I’m sure no one’s counting (including me), but I don’t manage to write many stand-alone album reviews in a given year. In the time I have available to devote to this site, I spend most of it doing other things. I listen to many forthcoming albums that I like a great deal, and yet never manage to say anything about (many more I never manage to hear at all). And once an album is released, if I haven’t already written about it, I tend to ruefully shake my head at myself and move on down the road to new things looming on the horizon ahead.
This is a very rare occasion when I’m not doing that. Grey Heaven Fall’s Black Wisdom was released last October by the small Russian label Aesthetics of Devastation. I received an advance digital copy, and then in December the label sent me a CD. I thought the album was an amazing accomplishment, one of the best I heard in 2015, yet I still didn’t manage to write about it. And that would have been that, except this label is persistent, and they contacted me again recently. Sometimes that kind of persistence can be aggravating. In this case, it made me think again about what a tremendously creative and powerful album Black Wisdom is, and I convinced myself that even now, almost six months after the release, I owed it to the band to say so.
Trying to describe the multifaceted music or explain its unusual appeal is difficult, especially for someone like me who’s still a rank amateur when it comes to writing about music. But I’m going to try, comforted by the knowledge that at the end of this effort I can embed a full stream of the music and let it speak for itself.
When metal lovers use the word “symphonic” to describe music, they are almost always referring to a band who use synthesizers to mimic the orchestral sound of strings and brass. Grey Heaven Fall don’t do that. There are only three members, and they make do with guitar, bass, drums, and voice. But I still think of the music as symphonic: It’s so dramatic, so powerful, so dynamic, and so intricate and well-plotted — unfolding in movements that you can’t fully appreciate except after listening to the album straight through — that hearing it makes me think of sitting in a concert hall being overwhelmed and mesmerized by the enveloping force of a symphony.
I don’t want to get too carried away — this is definitely still extreme metal, performed with traditional rock instruments — but it’s damned intense, and it’s very ambitious. The band realize those ambitions so successfully that even though some well-respected metal sites have praised the album (here, here, and here, for example), they did so almost as late in the day as I have. And Black Wisdom still probably hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves.
Save for a three-minute instrumental interlude, the songs are long, with two of them exceeding 11 minutes. But even those longest of the tracks pull you in and spin you around like a whirlpool, but one you don’t want to leave.
If there is a foundation to the music (or a persistent thread), it’s black metal — usually a dark, dissonant, discordant, disorienting form of the genre. The opening track, “The Lord Is Blissful In Grief”, is a prime example of the black heart that beats at the album’s center. With only slight breaks in a furious tempo, it’s a frenzied storm of riffs and pulsating drums with writhing, unnerving arpeggios, mauling bass notes, and hoarse, howled vocals that become inflamed, deranged yells. The song’s repeating melodic motif is grim — both agonized and enraged — and is a signpost of the varying shades of darkness yet to come.
Black metal, however, is only the foundation of this ornate gothic edifice. On its ribbed arches and flying buttresses, the band have added elements of death metal and doom, along with complex progressive flourishes. And so, for example, in the first of those longest two tracks, “Spirit of Oppression”, you’re welcomed by a blazing assault of blasting drums and dissonant riffs, but as the song progresses the band slow the rhythm, introducing deep groaning chords and slow, mournful notes, tracing the sounds of soulful grieving and ghostly anguish. Here and there, the guitar peals unnervingly like a distorted bell, but the track ends in a crescendo of explosive sound.
Lest you think that the band’s devotion to dissonant melody and deep, pitiless undercurrents is all-consuming, don’t miss “To the Doomed Sons of Earth”. It may be the most emotionally gripping and moving song on the album, in part because of the sweeping (and not dissonant) melody that flows through the tumult of rattling drums and earthshaking bass that drive it forward. No doubt, the music remains dark, intense, and even agonizing, but its pained aura is also beautiful.
After that relatively short instrumental, “Sanctuary of Cut Tongues”, which consists of low, echoing guitar notes against a bleak ambient backdrop of wintry, windy sounds and something that resembles a ghostly whisper, the disorienting dissonance returns in “Tranquillity of the Possessed”, a track that is in part slow, woeful, and doom-stricken and in part a blazing bonfire — a cacophony of distraught, dismaying noise capped by an explosion of tearing riffs, demented guitar pulsing, and manic percussion.
The last of those longest tracks comes at the end, and it’s the setting for the band’s most pronounced progressive flourishes. After an introductory passage that’s down-right destructive and calamitous, followed by a galvanizing assault of hard-jabbing, rhythmic chugs, you get a big surprise (which I guess I’m spoiling) — a slow, relatively quiet interlude that clears the stage for a gorgeous, fluid guitar solo (accompanied by the ear-pleasing rumble of the bass) that brought to mind Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin.
More variations lie ahead in this wonderful song, including another chugfest, more derangement, and a second guitar solo near the end, this one slow, meditative, and a bit reminiscent of Pink Floyd. As silence falls at the end, with a few seconds of shimmering ambience, I’m left in a state of pleasant wonder at what Grey Heaven Fall have wrought.
The lyrics, which are included in the CD booklet as well as in the Bandcamp download of the album, are somewhat cryptic, but all of them address a similar theme and often do so eloquently despite the occasional struggle with English as a second language. They could be talking about the notion that God’s teachings have been perverted by his miserable, avaricious children, and within God lives nothing but grief and pain over what we have become.
But they could also be read as a condemnation of God for being willfully distant, sadistic, and silent in the face of his sons and daughters chasing after him, wasting their lives seeking his embrace, wasting their prayers by directing them to a being who they don’t realize is actually thirsting after our filth and death, its mind filled with the bliss of our pain. I tend to think this is the more accurate and interesting interpretation, but either way, the lyrics are thought-provoking and I enjoyed trying to decipher their meaning.
There are also fragments of the lyrics that summon up the sensations of the music:
“All is faded into dizzy vortex of death recollections…”
“The courage and rampage of colours…”
“And what is a life if death is dead? It is a chaos dance and ecstasy, pouring as a heavy stream into the Nothingness.”
“Embrace them with the drunken sorrowful wind…”
“Let the fatigue spirit dance inside of you…”
“my blood and bones are your verse only…”
“I am Your art; its master and the absolute, faced to my Creator with the bloom of the flame.”
Set aside some time to immerse yourself in this entire album. I hope you will find it (as I did) a rare and valuable experience, and one that you come back to repeatedly in the months and years ahead.
The intriguing album cover was created by Italian artist Sergio Padovani. Black Wisdom is available for order or download on both the label’s Bandcamp and the band’s (linked below).