(Andy Synn reviews the remarkable new album by Oak Pantheon from Minnesota.)
Change is perhaps the only true constant in life. People change. Bands change. And our relationship to them, and to their music, changes accordingly.
And yet, though it’s undeniable that Minnesotan metallers Oak Pantheon have certainly changed somewhat since the release of their first album, 2012’s stirring From A Whisper, the essence of the band, their core sound, still remains fully intact, even as their latest release finds the group expanding beyond perhaps what even they originally envisioned.
Changed, and yet unchanging, it’s precisely this paradox which is at the centre of In Pieces, a compelling enigma which necessitates multiple spins to truly appreciate and comprehend.
That’s not to say that this is in any way a slow-burner of an album. Not by any means. Indeed, it presents its bona fides immediately with the enervating thrill-ride that is “Dawn as a New Day”, which is easily one of the best opening tracks I’ve heard all year.
With its raw, riveting intensity and intricate, intertwining melodic guitar work, it echoes, at different times, a more blackened incarnation of early Insomnium or a more aggressive version of early Agalloch, though neither of these comparisons truly does the song justice in all its propulsive power and multifaceted glory, even as it builds to its truly spellbinding finale.
Second track “Climb”, clocking in at an expansive 11:45 in length, is one of those rare tracks where not only is there not a single superfluous second or wasted moment to be found, despite its extensive run-time, but where it all seems to go by almost too quickly, those eleven minutes and change seeming to pass by almost in the blinking of an eye.
Much of this must be attributed to the overall dynamic of the track, which shifts with zen-like fluidity from its hypnotic, mantra-like opening to the mighty metallic rhythms and majestic melodies of its similarly mesmerising second quarter, which then transitions – by way of an incredibly poignant quote from 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man – into a more proggy penultimate section, before ultimately concluding in a riotous (and unexpected) explosion of driving, rough-hewn riffs and soaring, spiralling lead guitar work.
After the extravagance of its predecessor, the more stripped-down “Float” is something of a necessary palette cleanser, underpinned by a scintillating melodic guitar refrain and some pleasingly powerful riffage, and topped off with a cathartic blend of harsh and clean vocals (via guest James Benson from Amiensus), which leads the listener into the ambitious, elephantine strains of “Enormity”, which recalls both the might and majesty of classic Opeth at times, and which has long since gone on to become one of my favourite songs of the year so far.
Like all the best albums, In Pieces doesn’t drop the ball going into its second half, with the prominent, progressive lead guitar work and elaborate (yet artfully understated) bass/drum interplay of “Grasp the Apparition” delivering a wealth of captivating hooks and effortlessly memorable moments before the doom-tinged, moodily melodic “Pavor Nocturnus” brings its weighty metallic potency to bear, straddling the line between the more atmospheric side of Black Metal and the darkest, proggiest corners of primal Melodeath a la In Mourning and their ilk.
Penultimate track “Burden of Growth” leans into those early Agalloch comparisons with its solemn acoustic opening, but by adding a dash of almost Anathema-esque beauty and melancholy to the mix the band take this sound and seize it for themselves, leading the listener by the hand towards epic closer “Godson”, which builds and coalesces over eleven brooding, blissful minutes of anguished vocals, atmospheric riffage and swooping, wheeling lead work into something truly sublime, before concluding in truly magnificent fashion with one of the finest melodic codas I can recall in living memory.
I started this review with my comments about change and how it affects and influences our relationships with the bands we love. And, as you’ll have seen, over the course of this review, I’ve thrown in several references to certain other bands who have, to a greater or a lesser extent, changed their own style over the course of their careers, with the result that a proportion of their fanbase (understandably) still yearns for that earlier sound.
So this next part is for those people, and for those of you who are entirely new to Oak Pantheon as well. If you still find yourself longing for the days before Insomnium discovered (for better or for worse) the formula for commercial success, for the days when Agalloch spent their time in contemplation of the earth, and not the stars, or for the days before Opeth became solely concerned with the ghosts of prog long past, then In Pieces could very well be the album you’ve been looking for all this time.
And for those of you already familiar with the band? Rest assured, this fulfils every hope and expectation you might have had over the last four years. And then some.
It’s an album of the year contender, make no mistake about it.
In Pieces will be released by the band via Bandcamp on May 16 in both digital and jewel-case CD. Pre-orders are available now: