On a September morning more than 37 years ago, the Voyager 1 spacecraft rose from the Earth on a mission that may have no end. In August 2012 it entered interstellar space, traveling father than anyone, or anything, in human history. Hurtling ahead at a speed of 38,000 mph (61,000 km/h), it passes further beyond our reach with each passing second, pushing forward deeper and deeper into the void.
From their own vantage point in the city of Krasnoyarsk in Siberian Russia, an enigmatic band who call themselves Below the Sun have taken the solitary journey of Voyager 1 as their inspiration, crafting a concept album entitled Envoy that stands as their musical introduction to this world. Today we bring you a full stream of this unusual and unusually accomplished debut work, preceded by this review.
Hearing the album, it’s difficult to believe that it’s the first musical output of this quintet. It has the earmarks of people who already know their craft quite well, and perhaps they do — they wear masks and they go by names they weren’t born with (Vacuum, Quasar, Entropy, Lightspeed, Void), so their histories are hidden. And thus the music speaks for itself.
For an album that follows a journey into the vacuum between stars, the music is perhaps unexpectedly anchored by the crushing weight of sludge and funeral doom. But that’s only the foundation. The music may not move at 61,000 km/h, but it moves in other ways — this is, after all, the narrative of a journey, a very chilling one.
It begins with an 11-minute masterpiece named “Outward the Sky”, a massively heavy, increasingly harrowing saga that blends the deep, booming chords and bone-crushing drum beats of funeral doom with echoing, dreamlike guitar notes that grow increasingly shrill and disorienting as the music becomes increasingly searing in its intensity. Harsh howls and distorted shrieks mix with vocal samples that sound like radio transmissions [I’ve learned it’s an excerpt from the transmission between Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and mission control during his historical first manned spaceflight]. If this is the beginning of a journey, it’s the launch of a bleak and ominous trek.
By contrast, the following song, “Cries of Dying Stars” begins with the ethereal trilling of a cosmic guitar melody, before the heavy, rumbling undercurrent of the rhythm section surges forward with blunt power. There’s something uplifting and hopeful about the ambience of this post-metal instrumental piece; it’s heavy as hell and rhythmically compulsive, yet it conveys a captivating sensation of wide-eyed wonder. Stars may be dying in the vastness of space, it seems to say, but they are being born, too.
The next song, a 10+ minute track named “Alone” wastes no time banishing the mystical ambience of its predecessor. It stalks slowly ahead like a goliath, with titanic, distorted chords and emphatic percussion pounding the earth as ghostly whispers and eerie lead guitar notes swirl around them. The song is well-named; the atmosphere is one of isolation and peril, notwithstanding the shimmering guitar melody that builds in the song’s mid-section and the cold, solitary notes and cymbal ticks that follow. When the vocals make their appearance almost 8 minutes in, the bestial howls leave no doubt about your fate — you are alone.
As lengthy as “Outward the Sky” and “Alone” are, they seem almost brief by comparison to the 15-minute work that comes next. “Drift In Deep Space” summons the void, as slow, cosmic guitar notes reverberate against the vastness of deep droning tones and glacial, granite-heavy riff-hammers. Gargantuan roars blend with cracked-ice shrieks and incorporeal whispers, as if to say, you have indeed left humanity very far behind. It’s an utterly desolate, deeply melancholy track that chills to the bone — and splinters bone, too. But when the tribal rhythms of the drums take over in the song’s closing minutes, you get caught up in the music’s swelling intensity.
“Breath of Universe” exhales droning ambient tones, some deep and thrumming, some warbling like distant transmissions, the radio waves of red giants and pulsars making contact with the receivers in our heads. The drifting electronic sounds, without rhythm or voices, conveys a sense of boundless, bloodless space.
When the album finally ends, it’s with an instrumental track mysteriously entitled “Earth”. Isn’t that what we left? How have we come back? That question may not have an answer, but the song does seem to be a summing up of sorts, a mix of thoroughly pulverizing riffs, crushing tom and bass beats, and riveting, reverberating guitar melody. It’s like a conjoining of the solid mass beneath our feet and the unknowable realms that stretch endlessly above our heads. At the end, unexpectedly, the music becomes beautiful, even peaceful, as if to say, with relief — we have come home.
Envoy is a deeply atmospheric, irresistibly immersive work, a cosmic version of funeral doom that’s icy and vast and immensely powerful in its hypnotic appeal. It requires about an hour of your time, and your total attention, and it will take you far outside yourself. Highly recommended.
P.S. I also have a special treat for you, even though this album stream is pretty damn special standing alone. Below the stream you will also find a video of Below the Sun performing at the Black Mass festival in Tomsk on December 15, 2014 — and it’s a new song, destined for the band’s next release. And it’s cataclysmic.
Envoy will be released on February 24, 2015, by the Swedish label Temple of Torturous Records.