(In this article Andy Synn combines enthusiastic reviews of three 2019 albums that are departures from our normal musical fare.)
One of the oddest things I’ve observed recently is a surprising number of people bemoaning the fact that “underground sites/magazines don’t cover enough mainstream bands”.
This seems like an odd complaint to make. Not only do mainstream/popular bands already get more than enough attention/coverage, but choosing to read a site/zine which specialises in a certain area, only to then moan about that speciality, feels like an exercise in futility.
Thankfully this doesn’t really affect us here at NCS all that much, as while we do prefer to cover artists and albums that don’t necessarily get a lot of exposure elsewhere, we’re also not afraid to write about more mainstream or popular bands when we feel the occasion calls for it.
This also extends to writing about artists/albums whose work is an “exception to the rule” when it comes to our “no clean singing” policy (although, let’s be honest, that was always more of an in-joke than an actual edict), as while the three bands featured here today are far from “mainstream” they’re still all far more melodic, far more listenable, and far more laid-back than the majority of what we usually cover.
KATHAROS XIII – PALINDROME
Romanian quartet Katharos XIII may have started out life as a DSBM band, but their sound has massively changed and evolved over the years, with this, their third album, moving them even further into the realms of dark ambience and jazz-inflected doom.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some occasional touches that call back to their early works, including some suitably nasty harsh vocals here and there, but there are also entire tracks (such as haunting closer “Xavernah Glory” or the mid-album masterwork that is “Caloian Voices”) which have been almost entirely stripped of any metallic elements, and are all the better for it.
Even when the band do err towards a heavier sound it’s done so more in the vein of latter-day Katatonia or Portuguese Post-Metal maestros Sinistro, using looming, lambent chords and taut, restrained rhythms to cultivate a sense of ominous weight and shivering tension just waiting to be broken.
The majority of the record though is built around a sombre, shadowy soundscape of moody synths and noirish saxophone, underpinned by some brilliantly subtle and creative drum work and topped off with the hypnotic, dramatic vocals of Manuela Marchi, resulting in a sound and style that’s not quite like anything else you’re likely to have heard this year, and which has quickly rocketed this album towards the top of my EOTY list.
Check it out for yourself below if you’re in the mood for a real slow burner that always goes down smooth.
MYRIAD DRONE – ARKA MORGANA
As disappointed as I was by the second, self-titled, album from Astronoid (not a bad record, by any means, just nowhere near as distinctive or exciting as their debut) I’ve found my disappointment being tempered somewhat recently by my discovery of Australian quartet Myriad Drone.
While MD are most definitely a Post-Rock band, through and through, there’s a certain energy and electricity to their delivery (not to mention some impressively sharp and metallic riffs) that, to my ears at least, gives them a real edge over their more navel-gazing peers.
Even more strikingly, however, is the fact that a good number of these tracks possess a soaring, cinematic vision and style that often reminds me of the best moments of that dynamic duo known as Nordic Giants (which, if you weren’t aware, is high praise indeed).
The shining melodies, intricate structures, and prominent, puissant bass work of songs such as “Time Enough at Last” and “Vitreous” all work in perfect harmony to paint a vivid, vibrant picture in your mind, while the electrifying speed of the title track and the riveting riffs of tracks like “Atonement” and “All Roads Lead” serve as a perfect counterpoint to the album’s more atmospheric and ambient moments (meditative closer “Unrequited” especially), allowing the band to raise your heart-rate even while tugging at its strings.
Vocally it’s a surprisingly minimalist album, with large passages of every track dedicated to intricate instrumental expression and evocative ambient textures, and even when the vocals do appear they’re often incorporated (and mixed) more like an instrument than a focal feature, enhancing, but never dominating, the music as and when needed.
And while this album probably won’t connect with all our readers, for myself I’ve found it to be an intensely immersive experience that’s easy to lose yourself in, if given the chance.
I recommend that you do.
ROSK – REMNANTS
The debut album from Polish Post-Black sextet Rosk was one of the most underrated releases of 2017, in my opinion, and one which has stuck with me ever since, even as other, more prominent and more well-known names, have fallen by the wayside.
You can perhaps imagine my reaction then – surprise, followed by shock, followed by wary intrigue – when I discovered that the band’s long-awaited follow-up was going to be a record of dark acoustic balladry. And I was even more shocked to discover that it also happens to be one of the best albums of the year.
The reason for this comes down, in the end, to how honest and earnest and expressive each of these six tracks is. Even without the advantages of amplification, each one is brimming with emotion that hits as hard as anything else I’ve heard over the last twelve months.
Not that I’m saying that distortion is a crutch, mind you. The sheer catharsis made possible by Metal at its most extreme and unrestrained shouldn’t be underestimated. But nor should the ways in which stripping yourselves of all these things, exposing yourself at your most open and vulnerable, can achieve the same sort of release in a different form.
It’s during moments like these when you realise how limited the English language can be in allowing you to express your feelings. After all, there’s only so many ways I can describe a song as bleakly beautiful as “Rosary” or as achingly sombre as “One Minute, A Lifetime”, before I start just listing synonyms or comparing them directly with other artists (the latter in particular puts the majority of Katatonia’s acoustic efforts to shame).
It’s not all pensive introspection of course, as certain songs, such as the folk-flavoured “A Dying Breath” and spellbinding closer “The Long Solitude”, possess a certain gloomy grandeur which recalls the similarly ardent acoustic moments of bands like Panopticon and Agalloch, only with (arguably) even more emotional weight behind them.
Trust me when I say that this is an album you don’t want to miss. It’s as poignant and soul-stirring and, in its own way, as powerful, as anything else I’ve written about this year, and richly deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.