(Andy Synn reviews the new album by Germany’s Secrets of the Moon.)
Change is a funny thing. Particularly in a genre both as Progressive and as Conservative as Metal can be. We so often crave the thrill of the new, whilst clinging to the comfort and security of the familiar. Sometimes simultaneously. And this isn’t just confined to Metal either. It’s something you can see across listeners of all different genres.
I am painting with something of a wide brush there, though, as Metal fans are a diverse lot, when all is said and done. Some of them love to watch bands grow and develop and change. Others prefer them to stay the same (as long as they keep the quality high). Some even prefer bands to practically regress back to what they consider the “Golden Age” of the genre. But I’d conjecture that most of us (at least here at NCS) tend to take things on a band-by-band basis. After all, some bands can get away with hitting that same sweet spot over and over again, when others quickly fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. And, similarly, some bands can change and transform into monsters (in a good way), while others simply grow too big for their boots.
So the important question here is… how do you handle change?… since the issue of whether you’re open, or averse, to change is going to have a big influence on how you receive this album.
Because, make no mistake about it, Sun showcases a wholly different Secrets of the Moon than the one you’re used to.
Ok, I lied. It’s not wholly different. You’ll still be able to spot elements of the band’s unique brand of grey-shrouded, gloom-tinged Black Metal scattered across the album’s seven tracks (both opener “No More Colours” and closer “Mark of Cain” hint back at the Carved In Stigmata Wounds/Antithesis/Priveligvm years in places), and vocalist sG’s signature ragged, semi-clean snarl remains as instantly recognisable as ever.
However, there’s been a significant change in the structure and the focus of the band’s material on their sixth album which, coupled with the surprising use of some morbidly melodic clean-sung melodies to carry the majority of the vocals this time around, means Sun still unveils a very different side to the band, one which finds them erring closer to the sound of latter-day Sentenced than to the chunky, Satyricon-esque grooves found on previous albums.
Over the course of the album’s 50+ minute run-time you’ll likely notice (if you’re paying close enough attention) ghostly echoes of everyone from Alice In Chains to Fields of the Nephilim, hints of David Bowie and Johnny Cash, and touches of early Killing Joke and Reload-era Metallica bleeding through into the music, gifting it with a bleak, almost gothic glamour which integrates seamlessly into the quartet’s own blackened worldview and singular sense of style.
In fact that word — “bleak” — is the one that defines Sun to me, for although it’s a slower, more atmospheric, and (arguably) more melodic album than any of its predecessors, song titles like “No More Colours” and “I Took The Sky Away” should immediately tip you off that this is a record that remains just as dark – in its own elaborate, poetic way – as anything the band have produced before.
The opening track, after a short, scene-setting introduction of acoustic/electric guitar interplay, soon erupts in a flurry of gale-force blastbeats and eerie, moaning melody lines, topped off with sG’s unique, semi-clean sung/snarled delivery, which serves as a smooth transition from the doom-laden atmospherics of Seven Bells into the newest iteration of the band’s sound (whilst also throwing in some references to earlier albums, particularly in the chanted, mantra-like vocals and heavy, driving rhythms of the song’s mid-section).
The track builds towards an almost grunge-esque instrumental finale of soaring, morose guitar leads and sombre, slow-burning chords, before transitioning, with rather shocking suddenness, into the jangling, post-punk guitars and psychedelic, Bowie-esque vocals of “Dirty Black”.
It’s a jarring shift in many ways, but then it’s clearly designed to be, and as the track progresses – as its weirdly seductive, multi-layered vocal melodies and trippy, Killing Joke-esque rhythms, build to a shimmering, blissed-out finale of dense riffage and chiming lead guitar lines – you start to wonder if “Dirty Black” is more than just a song title.
In fact it might just be a fitting descriptor of the band’s sound this time around.
“Man Behind The Sun” still conjures the same doomy, blackened Alice In Chains/Soundgarden vibes as it did the first time I heard it performed live at Inferno Festival earlier this year, but now it’s possible to really appreciate the balance between the thickly coiled, thrumming bass lines and restrained-yet-potent riff work, and the subtle, melancholy guitar melodies and soaring, Stayley/Cantrell-style vocal harmonies that make the song such a darkly hypnotic pleasure to listen to (and make it one of my definite favourites off the album as a whole).
The existential despair that ushers forth from your speakers during “Hole” is as crippling as it is captivating, its ominous introduction slowly transitioning into a gothic, gloomy procession of massive, moody vocal hooks and darkly infectious, hideously addictive riffs that hearken back to the darkest and most dour moments of Seven Bells.
It’s underpinned by a deep and driving bass presence that you can feel in the very marrow of your bones, which leads you smoothly into the grimly resolute, shamelessly grandstanding “Here Lies The Sun”, whose chuggingly powerful main riff, mesmerising, almost psychedelic chorus, and impressive vocal performance (brimming with desolate emotion and creative melody) helps make the song possibly one of the best the band have ever written.
This is, of course, only hammered home further by the track’s irresistible, Sentenced-style finale, whose pitch-perfect, pitch-black energy and massive vocal refrain will be echoing in your brain for days afterwards, whether you want it to or not.
Perhaps the album’s pièce de résistance, however, is found in the brooding “I Took The Sky Away”, which sounds like the ghost of Layne Stayley fronting Triptykon… as written by Secrets of the Moon in the midst of a deep and all-consuming depressive episode… and is packed with moments of crushingly dense metallic catharsis, eerie void-like ambience, and sullen, empty grandeur.
The climax of the album comes in the shape of the almost nine-minute “Mark of Cain” which, after a sombre, minimalist introduction, sees the band reaching back towards the Antithesis era in order to bring things (almost) full circle, with new drummer Erebor pounding away at his kit like a dervish in the grip of a divine visitation as the rest of the band grind out a menacing mix of low, riff-heavy grooves and darkly beguiling melodies, leading into an unexpectedly effective, solemnly atmospheric penultimate bridge section, and a fittingly dour and forbidding finale.
Even if Sun were a massive failure, it would still be a glorious one, and there’d still be a part of me which wanted to applaud it for the sheer audacity it displays in changing things up so drastically and unapologetically. The fact that it’s far from a failure – in fact I’d go so far as to call the band’s metamorphosis here an unqualified success — is simply down to the impressive songwriting and emotional depth evident throughout each of the album’s seven tracks.
Perhaps only time will tell how the group’s fanbase will react to the major changes we’ve seen here, though. Granted, the German quartet (in any incarnation) were never ones to stand still in the first place, yet there’s still no way to guarantee that all of the band’s audience will be willing to follow them down this new path they’ve chosen.
Still, I have to praise Secrets of the Moon for following their muse, despite how potentially divisive (even self-destructive?) the results might be. Though there will definitely be those who argue (perhaps with good cause) that Sun is a more accessible turn for the band, it’s no less honest, no less cathartic, and no less dark, than any of their previous albums.
It’s still the same band. It’s just different. And sometimes different can be very, very good.
Sun will be released on December 4 by Prophecy Productions and is available for pre-order here. Two songs have premiered so far — “Hole” and an edited version of “No More Colours”. Listen to those below.