Getting to hear a new project from members (past and present) of bands you respect is always exciting, especially if it’s something different from their current/previous bands. Such is the case with Wretched Empires, which is formed of Allfather vocalist Tom B. and former Redbait members Will J. (guitar) and Cody A. (drums). Yet whereas those bands strode the lines between hardcore and metal, Bloom is firmly rooted in black metal, particularly the Scandinavian second wave and more modern American incarnations, with all the grim majesty that implies. It’s an exciting, empowering listen, that achieves a lot in its short duration.
18 minutes isn’t really that long for a modern black metal EP, especially one that draws a lot of influence from Panopticon and Falls of Rauros, yet there’s an economy and focus about Bloom‘s song-writing that ensures it works. Opener ‘Ghosts’ is a fine summation of what Wretched Empires offer – the opening section pulls strongly from the second wave and its modern adherents, especially Ulver and Enslaved, before shifting into a punk-infused riff that would do mid-00’s Darkthrone proud. As the song progresses it builds and grows into something far grander than those early moments suggested, as fine as they are. Dual-guitar melodies provide a moment of pure metal heroics, before acoustic guitars usher in a scene of campfires burning late at night in some forgotten forest, evoking the same kind of feeling as Twilight Fauna or the aforementioned Panopticon can. As this might imply, there’s a lot going on in this song, yet it all feels natural and coherent, kept to just shy of six minutes in duration.
With this sound established, the rest of Bloom essentially builds off of it. The following title track is a bit more of a vicious beast; but conversely, also has a moment of supreme transcendence beginning around the 2:20 mark, where an absolute beast of a guitar solo kicks in, made all the more powerful for the restraint it shows, contrasting strongly with the devastation that was unleashed just moments before. ‘Home?’ would perhaps feel like an interlude on a full-length, all acoustic guitars and aching melodies, but here it feels like a vital part of Bloom‘s character and just as much a facet of its spirit as the song it leads into, the closing ‘Shadows’ which brings the black metal onslaught back.
Whilst the above descriptions hopefully show how musically diverse and strong Bloom is, what is harder to get across is how emotionally powerful the EP is. Just like the best modern black metal, the impact of Bloom isn’t just in its musical muscularity, but in the emotional edge it possesses. The contrast between Tom’s half-rasped, half-growled vocals and the restrained grace of the riffs is delightful, and when the guitars are given license to slip loose they go not for the throat as so many other black metal bands would, but for the head and the heart.
And that, essentially, sums up why Bloom is so exciting a start for Wretched Empires. It is black metal with intelligence as well as aggression, that understands the power of contrast and restraint (and it helps, of course, that so many of the riffs and leads are absolutely killer). And whilst their nuance may be lost slightly in the delivery (an issue with all harsh vocal styles, to be fair), the lyrics are an intelligent inversion of so many of the problematic tropes of black metal, especially around issues of heritage and home. Along with the likes of Void Ritual and Seas of Winter, Wretched Empires are proving that there’s still plenty of life in second-wave influenced black metal, making the style sound as inspiring and vital as it ever has.
Bloom is set for release on 3 April 2020, and can be ordered via Bandcamp.