Khors are a Ukrainian band on the verge of a breakthrough. Though their star seems to have been rising steadily over the course of four albums beginning with The Flame of Eternity’s Decline in 2005, their signing with Candlelight Records in May for release of the band’s fifth full-length album will likely lead to significantly greater exposure, especially because that fifth album is so damned good.
Wisdom of Centuries tests the limits of genre classification. It combines elements of black metal, progressive metal, ambient music, doom, and to a lesser degree folk metal, producing something that is bleak, beautiful, and often mystical. Distancing themselves from the black metal label, Khors characterize the music as “heathen dark metal”. Perhaps that’s as good a shorthand description as any, since “dark metal” is so often used to describe music that doesn’t neatly fit anywhere else.
To the extent one seeks guidance from lyrics in helping to understand the inspiration behind the music, the quest will be difficult because this is the first album in which all the band’s vocals are in their native tongue (though the song titles are translated). However, Khors have explained that Wisdom of Centuries “is dedicated to the 95th anniversary of Kholodny Yar Republic, to its founders and defenders.” My own feeble research indicates that this refers to a rural partisan uprising against the Bolsheviks and the Russian Red Army occupying the Ukraine, which ultimately failed — and then the Iron Curtain descended
Fittingly then, the emotionally resonant, atmospheric music on the album creates moods of longing, loss, and anguish. But calling it “depressive” would go much too far, because the songs are as melodically rich and vibrant as they are melancholy and wistful. Wisdom of Centuries has the feel of a journey through memory, an exploration of a tragic but heroic past that lives on in spirit.
As for the structure of the album, it begins and ends with short instrumentals (less than two minutes each), and two more relatively brief instrumentals appear in the middle of the 8-song, 40-minute collection. What remains are two long songs before the mid-section and two after. But trust me, you won’t feel cheated by the instrumentals.
The opener, “Through the Clouds of the Past”, sets the tone with a bass-heavy ambient drone, the slow booming of the tom’s, and the whisper of a cymbal, ringing guitar chords providing an eerie astral melody.
Then comes the album’s longest track (at more than 9 minutes), “Black Forest’s Flaming Eyes”. Its powerful beginning is a contrast with the introductory song, all double bass and tremolo buzzing, with an ethereal keyboard melody floating through the wall of power. A synthesizer provides an epic overlay, and the mid-range harsh vocals are passionate, even anguished.
At the midpoint, the sound subsides to a low drone, like the sound of a Gregorian chant, and wrenching, distorted guitar notes. Following that interlude, the song kicks back into gear with a rhythmic, rock-style beat and a long, mournful instrumental section at the end, accented by (of all things) the sound of congas. It’s a dramatic, vibrant piece of music (and you’ll get to hear it at the end of this review).
“The Last Leaves” ups the pacing, with blasting drums and a blur of tremolo chords. Rhythmically varied and awash in dense guitar melodies, the aura of the song is perhaps the most hopeful in an album mainly shrouded in sombre colors.
Then come the two mid-section instrumentals. “Where the Grandeur of Mountains Embraces the Space” is composed of infectious drum rhythms (which include the sounds of a cajon) and the ambient music of a synthesizer, in which an ominous tone reminiscent of a bassoon periodically rises and then disappears. “Horizons Glassy” is a beautiful song, with a rich layering of drums, guitar, and synthesizer and a clean lead guitar arpeggio that’s a blend of the soulful and the astral.
The dark title track follows, opening with the snapping of a snare drum, the thump of the tom’s, and the ringing of the high-hat. As the other instruments join in, the music takes on a distinctively progressive air, hypnotic and ambient. And then at the two-minute mark, things get much more harsh and discordant, without losing the rhythm or the core melody established in the inroduction. About halfway through, the music again becomes more subdued — a repeating guitar riff, faint percussive accompaniment, a background synthesizer melody, and the cawing of birds. Then the music explodes again, with grinding guitars, howling vocals, and sledgehammer chugs.
In “Only Time Will Take It Away”, Khors deliver the last of the non-instrumental tracks, and it’s a blockbuster. It opens with a dual guitar arpeggio, a slow drumbeat, and more synthesized ambience. A variation on this dreamlike instrumental section appears again later, but the main body of the song ripples with might, though the vocals have an intensely anguished and harrowing quality.
Khor use the synthesizer to build the potency of the song, and a melodic tremolo-picked guitar plays a significant role in the song’s latter half, as Khors again use a dense layering of instrumental tracks to create an almost overwhelming emotional intensity. It’s a powerful, moving, memorable experience.
Almost anything following the end of “Only Time Will Take It Away” would have been an anticlimax. Khors chose to end the album with “Twilight”, and the contrast is almost jarring: it’s a deep, dark, vibrating synth drone, peppered with unplaceable noises and the subdued sound of choral voices wailing in the distance.
Khors’ days as a cult band with a scattered following in pockets of the underground may be about to end. Wisdom of Centuries is an album that is never less than good and frequently brilliant, with moments that generate genuine wonder. Both hypnotic and galvanizing, it pulls at the heartstrings and fires the blood. I think it has the potential to appeal to fans of bands as diverse as Blut Aus Nord, Opeth, and Insomnium, though it doesn’t follow directly in the footsteps of any of them. It will be well worth the money when its official release arrives on September 11.
Here are band links:
This is “Black Forest’s Flaming Eyes”: