Label: Profound Lore Records
The biggest danger when listening to music can be that your hopes and expectations run away with you. How many times has an incredible opening track or introduction given way to an album that couldn’t quite match the start, and has suffered as a result? How often does a hyped album turn out to be crushingly ordinary? The answer should be obvious: too many.
So, upon first listening to this album, I was in a constant state of expectation. Throughout the 67 minutes of doom and beauty, I was waiting for something to give way, some pedestrian riff to rear its head or some lazy lyric to sabotage proceedings. Yet somehow, incredibly, the moment I dreaded never came. So I listened to it again; and again; and again. And eventually, I couldn’t fight my initial expectations any more: this album is every bit as good as the opening moments had led me to hope, if not better. It brilliantly, almost effortlessly blurs the lines between the timelessly divine and the finite human, between love and despair, between music and art.
It begins gently enough. Some simple guitar and quiet feedback underpins soft female vocals singing a refrain: “all of my life/I’ve been waiting for you”. The male vocal that joins it offers succour – “Come lay down your head/rest in my arms/you’re free tonight” – but soon enough the guitars come crashing in after a slight pause, and the fact that this is a doom metal album cannot be denied. And nor can the fact that the band’s two violinists fit in perfectly with the music, creating moments of majesty, dread, and discord as required. The vocals add to this feeling; when the band’s three vocalists combine their lines, such as during sections of The Usher, they create moments of pure catharsis and release that borders on the transcendent.
Yet this is no lazy Sabbath worship or My Dying Bride clone. The music carries strong traces of traditional doom and proto-doom or proto-metal – probably most evident during the opening of Cosey Mo – yet at no point does it ever feel generic or anything less than unique. There is an awareness here of not just what makes doom metal so crushing at its best, but also of how to write unique, flowing songs with personality, full of dynamics and strength. Again, the way the violins are used helps. They add that special something to the music, creating an atmosphere both of beauty and malice throughout the album – the violin lines during the mid-section of Ghosts Of A Dead Empire being a prime example, sounding both majestic and dangerous, sorrowful and proud. Yet the guitars, bass and drums are not neglected. When the band indulge in some classic, slowed-down riffs, they are every bit as crushing and powerful as would be hoped for in doom metal – much of Fat Of The Ram crawls along at a desolate, hopeless pace, the guitars destroying all before them with their weight and tone. Affliction features a discordant, spiralling melody that is steeped in sorrow and pain, backed by a lumbering riff. Meanwhile, Ghosts Of A Dead Empire succeeds in bringing its title to mind. Each song features a masterful use of movement, dynamics and tension – opening track The Usher being a prime example, as it moves through several phases – ensuring that the listener’s focus is held throughout. This is no album to simply zone out to as it washes over you, but one that demands attention and holds it effortlessly.
The lyrics are especially worthy of praise, too. More than anything else, they capture the true essence of the album, caught somewhere between love, hope, loss, and desolation, with salvation always within sight yet beyond reach. Lines such as “even despots know that when they die/you’ll rule still” hint at something beyond the earthly, and the stories these songs tell – or at least, hint at, steeped in metaphor in symbolism as they are – are as captivating as any novel. As superlative as the music here is, the lyrics are, for me, the strongest feature of the album. They paint pictures of an ordinary life torn asunder by events both regular and terrible, and at points seem to be more like poetry than than just lyrics.
And this is to say nothing of the final track. Whereas the rest of the album preceding it was undeniably heavy despite possessing moments of calm and beauty, No Safe Harbor is heavy in a completely different way. Piano and flutes combine to create some truly beautiful, majestic music, over which some of the most heart-wrenchingly honest and powerful lyrics on the album are sung (“For you I would give up mountains of gold/And possessions untold, health of body and of soul.”) Sinister violins creep in as the song progresses, adding a sense of malice to proceedings that is only strengthened by the multiple female vocal lines, before distorted guitars make their appearance towards the end, making it clear that the song’s title rings true. It’s a stunning end to a superb album.
It’s been a long, long time since I heard an album as moving as this – there’s plenty of music I enjoy, but I can’t recall anything connecting with me in the way that this has since I was first really beginning to understand and appreciate music. It has that feeling of reaching beyond simply being music, moving instead in to the realms of art and the divine. Everything about it is as close to perfect as seems possible. It’s not just my album of this year, but also quite possibly the best album I’ve heard in years. This is something truly special, and you owe it to yourself to listen to it.