Tome of the Unreplenished: Earthbound
Out 8th April on Avant Garde Music and Xenoglossy Productions
Hailing from Cyprus, and featuring members from the epic Greek metal juggernaut Macabre Omen, comes the second LP from Tome of the Unreplenished, entitled ‘Earthbound’. Broadly speaking, we are very much on the same epic, cinematic, and richly melodic black metal territory as Macabre Omen, but with an undeniably ponderous undertone. The overall presentation is relatively sleepy, ethereal even, all is kept understated for the sake of drawing the listener gradually and willingly into this album as opposed to beating them over the head with surplus sonic material.
The production is well suited to this task. The mix has excellent depth of field, with all the instruments clearly and distinctly shining through whilst marrying to one another well. Drums retain a DIY aesthetic beneath the full bodied presentation. Guitars monopolise the mid-range, articulating elongated melodic riffs that serve as the flesh and muscle of these tracks, but rarely do they sink into the low end or leap out with domineering guitar leads. This creates a hypnotic vibe that supplements the strong melodic character of these tracks, pulling the listener further in through unity of delivery alongside a plethora of musical landmarks.
Graceful string tones and folk instrumentation such as flutes also plays an important role on ‘Earthbound’, usually by decorating the music with additional timbres and broadening the at times rather understated expressive range. Equally, vocals veer from a standard black metal growl to clean chanting that enhance the album’s more meditative moments. They serve as bookends to mark a transition, closing off the previous passage and opening up the next. Guitars obediently follow by abandoning their oddly relentless dedication to each refrain, before working in subtle but well placed shifts in pitch or key. Drums follow this remit with predictable but delicately delivered fills and bursts of blast-beats.
Tome of the Unreplenished are all about scene setting. The tracks offer maybe one or two developments over their considerable length. But the real impetus behind these pieces is establishing a rock solid central theme, and then working out variations therein, either by layering up additional instrumentation and vocalisations or subtly pulling the main theme forward by recontextualising the key or tempo. But it should be noted that the delivery is so mellow, so seamless, that the music seems to burrow under the skin, with one track bleeding into another both tonally and thematically. Tome of the Unreplenished then go full Pink Floyd with the spacey epic ‘Portcullis to Dodekatheon’ to close off the album, reaffirming the gradualist philosophy behind the immersive nature of this album.
Sleepless: Host Desecration
Out 15th April on Metal Warrior Records
Old blood in new forms as members of Oregon’s Dead Conspiracy return in the form of Sleepless. Their debut LP ‘Host Desecration’ is a curious mix of old school progressive metal touching on Fates Warning and Watchtower, mixing this with down and dirty thrash elements and epic doom metal. Such a broad reach is wont to create tonal whiplash at times, but one simply has to credit the fact that it’s still possible to eke out new creative space in what can at times be proudly regressive styles of metal.
Despite the many faces of this album, the production favours a clean and crisp modern thrash metal aesthetic. All is taught and tight between the rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, leaving no room for atmospheric flourishes, apparently entirely geared toward delivering the intricacy of the riffs and punchy melodic interplay. But the distortion is still on the dirty side and wouldn’t be out of place on a straight up thrash/crossover album. Vocals shift from competent clean metal crooning that expertly navigates the at times overtly complex proggy riffing. But there is an undertone of aggression to the delivery as well, as the music flirts with thrash so too do the vocals. Despite the restrictive closeness of the mix, keyboards are allowed to make an appearance at times, enhancing the trippy edge to many of the riffs.
‘Host Desecration’ is liable to shift from epic heavy metal, to simple thrash punches, to classic progressive metal, to psychedelia, all in the space of a couple of minutes. At times it can feel like these musicians were unable to rest on an emotive vibe let alone a genre for more than a few bars, and so settled for endless switches in mood and historical orientation. But I am reminded of the first time I heard Voivod in this regard, which was an equally jarring and frankly unpleasant experience at times. It took repeated listens and considerable concentration to get your head into what Piggy was doing with his riffs. But rampant rewards and longevity awaited those that persisted.
Now, Sleepless bear only incidental similarities to the Canadian progressive metal legends, but there is a similar sense in which one must consciously flick their brain over to a new wavelength to fully engage with what they are trying to pull off on ‘Host Desecration’. Each pocket of recognisable musical reference points is bookended by quirky transitions or odd little progressive tangents that seem to squeeze and stretch the music in competing directions. But by following along with what they’re doing and connecting up the dots across the long form structure of each track, a twisted and convincing musical logic begins to emerge.
‘Host Desecration’ does not smack the listener over the head with obnoxious quirkiness, nor is totally incoherent. But it can at times feel like listening to several albums at once. Indeed, it has the immediate, dense abrasion in common with many prog classics both in philosophy as well as actual content. And just as with the 70s prog canon of old, after repeated listens the music seems to air out in the brain, and one can follow along with ease to this idiosyncratic and at times agreeably abrasive prog metal.
Brouillard/Drache: Brouillard et Drache (split)
Out 8th April on Transcendance
This split EP offers two lengthy new tracks from these solo black metal outfits and a third collaborative track to round things off nicely. Brouillard have been throwing out grim and atmospheric black metal for a number of years now, with all albums and tracks being self-titled. This EP is no exception, with Brouillard producing a powerful wall of cold noise to sink the teeth into. It warrants comparison to Wroth’s work in both Darkspace and Paysage d’Hiver, but here we have a welcome degree of clarity and continuity that really serves to pull the listener into the experience.
Front and centre is of course a wash of layered guitar noise. But whilst the rhythm guitar works its way through simple descending chord progressions that flesh out the landscape of this piece, there are plenty of soaring leads that rise up out of the cold wash of sound and serve not only as decoration but actually begin to influence the structure of the piece. It slowly flows from one motif to the next, somehow building in intensity yet never allowing the listener to submit to sensory overload. This is a demonstration of the art of smooth transition as much as it is a soundscape of bleak black metal.
Now, jarring transitions serve an important purpose in extreme metal, but for this brand of static driven black metal with slightly more activity than standard ambient BM, smooth transitions in pitch, key, and tempo really serve to stitch the piece together and allow the listener to fully immerse themselves in the experience. Equally the drums – although largely sticking to driving, mid-paced blast-beats – offer plenty of subtle shifts and alterations in emphasis that will alter the psychology of the music in the most minor yet significant ways, further pulling us into the experience. Vocals offer additional textural material, working their way through a range of impassioned wails and screeches that serve to heighten the melodrama of the track.
Belgium’s Drache are a new entity, their contribution to this EP being their first release. Following the self-titled lead of Brouillard, the track ‘Drache’ takes things in a more melodic, borderline symphonic direction. Keyboards lead us into the experience before submitting to the guitars and relegating themselves to a supportive role. Drache then attempt a brand of soaring, heroic, galloping black metal replete with catharsis and exhilarating link riffs that serve as commentary on the main theme of the piece.
Despite hints of overworked sentimentality, this piece almost looks like Enslaved’s ‘Vetrarnótt’ at times. It offers a similar mix of bracingly fast riffs that flirt with major keys, bringing about a sense of adventure beneath the danger, only to shift the key around with a view to creating a journey with forward motion, this justifies the track’s length and adds layers of emotional development as the story of the music progresses.
Drache work through many more transitions and riffs than the elegant minimalism of early Enslaved, but they are still more than capable of conveying a compelling musical story in longform with no clunky breaks or transitions to speak of. Drache make more use of tempo changes and other instrumentation than the cold purity of Brouillard, with an acoustic breakdown setting in about two thirds of the way through the track to build us into a more traditional but nevertheless satisfying finale.
The final collaborative track, cunningly titled ‘Brouillard et Drache’, sees both personalities shine through well, but does not quite resonate with the same power as the solo pieces. The imposing grimness of Brouillard is tempered by the characterful melodicism of Drache, and they are able once again to stitch this together into a convincingly lengthy track with no weak transitions or filler riffs. ‘Brouillard et Drache’ remains above average black metal within the contemporary picture, but despite this the lurking spectre of genericism sits behind it, with riffs being a little on the garden variety side, and the structure a little more predictable. Maybe this assessment is born purely by comparing it to the rest of the material on this EP however.
All are minor blemishes on what is fundamentally a pleasingly lengthy split stuffed with three strong tracks that come fully furnished with their own character and message that sets them apart in today’s cluttered black metal field.