It’s well-known that we host a lot of premieres at our site — every day, in fact. It requires a lot of effort since we always accompany them with reviews, and that can detract from other things we might be doing instead. But one reason we’re so open to them is the opportunity they provide to introduce not just you, but us as well, to music we might otherwise overlook. And sometimes, those opportunities prove to be rapturous discoveries — which is the case with Ysgaroth’s album Storm Over A Black Sea, which is set for release tomorrow.
Simply put, the album is an enormous surprise, an unexpected gem that arrives without much advance fanfare. It is, after all, this Vancouver trio’s debut album. But they’re not taking tentative steps here. The songs are remarkably ambitious in their construction and remarkably demanding in their execution. Fortunately, the instrumental skill displayed here is at a very high level, and the songcraft, while elaborately multi-faceted and wide-ranging in its stylistic scope, is thrilling to behold.
L-R: Shawn Hillman (Bass) | Steve Cuddington (Drums) | Kurt Steigleder (Guitar, Vocals) – Photo Credit: Jade Weekes
In genre terms, the album is also ambitious. Not content to burrow into any one well-defined category, Ysgaroth draw upon a big palette of extreme musical colors, incorporating thrashing black metal, variants of old school death metal, sludge, and lots of progressive-metal adventurousness (and thus the album arrives feasibly recommended for fans of Skeletonwitch, Enslaved, Wolves in the Throne Room, Death, and Morbid Angel). How this all comes across is not as a befuddling hodge-podge, but as a genuine thrill-ride.
Ysgaroth’s ambitions are evident simply from examining the track lengths. There you will find one track that nearly reaches 12 minutes and another that tops 17 minutes, along with three songs in the five-to-seven-minute range (and a short introductory piece, which in itself is fascinating despite its brevity). But thankfully, Ysgaroth’s reach does not exceed their grasp. They make compelling use of their time, whether drawing out the experience to extravagant lengths or confining themselves to more typical durations. And on top of that, the album as a whole unfolds in an engrossing way, just as each song does.
Hopefully you’ve already read enough to throw yourself into the album stream we’re premiering below (which features guest appearances by Jessie Grace and Erik Leonhard of KOSM), but we also have thoughts about each song by way of further introduction.
That relatively brief introductory track, “Rain“, provides an early introduction to the importance of the bass in Ysgaroth’s music. Here it provides an eerie and enchanting melody at the outset, and then the track slowly builds through spectral guitar and increasingly vibrant drum progressions to a crescendo of roiling intensity.
“Nam Gloria Satanas” features an equally haunting beginning, and the music again builds through accreting layers but soon reaches a zenith of glistening guitars and hammering drums, which then surge into a gallop. The riffing transforms into a broiling frenzy, along with equally feverish shrieks that become extended screams, and the music succeeds in creating visions of blazing chaos. But the song also subsides into a passage of mercurial, mesmerizing bass notes and arpeggios that glitter like stars.
The album is filled with spectacular guitar solos (and some wonderful bass solos too), and you get the first of those when the intensity of this track erupts again, with the solo arriving against scything riffage and a backdrop of sweeping and soaring sound that’s both magnificent and frightening. When the hurtling momentum of the music diminishes again, there’s a feeling of anguish in the melody, and that’s amplified by the screaming and roaring vocals, but the finish is again near-breathtaking.
“Sacred” is one of the shorter songs, but it might be the one that gets stuck in the head the fastest and firmest, thanks to a ringing guitar motif that surfaces repeatedly in the midst of hammering drums, flickering leads, and riffing that whirls and darts in a semblance of almost joyous delirium. That little motif is forlorn but utterly bewitching, and it contrasts with blaring chords that sound like brass fanfares. The song also segues into a sonic gauntlet of vicious, jabbing riffs, which become the backdrop to a slow, exotic guitar solo that accelerates and elevates into a fiery extravagance of sound.
And then comes the first of those really long songs, “Altar of Scars“. A brief bass solo creates the prelude to a galloping and jolting war-charge, but frequent tempo changes follow, as do morphing emotional qualities in the timbre of the music. The drumming is especially impressive as it propels the song through changing phases, which range from truly exhilarating assaults fueled by swirling, super-heated guitar-work, piston-driven snare rhythms, insane screams, and voracious growls, to episodes of jackhammering brutality (in which the bass seems to moan in agony) and bursts of seething, febrile dementia augmented by another jaw-dropping guitar solo.
Given the length of the song, you would expect some transition away from the conflagration, and it does come — with a mind-wrecking breakdown near the end that sounds genuinely apocalyptic, jolting and oppressing the senses, with vocals that are insane, coupled with wailing and moaning guitar work that’s capable of stiffening the hairs on your neck.
There’s an aspect of heroic grandeur coupled with peril and fear in “Forward Unto Death“, where singing is intertwined with the caustic screams, and hints of medieval music surface in the melodies. The song’s intensity befits its title; it creates disturbing visions of barbarism and bloodshed, and falls into portrayals of misery and hopelessness — and the guitar solo somehow seems to capture both sensations.
Ysgaroth close the album with an epic-length musical saga. As you might expect, the band use the extravagant length of “Deluge” to chart a winding musical path perhaps best described in metaphor. The music opens in gloomy fashion over tumbling drums, segues into soft sounds of downcast introspection (where the bass again plays a prominent and alluring role, and the vocals seem to channel extreme mental torture), catches fire in wild, brazen, pulse-pounding fashion, drifts away into inviting yet strange mystic realms (where the rhythm section again really shines), explodes in a paroxysm of violent howling madness, inflicts methodical pile-driving thuggery, darts like frolicking birds in flight and races like stallions, meanders like a glimmering stream (except for the drum-tumbling and the bass-thrumming, which are thrilling in that passage), and unfurls through a magnificent solo like a grand waving banner above a plain of broken bodies. The ending, which reprises an earlier section, is moody and mesmerizing.
Ysgaroth have commented: “The release of Storm Over a Black Sea is so many things for us: validation, relief, excitement, and too many other things to say. This album took far too long for us to record and finally release, but we’re beyond excited to finally have it out. We’re trying to do a lot of things on this record: honour our influences, play some fucking riffs, and push ourselves as musicians technically and compositionally.”
Lyrically, we’re told that the texts are “the manifestations of the band’s own issues with the world: regret poisoning us, our consumerist society trapped in capitalism poisoning the world, and religions of all kinds being used as another tool to divide and control us”.
As noted earlier, the album will be released tomorrow. Hope you enjoy it as much as I have (and be sure to check out the music video for that very addictive track, “Sacred”, which you will also find below).
YSGAROTH – FACEBOOK: