern: Dimensions (2020)

Finnish caverncorestas Lantern return with their third LP to date: 2020’s ‘Dimensions’. Toning down the excessive reverb on the guitars and drums some, this release gives the riffs a chance to shine without distraction. Which is just as well because Lantern don’t hold back on the more technical elements of their style here. A confusing array of riffs that feel like chunks of different songs accidentally boarding a bus together greet the listener from the moment of hitting play, but this is a typical trick of Lantern’s at this point, as within each track and over the album they tend to make more sense as our context grows and the music builds into coherence. Odd key changes, dissonance, an entirely atypical relationship between lead and rhythm instruments all folds together as this album grows and offshoots sprout.

Drums revel in this confusion, refusing to provide a stable rhythmic bass. The time signatures aren’t all that unusual, but the fills are near constant and unpredictable, as are the tempo changes, to the point that they appear one step ahead of the guitars. A blast-beat will crop up without precedent only for the guitars to catch up a few beats later. It would be entirely annoying if it weren’t for the fact that Lantern always ensure there’s a payoff. This is done either through the eerie breakdowns, doomy finales, or occasionally settling on one mood or key for more than a few bars, giving us a chance to breathe and take stock.

Vocals have changed little since previous releases. An aggressive bark that would be at home on a hardcore punk record is laced in the same cavernous reverb. There is an attempt at half clean singing from time to time, which to be honest is an ill-advised choice as it takes us out of the moment. Part of the joy of Lantern is the emotionless chaos they are able to conjure through the idiosyncratic atmospheres that supervene on these odd riff choices. Adding all too human vocal melodies kills that vibe.

Bringing the guitar tone in line with current trends within extreme metal releases offers us the chance to assess the Lantern approach free of distraction. It turned out to be a good choice as it’s clear these tracks stand up in their own rite; the unique atmospheres found on their debut ‘Below’ (2013) were no studio trickery, although it undoubtably helped. The more chasmic atmospheres may have fallen away in the process, but this puts Lantern more in line with (good) progressive death metal such as Execration. The laboured doom passages are an exercise in eccentricity over chasmic despondency. The music is a journey not a meditation. ‘Dimensions’ forges new creative spaces for Lantern, a demonstration of artistic incrementalism over a leap into the (usually quite shit) unknown.

Vengeful Spectre: Vengeful Spectre (2020)

The self-titled debut from China’s Vengeful Spectre is an attempt to recover some worthy elements from recent husks of Rotting Christ, by blending them with a melodic framework and interesting moments of Chinese folk music. There are also hints at early Emperor influences in some of the keyboard work along the way. But on the whole this is a tight, focused release of energetic black metal with a refined sense of the technical aspects of this sound. The production reflects this with a very polished mix, giving full clarity to all instruments and the abilities of those playing them.

It manages to harness the symphonic elements of black metal into an aggressive, riff-based bludgeoning bolstered by some well placed tech-death riffs along the away. It’s a tightly balanced affair that gives both the militaristic and the contemplative elements inherent in this sound a fair hearing. This is a short album, the tracks are dense and busy, but by positioning these competing forces next to each other they have managed to avoid sounding unfocused and chaotic and instead come across as a well-oiled machine. If other attempts at this have been a confused wet blanket, then ‘Vengeful Spectre’ is a focused razorblade. Vocals are at the very high end of black metal stylings, retaining a prominent streak of aggression in them, thus further aiding in the relentless barrage that carries this album along. In slowing down the tempo in places they lose none of their momentum, rightly choosing to be fully confident in the power of the riffs to carry each track along regardless of how busy the music is.

There is also a marked elements of the Swedish school found on ‘Vengeful Spectre’ in the form of Sacramentum and Dawn amongst others. The ability to combine breakneck speeds with a flowing sense of the epic. Vengeful Spectre have put their own unique stamp on this style however, and have proved to be the true caretakers of this style’s legacy with this release. Frequent interludes of Chinese folk music provide welcome bookmarks along the way, but also crop up at key points on the metal tracks proper, being are fully integrated into their narrative; a welcome addition to the efficiency of the guitars.

Another addition to the body of proof that the modern tendency for bulky albums over an hour in length is more often than not an audacious exercise in overconfidence. Vengeful Spectre achieve technical prowess, unique atmospheres, and take us on a profound musical journey on an album half the length of many released this year. Such a feat is made all the more intriguing given how mysterious this entity is. But as it stands, we know enough to give this album a resoundingly positive assessment as a slick piece of modern, riff-based black metal.

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