(Andy Synn presents three more succulent slabs of metallic vim ‘n’ vigour from his home country)
Really good Sludge/Post-Metal albums from the UK are a bit like buses… you wait patiently for ages and then three come along at once!
Thankfully all three of these bands, each of whom are at a different stage in their career – Conjurer aiming to prove that all the hype around them is firmly, and fervently, justified with their major-label debut, Gozer establishing themselves as “ones to watch” with their highly-anticipated first album, and Hundred Year Old Man reaffirming their status, in the wake of tragedy, as one of the best bands in the British underground – together represent some of the very best Sludge/Post-Metal that you’re likely to hear this year.
Don’t believe me? Well, allow me a chance to convince you.
CONJURER – PATHOS
To say that there’s a lot of hype around this album would be something of an understatement. But if you’re just expecting Mire, Part 2… then you’re going to be sorely disappointed – the Conjurer boys have come too far, and been through too much, over the last four years to simply settle for rehashing past glories.
While the core of the group’s sound still remains unchanged (a dense and dirty agglomeration of Sludge and Post-Metal, with some added Death Metal, Hardcore, and Post-Black Metal influences) their new album is a moodier, more introspective and… dare I say it… more mature record than its predecessor, exchanging some of the band’s youthful urgency for a richer sense of depth and dynamic – both sonic and emotional.
It is still, of course, heavier than a very heavy thing when it wants to be – the absolutely monstrous ending of “Basilisk” (which leans heavily into the band’s well-documented love of Regarde Les Hommes Tomber) or the humongous, doom-laden riffs of “In Your Wake” definitely prove that – but the message is more poignant, the underlying emotions are more powerful, and the overall songwriting is more patient, allowing each track to build and crescendo, collapse and reassemble, at its own pace and in its own time.
What really struck me as I listened to this album was that, despite the band’s decision to rein in the scope of their influences (there’s far less Converge in the mix this time around, for one thing) and focus on a more defined/refined direction, they’ve still somehow managed to expand their creative palette in the process – from the captivating blend of solemn spoken-word and sombre instrumental soundscapes that crowns the second half of “All You Will Remember” , to the absolutely gorgeous acoustic guitar embellishments of fantastic closer “Cracks In The Pyre” – while also making the whole thing sound even more cohesive than ever before.
If there is a flaw with this record (and there is, because no artist or album is perfect) it’s that it actually struggles a little bit to fully get going.
Don’t get me wrong, “It Dwells” is a damn fine opener, one that sets the tone of the record nicely, but “Rot” roundly fails to build on what its predecessor started, and spends more time than it needs to just spinning its proverbial wheels, to the point where “All You Will Remember” almost feels like the real starting point for the record, because everything after that (including the savage throw-back attack of “Suffer Alone”) is absolute gold.
Ultimately, while I’m sure that some people will probably be disappointed that Conjurer haven’t simply delivered “more of the same”, I applaud their decision not to take the easy path but instead to continue to make the music that they want to make… scratch that, the music they need to make… regardless of anyone else’s expectations.
GOZER – AN ENDLESS STATIC
Of the three bands featured here in this column today, Gozer are the one who lean most towards the more “atmospheric” side of the Sludge/Post spectrum, and their debut album, An Endless Static, makes great use of extensive passages of calm and contemplation to draw the listener in before inundating them with a deluge of driving distortion and punchy percussion.
Take opener “Into the Grey”, which purposefully holds off on dropping the hammer – it teases it around the half-way point, sure, but the guitar work here is still more about establishing another layer of mood and texture, which is then allowed to dissipate in a clever bit of musical misdirection – until right near the end, at which point the overall atmosphere and tension is about ready to explode (and obligingly does so).
It’s an extremely effective trick, and one the band aren’t afraid to repeat, albeit while constantly tweaking its parameters to ensure that they never quite do things the same way twice – “Augur”, for example, bookends its powerful Post-Metal mid-section with a moodily minimalist intro and outro, while “Desiderium” constantly ebbs and flows between soothing calm and seething intensity across the course of nine-and-a-half minutes.
Gozer also aren’t averse to throwing a few kinks and surprises into the mix, whether by completely inverting the expected formula on stunning centrepiece “A Fading Light” – which starts off dark and ugly only to transform into a sinister, synth-driven soundscape in the middle – or by lacing several of the tracks with insidious string embellishments that recall the early orchestral experimentations of The Ocean.
And then there’s oddly compelling closer “Wintercearig”, which somehow succeeds at capturing your attention for almost eleven full minutes despite its almost complete lack of anything resembling a recognisable “structure”… it’s just one slow, simmering build-up of droning ambience, rippling distortion, and abrasive, atmospheric noise that slowly, but surely, overwhelms your senses until it’s impossible to think of anything else.
As first albums go, An Endless Static is a fascinating statement of intent, one that almost seems designed to be as user-unfriendly as possible. But that’s ultimately part of its charm – it’s not going to make it easy for you, but it is going to reward your efforts many times over.
HUNDRED YEAR OLD MAN – SLEEP IN LIGHT
To call Hundred Year Old Man “the UK’s answer to Cult of Luna” would be ridiculously reductive, yet not entirely inappropriate or inaccurate. After all, the two bands share a lot of sonic similarities, including a penchant for lengthy, demanding, and intensely immersive songs and… oh yeah, HYOM really are that good.
As a matter of fact, Sleep in Light is at least as good as The Long Road North… but, even if we choose to totally ignore these comparisons, it’s clear that HYOM are a band more than capable of standing on their own. It was obvious to me on Breaching (which was one of my favourite albums of 2018, and remains, in my opinion, one of the best Post-Metal albums of the last decade) and it’s even more obvious to me now.
Take eleven minute opener “A New Terror” for example – instead of the expected long-form, slow-build introduction, it quickly drops into a throbbing, almost machine-like rhythm of rolling riffs and ragged-throated vocals, all topped off with layers of shining melodic leads and underpinned by an intricate, undulating bass presence. It sounds absolutely massive, yet you can pick out every element and instrument effortlessly – nothing overwhelms or overshadows anything else, it’s all in perfect balance.
And that’s exactly what makes this album as whole work so well – this carefully maintained balance between quiet and loud, calm and chaos, subtlety and extravagance, which makes it possible to appreciate Sleep in Light just as much for its titanic guitar tone and humongously heavy hooks as for its more intriguing, less crowd-pleasing, melodic and atmospheric nuances.
This dynamic balancing act – epitomised as much by the juxtaposition of gorgeous ambience and gargantuan riffs that makes up the stunning “I Caught A Glimpse of Myself on Fire” as it is by the transition from the melancholy minimalism of “Monoamine” into the hammering, doom-laden heaviness of outstanding closer “Livyatan” – also plays a huge role in ensuring that each of these songs (the majority of which err upwards of eight minutes in length) remains capable of retaining the listener’s attention from start to finish, as the band seem to have an innate knack for knowing just when to switch things up to keep the music moving forwards.
Is it too long, too ambitious, for its own good? With regards to the former the answer is probably yes – it is over 80 minutes, after all – but “too ambitious”? Not in the slightest. This is the sound of a band going for broke, throwing caution to the wind, and attempting to make something so big, so bold, that the rest of the world will have absolutely no choice but to sit up and finally take notice.