(Here’s another installment in Andy Synn‘s long-running series of reviews devoted to releases by bands from the UK, where he’s based.)
Oh, what big plans I had for this week. I was going to write so much more for the site, about so many different bands/albums, some new, some old, that it was going to take most of you another whole week just to get through it all.
But, as it is wont to do, life got in the way, with work pressures and some last-minute setbacks in preparation for filming our next music video taking up more and more of my time (and adding more and more stress) with every passing day.
Still, things have slowly started to ease off now, meaning I’ve got just enough time to sneak in a brand new entry of “The Best of British” for you all to enjoy going into the weekend.
BA’AL – ELLIPSISM
Those of you with keen eyes and long memories (or, you know, just access to Google) may be aware that we’ve written about underground Sheffield sensations Ba’al a few times before, and have become big fans of the band’s potent brew of rugged Post-Metal dynamics and ragged blackened hysterics.
Prior to now, however, the group have only dabbled in singles and EPs, so Ellipsism (clocking in at a demanding sixty-two minutes and twenty-eight seconds) is the first big test of the band’s ability to engage and immerse their listener over a long period of time.
And, you know what? While it probably is a little bit too long for its own good – less is more, guys – the dynamic ebb and flow, give and take, quiet/loud structure of the songs ensures that the album continually grabs (and keeps) your attention (even the use of ambient interludes is designed so that they feed seamlessly out of, and into, the tracks around them, maintaining the record’s almost stream-of-consciousness continuity).
What really helps Ellipsism to stand out in an already saturated scene, however, is the way in which it subtly inverts the standard Post-Metal/Post-Black formula, using its more Isis-esque Post-Metal elements to provide much of the record’s darkness and heaviness, and employing the more “blackened” passages to, paradoxically, add a sense of brightness and light reminiscent of artists like An Autumn For Crippled Children and Lantlos.
It’s not a total reinvention of the Blackened Post-Metal/Post-Black Metal sound by any means, but it is an intriguing twist which clearly shows the band reaching a little further, and digging a little deeper, for influence and inspiration than a lot of their more slapdash peers.
Of course, dropping the right names and the right references is one thing – turning them into compelling music is something else entirely – but just by listening to tracks like early highlight “An Orchestra of Flies” (eight and a half minutes of gargantuan, groaning riffs, sudden flurries of crackling blastbeats, and layers of brooding atmosphere, all artfully arranged in an incredibly organic, yet never entirely predictable, manner) or electrifying nine-minute epic “Jouska” you can tell that Ba’al are more than able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
And while not every track manages to hit the same stellar heights (both “Tarred and Feathered” and “Father, the Sea, the Moon” could be tightened up a bit in my opinion), it has to be said that Ellipsism both begins and ends on two of its strongest possible notes, kicking off with the titanic “Long Live” – a near-flawless gem of bleak, blackened beauty and palpable post-metallic weight – and climaxing with the dynamic, drawn-out denouement of “Rosalia”, ensuring that it both makes an instant impact and leaves a lasting impression long after the last fading notes have disappeared.
COUNTLESS SKIES – GLOW
If I’m going to be brutally honest, New Dawn, the highly-anticipated debut album by Hertfordshore heroes Countless Skies, didn’t really live up the band’s potential. And I say this as someone well-versed in exactly what the quartet are capable of.
A lot of that, of course, was down to the rather flat and lifeless production, which robbed the music of much of its vibrancy and dynamism, although in hindsight some of the slightly awkward songwriting also stands out to my increasingly experienced/cynical ears.
Thankfully, however, the band’s latest album is a vast improvement in practically every way.
With a richer, more rounded mix/master (courtesy of ex-Before the Dawn/current Swallow the Sun guitarist Juho Räihä) and a greater, much more palpable, sense of confidence behind it, Glow successfully captures the band’s outsized energy and exuberance like never before.
And while it often wears its (Finnish-focussed) influences a little too blatantly – “Tempest”, for example, is very Omnium Gatherum, “Summit” is a half-and-half mix of Before the Dawn and Black Sun Aeon, and “Moon” practically worships at the altar of Insomnium – it nevertheless contrives to wear them with style throughout.
As good as the first half of the album is, however (“Tempest” in particular is a stunner,), it’s when the band start to expand their creative palette a little more that things really start to shine – beginning with the more expansive and atmospheric approach taken by “Zephyr”, which injects the band’s traditional take on the Finnish Melodic Death sound with a dose of both soothing ambience and seething vehemence reminiscent of both Downfall of Gaia and/or Alcest.
It’s the three-part title track which really proves just how far Countless Skies have come in just a few short years though, showcasing both an increasingly progressive scope (without neglecting the riffs or hooks) and a sense of cinematic ambition (the first part in particular gives off some major “November Rain” vibes) reminiscent, at points, of last year’s masterful comeback album by Disillusion. Which, by any metric, is high praise indeed.
Is Glow a perfect album? Well, despite what you may have read elsewhere, no, it isn’t. The first half in particular still feels a little too indebted to others for its identity (though originality is far from the be all and end all in my book), and there’s also still a few places here and there across the album where certain riffs or sections of songwriting seem a little loosely bolted together.
And then there’s the vocals… on the one hand bassist/singer Phil Romeo has clearly levelled up significantly, delivering a performance which occasionally (such as the during the grand finale to “Glow, Part 3”) reaches almost Devin Townsend-esque levels of epic emotion. But although guitarist/growler Ross King continues to deliver the goods with guts and gusto (and no-one is questioning his ability or his integrity), he doesn’t seem to have quite found “his” voice just yet (the slightly stilted spoken-word section of the last track doesn’t count).
Still, even with these caveats in mind it’s impossible to deny that Countless Skies have finally done what I think we all knew they were capable of – they’ve proven, without a shadow of a doubt, that they can truly hold their own alongside some of the biggest and best in the business.
And maybe, just maybe, their next step will be to beat the big boys at their own game.
CULT BURIAL – CULT BURIAL
What’s in a name, eh?
Let’s be honest, quite a lot of Metal band names seem like they were conceived simply by pulling random “cool” words out of a hat and scribbling them down in the spikiest font possible in the hope that no-one would notice.
That being said, some names really are ineffably “cool”, and Cult Burial is definitely one of them.
Indeed, the band themselves seem to think so too, as they’ve also used it as the title of their debut album – something which I always think is a smart move, as it implies a lot of confidence in a group’s ability to define their own sound and identity nice and early.
It’s clear right from the opening assault of “Dethroner” that Cult Burial know exactly who they are and what they want to achieve with their self-titled debut album, which delivers nine impressively intense (and surprisingly intricate) tracks of uncompromising, unpretentious Death Metal which simultaneously draws from multiple sources of influence – a little bit of Black Metal here, a little but of subtle technicality or added brutality there, even a hint of Doom now and then – without trying to be all things to all men.
It’s a precarious balance to maintain, and a razor-thin tightrope to walk, truth be told, but the band navigate it with aplomb, moving nimbly from the blackened velocity of the opener to the chunkier churn ‘n’ burn of “Moribund” and the more technically twisted “Chaos” without missing a step (although, personally, I feel like these songs would have worked even better with “Moribund” opening the album – but that’s just me).
Another sign of the band’s confidence in their own abilities is that they’re not afraid of adding a little melodic influence – I’m hearing a fair bit of early Paradise Lost and At the Gates here and there, for example – as a way of adding some extra spice and flavour without diluting the meaty, metallic taste of their deathly stew in the process.
Not only that but, unlike a lot of albums, Cult Burial also has the confidence not to front-load all its best stuff right at the start. In fact I’d even go so far as to say that this is one record that actually gets better the deeper you get into it, as by the time that back-to-back brooders/bruisers “Plague” and “Kill” rear their ugly heads it really feels like the band have hit their stride, at which point it’s just one hit after another – the hammer-smashed hooks of “End”, the grinding, galloping momentum of “Forever”, and the slow-motion stomp of “Sorrow” – until the album reaches its crushing climax.
So I’d advise you to give this one a listen tomorrow when it finally hits the streets (and the web), as it’s always a good idea to get on the bandwagon early when a band shows this much promise and potential on their very first album!