(For the September 2020 edition of THE SYNN REPORT, Andy Synn focuses on the discography of Minnesota-based Feral Light, including a review of their 2020 album Life Vapor.)
Recommended for fans of: Tombs, Cobalt, Wolvhammer
So while these guys weren’t my original choice for this month’s Synn Report, the truth is I’ve been itching for a chance to write more about them for a while now, particularly since we didn’t manage to publish a review of the band’s third album, Life Vapor, (although we did host a premiere for it) when it was released back in May, so I’m more than happy that things worked out this way.
Hailing from the grim, snowbound wastes of… Minneapolis, Minnesota… Feral Light (who comprise the dynamic duo of Andrew Reesen on drums and Andy Schoengrund on guitars/vocals) deal in a gritty, gruesomely groovesome brand of Black ‘n’ Roll which has, over the years, also developed an increasingly savage-yet-sombre (not to mention ever-so-slightly proggy) edge to it.
And with three full-length albums now under their belt, I felt it was high time that more of our readers got to know (and love) them as well as I do.
A SOUND OF MOVING SHIELDS – 2016
The group’s debut EP was, admittedly, a little different to what would come after it – not only was it more overtly crust-influenced, but it was also the band’s first and only recording as a trio, featuring vocals by one Jeff Scheuermann – but still provides an intriguing snapshot into the group’s early years.
Opener “Mercenary” certainly leans more towards a doom-tinged Crust-Punk style for the majority of its run-time, only developing some blackened muscle as it approaches its rough ‘n’ tumble, raggedly blast-fuelled, finale, although the more darkly-melodic “Hell By Compass” bears some bigger Black Metal- fingerprints, especially in its deployment of taut, tensile tremolo melodies.
“Baptized in Shellfire” is easily the EP’s high-point (thus far anyway), and sees the trio finally finding their blackened footing, delivering an array of galloping riffs, rugged grooves and grimly melodic moments, all topped off with a suitably sandpapery snarl and underpinned by some surprisingly intense-yet-nuanced drums.
It’s the last two tracks where you can hear the band really beginning to gel though, and it just so happens that these are (pleasingly) the two tracks where they lean hardest into what most would consider “pure” Black Metal, with the swinging riffs and ramshackle blasts of “In Glorious Battle Slain” channelling Bathory for all they’re worth, while in “Ultima Ratio Regum” you can see the first signs of the belligerent bombast and gargantuan grooves that would, soon enough, come to embody the true essence of their sound.
VOID/SANCTIFY – 2017
Appearing just fourteen measly months after its predecessor, Void/Sanctify is the sound of a band (now down to just the core duo of Reesen and Schoengrund) who’ve spent every waking second of that time planning, practicing, and biding their time, waiting for just the right moment to strike.
And strike they do, kicking off with the choppy, rhythmic riffing and prowling melody lines of “House of Light and Grey” where you can immediately hear how much bigger, bolder, and more badass the duo have become… hell, even the production is that much crisper and sharper while still retaining a raw, rough-hewn edge to it.
There’s also a big, blatant, Black Metal stamp on every riff and every drum beat that quickly bleeds over into “Uneven Planes”, which starts off in an unexpectedly moody and atmospheric fashion before pivoting into a blistering barrage of bare-bones blastbeats and trembling tremolo guitars, which in turn gives way to a malevolently catchy and cock-sure groove positively brimming with equal parts incorrigible arrogance and existential dread.
“Hawk Ouroboros” is four minutes of morbidly melodic riffage, hypnotic percussive patterns, and sudden eruptions of feral fury, which builds towards a bleak, strangled solo and an intensely aggressive, increasingly distorted, finale, after which the first couple of minutes of “Crown Becomes the Noose” see the duo laying down some of the thickest, grimiest grooves of their career so far (while also giving Reesen time to show off some impressively creative fills and flams) before diving headfirst into a raging torrent of bone-shaking blastbeats, writhing tremolo riffs, and throat-scraping vocals, all building up to an unexpectedly expansive and atmospheric outro.
“Twisted Monolith” is a hook-laden, riff-driven, Black Metal meets Punk hybrid that really shows off Schoengrund’s ungodly gift for crafting spartan-yet-intricate guitar parts that flow seamlessly from one to the next, as well as Reesen’s well-honed talents for enhancing even the most simple and straightforward of parts by adding just the right dash of rhythmic flair at just the right moment(s).
Last, but by no means least, the drifting, dreamlike ambience which opens “Endless Nights” both demonstrates the band’s nascent proggy/atmospheric ambitions and provides the central thread to tie the whole track – all its chunky, chugging riffs and seething blackened fury – together and guide it towards its desolate, doom-laden conclusion.
FEAR RIDES A SHADOW – 2019
As good as Void/Sanctify was/is (indeed, as the album where I first discovered the band, it will always hold a special place in my heart), it has to be said that Fear Rides a Shadow is just that much better, bringing more swagger, more attitude, and more gnarly hooks to the table than ever before, resulting in a record that, to my mind at least, is one of the most underrated gems of the last few years.
Following the tantalising intro of “Wake”, whose ringing chords and simmering tension are stained with echoes of gothic Americana, the heavyweight headbanger of “Arrow and Beast” immediately (re)introduces you to a band who are more aggressive, more ambitious, and more in-sync than ever, with Reesen’s animalistic, adrenaline-infused drumming meshing seamlessly with Schoengrund’s stripped-down, muscle-and-sinew riffing to produce wave after wave of bilious, blackened energy.
It’s followed in quick succession by the virulent (not to mention venomous) strains of “Spirit Inanimate”, whose gargantuan grooves – seemingly equally indebted both to latter-day Satyricon and early Celtic Frost – also make room for some suitably grim, yet surprisingly gorgeous, melodic moments, before climaxing with some of the most brutally blast-powered material the duo have ever recorded.
Mid-album highlight “Psychic Dirt” is a hammering, yet unexpectedly haunting, display of filthy Black Metal fury, that’s somehow heavier (both in terms of its sheer sonic weight and its looming atmospheric presence) than any two-piece should really be able to produce, while the spine-chilling “Cold Monochrome” could give the Cobalt crew a real run for their money when it comes to the way in which it combines coarse, churning riffage and brash, burning intensity with cathartic moments of melodic clarity.
The album concludes with the climactic combo of “Carbonic Dust” and “No Refuge, No Reprieve”, the former a hook-filled hate-anthem that’s as highly addictive as it is hideously aggressive, with Schoengrund in particular elevating his vocals to a whole new level of vitriol, while the latter is just an (almost) unrelenting barrage of pure bitterness and spite, from its scathing blastbeats to its sneering grooves to its shimmering aura of magnetic melodic menace.
LIFE VAPOR – 2020
Let’s get one thing straight. While some have argued that the band’s latest album errs more towards “Post-Metal” in places than they’d like – and, to be certain, there’s a lot less arrogant swagger and a lot more atmospheric space this time around – I’d contend that Life Vapor is actually their most Black Metal album to date.
At the very least, it’s their darkest record yet, beginning with the sinister, synth-drenched intro of “Blood In Sand”, which quickly gives way to some of the moodiest and most malevolent riff work of the band’s career, atop which Schoengrund lashes out in shrieking, snarling, venom-spitting style as the song builds and builds towards critical mass, before finally blooming into a surprisingly brooding and sombre finale.
“Assuage” bursts into blastbeats and screaming right out of the gate, with the first half of the track dominated by this more aggressive and more abrasive approach which – when paired with Schoengrund’s enviable ability to rip out one heavily-muscled, infectiously primal riff after another – really hammers home the band’s “true” Black Metal credentials, before the second half opens out into the sort of searing, storm-lashed sonic vista which, controversially, perhaps owes as much to Amenra as it does Altar of Plagues.
The crashing chords, live-wire tremolo runs, and pulsing grooves of “Walking Tomb” see the band continuing to expand their sound into even darker, doomier realms without sacrificing an ounce of blackened bite in the process (those moments when both Reesen and Schoengrund allow themselves to really cut loose demonstrate just how much tighter the pair have become since Fear Rides A Shadow), while the moody, majestic intro to “Last Gasp Invocation” is eventually shattered by a performance of such ravenous, starving intensity (intercut, seamlessly, with a dash of dynamic melody) that you half expect the duo to turn around and start tearing chunks out of each other half way through the track.
By this point it should have become clear that while Life Vapor, as a whole, is both a more refined and more atmosphere-heavy album than either of its predecessors, it’s also even more focussed and ferocious too. And, just in case that wasn’t fully clear, “Hex of Inverses” effortlessly summons up the ghost of the band’s earlier Black ‘n’ Roll proclivities and then proceeds to exorcise it into oblivion with savage fury and reckless, blast-bitten abandon.
Concluding with the fittingly climactic and cathartic strains of “In Summation” – five minutes of neck-wrecking riffs, nerve-wracking rhythms, and sombre, proggy melody – Life Vapor is the sort of album you might be tempted to describe as “a grower, not a shower”, for what it might lack (or sacrifice) in terms of bombastic hooks and swaggering attitude it more than makes up for in sheer intensity and potent staying-power, making for an overall more fulfilling, and no less thrilling, listening experience from start to finish.