Our relationship with Oak Pantheon goes back to a post I wrote in June 2011 about three new bands I’d come across who had less than 100 Facebook “likes”, but whose music I thought was really worth hearing. At that time, Oak Pantheon had officially premiered only one song, “In the Dead of Winter Night”, but it made a strong impression. When the band’s first EP, The Void, appeared not long after, it confirmed that “In the Dead of Winter Night” was no fluke; Oak Pantheon were a band to watch closely.
Now Oak Pantheon are less than a month away from release of their debut album, From A Whisper. In short order, it has become one of my favorite releases of 2012. As much as I enjoyed The Void, the album represents a big step up in the quality and sophistication of the songwriting, and the performances of this Minneapolis duo are truly excellent from beginning to end. The music is also quite varied, drawing together multi-faceted strands of metal (and non-metal) into more than 60 minutes of music that resists simplified genre classification.
At the end of this review, we’ll be premiering a song from the album that demonstrates how far Oak Pantheon have come in a very short time. It’s called . . . “It” . . . and like the rest of the album, it’s remarkably good.
The Void drew frequent comparisons with the musical style of Agalloch, and the influence of that band’s fusion of neo-folk and black metal is still in evidence on From A Whisper. The opening track, “Descend Into Winter”, is a prime example. The song combines memorable melodies, carried by layered guitars and piercing leads, with hard-driving rhythms, and this time Oak Pantheon have even incorporated emotionally subdued clean vocals (by Tanner Swenson) in much the way Agalloch do, creating an effective contrast with the harsh, mid-ranged rasps of Sami Sati.
Swenson’s clean vocals appear again in “It” (in tandem with the abrasive harsh vocals), and they play a prominent role in the immensely memorable chorus of “We Will Tear Down the Gods” — a long song that, ironically, has stayed in my head more than any other despite the fact that it includes the sounds of a gurgling stream and largely acoustic instrumentals — until the distorted, electrified jam that builds to a crescendo at the end.
Acoustic guitar instrumentals play a prominent role on From A Whisper, and Sami Sati is a talented acoustic craftsman. Acoustic guitar carries the intro to “The Ground Beneath You” (an instrumental track) and appears again in a dual solo arpeggio at the outset of “Roots of Man”, a song that also includes a riveting acoustic/electric tremolo guitar harmony. The album’s title track (another long one, at more than 10 minutes) begins with an extended, classical acoustic piece before the stunning avalanche of distorted pounding chords that smashes away the ambience of the introduction, and the acoustic guitar returns at the end with a melody that almost sounds Asian.
But From A Whisper is a study in contrasts. And so along with the well-placed clean vocals reminiscent of John Haughm here and there, you also get the ragged whispers in “We Will Tear Down the Gods” and “It”, the acidic shrieking in “It” and “From A Whisper”, and the bestial mid-ranged howls and growls almost everywhere. And this is as good a place as any to note that Sami Sati has really increased the range and intensified the power of his abrasive vox. They are never less than impassioned, and they reach heights of raw anguish in the bleak but blasting closer, “An Altar of Limbs”.
Dramatic contrasts appear in the instrumental parts of the songs as well. Beautiful, memorable melodies abound throughout the album, with a pronounced post-metal influence in the frequently layered, multi-textured guitar harmonies (see “The Ground Beneath You”, for example), but they stand side-by-side with ominous, distorted, bone-gnawing grinders and thunderous pounding, as well as all-out black metal blasting and tremolo scything in parts of “It” and “An Altar of Limbs”. Yes indeed, there are songs and portions of songs on From A Whisper that are heavier and more cutting than anything on The Void.
The music achieves emotional power in the building crescendos that end most tracks, yet more contrasts often appear at the outset of the ones that follow. The movement from the hard-charging finish of “Descend Into Winter” to the soft piano notes at the beginning of “It” is a dramatic example, as is the change in mood from the end of that song to the beginning of “We Will Tear Down the Gods”.
And as further evidence of the variety the album offers, I’d point to “Aspen”, parts of which reminded me of an epic Amon Amarth anthem, and the grim, sometimes dirge-like, sometimes sludgy, and ultimately roaring assault on the senses that is the album’s closing track.
I haven’t yet mentioned the drumming, but it’s vital. Tanner Swenson’s programming of the percussion for the most part steers clear of traditional black metal blast beats and double bass (though when they do appear, they kick the songs into overdrive). Instead, the rhythmic patterns and progressions are much more in the vein of post-metal or hard rock, with beats that add emphasis or contrast, or mark shifts in the music. Yet the drumming is interesting and it complements the top-shelf guitar and bass work effectively.
Engineer Sean Golyer shows a deft touch in the recording and mixing of the music, avoiding the overly clean, crisp, sterile sound that would rob the music of its humanity yet equally avoiding the kind of muddy stew that would obscure the band’s instrumental talent and the carefully constructed textures in the songwriting. And speaking of textures, I fucking love the passage in “From A Whisper” when the bass guitar takes the lead and is then joined by dual-lead guitars, one squalling and one needling, as well as the triple-tracking of guitars (one of them being a bluesy clean solo) past the halfway point in the same song.
American black metal has spread its wings and flown in so many interesting directions in recent years, with Agalloch arguably leaving the boundaries of the genre altogether and bands such as Cormorant, Nachtmystium, Krallice, deafheaven, and Ash Borer taking the music off on creative tangents of their own. With From A Whisper, Oak Pantheon are poised to join the ranks of America’s best black-metal crossover bands, producing an ambitious album that integrates black metal, folk, and post-metal into more than an hour of memorable, diverse, atmospheric music. Despite its substantial length (and the considerable length of most songs), it will hold your attention and stick with you long after the music stops.
And now here’s the exclusive world premiere of “It”:
From A Whisper will be released by Broken Limbs Recordings on September 25, as a digital download and as a limited edition dikipak. Beginning about two weeks before release, you can pre-order the album at this location.
As noted, Sean Golyer (who is an integral part of Oak Pantheon) engineered the album, and it was mastered by Justin Weis at Trakworx (who also mastered Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit, The Tenant by Ludicra, and Cormorant’s Dwellings, among others).
The cool album cover was created by Bob Stokes at Minotaur Printing & Design, and the logo is by Kyle Gideon. The back cover art was also created by Bob Stokes, with design and re-coloring by Kyle Gideon. Check it out below — and although Oak Pantheon’s FB likes are up considerably from when we first found them, go like their page here if you dig what they’re doing.