When an album clocks in at a hefty 50 minutes for four tracks you know it’s going to require a… committed listen. Dependent on your inclinations, your state of mind, how long you’ve got to devote to the task at hand, you might see that as a good or bad thing. Just consider yourself forewarned.
Atmospheric sludge is, in my eyes, as oxymoronic as it can be. Yeah yeah, know that ‘Atmospheric’ is a reference to atmospheric Black Metal, and across the pond it’s common to describe comparatively mainstream bands like Mastodon or Baroness as ‘sludge metal’, so it could make sense I suppose but ultimately for this album it’s just a trendy way to say ‘Post-Metal’. Nevertheless, with that sort of thing enjoying a resurgence of sorts in the UK, with excellent bands like Ba’al, Still and Underdark taking cues from veteran acts, while incorporating new elements (alright, blastbeats) and stalwarts like Cult Of Luna and Amenra still on top of their game, the genre’s in rude health of late and it’s a prime moment for new and interesting takes on the established template.
As the album opens with Offen, beautiful reverb soaked washes ease you into wailing feedback and eventually a crashing wave of guitars. So far, so good, so Cult Of Neur-Isis, so what’s special about it? My first impression is that the customary wall of sound is a bit anaemic, it lacks heft and body, especially at the foundations. Maybe that’s due to the format I’m listening on, maybe due to the mix, the mastering job, maybe there’s so much going on at the top end, what with the glistening synth pads etc that the bottom end ends up crowded out, maybe I’m just hypercritical of bass guitar tones. I hate talking about guitar tones in detail when reviewing a record because you don’t need the best gear to make great music, but in this case it’s worth mentioning because it’s proof that even if you have all the right tools at your disposal, (a quick Instagram stalk confirms these guys tracked this record with some awesome gear) if they aren’t deployed correctly, the end result can be underwhelming.
So with that in mind, even the best tones in the world wouldn’t necessarily help here as the initial track is so slow to evolve; it’s five minutes in before anything really of note happens and what’s there lacks any engagement for me beyond being loud. When changes do happen, they’re so subtle and seem to be held up as so triumphant and transcendent that just the fact that the riff changed slightly is enough to reward the listener, and frankly, I’m not feeling that rewarded. The progressive song structures lack any real tension and release, or climactic catharsis that makes so many of the bands Post-Metal peers engaging and exciting. To be blunt, it’s a bit of a slog.
the production is great with the album, incredibly loud and well defined. The musicianship is faultless and it’s obvious that the band have been able properly realise their intent…
The album continues in much the same vein; the second track Beacon / Ox Eye has a gentle analogue synth intro, reminiscent of an 80s Sci-Fi film, until the obligatory clean guitars chime in at a relaxed volume and start to become more prominent as the time goes on. The intro/track template features again in the penultimate offering White Horse / Tempest and by now it smacks a bit of filler. With final track Ratlines comprised solely of these ambient noodlings, and decent proportion of the total runtime devoted to experimental sounds that feel more targeted at boosting the length of the album, than bringing anything in the way of real atmosphere or excitement.
I could be accused of being unfair if I was to dismiss the entire release as just Post-Metal by numbers. The band do change it up a little with some (surprise surprise) Black Metal influences that could explain the lack of weight to the bass guitar tone as boomy, hollow kick drums hammer away, and a guitar solo, that rarest of beasts on a Post-Metal album, that might have been conceived as Jonny Greenwood playing over Deafheaven but matches the genius of neither.
So, to wrap up. This review is going to come across as harsh. Very, very harsh. And that makes me a bit sad. It’s not like this is even a bad album. My quibbles about low end priorities aside, the production is great with the album, incredibly loud and well defined. The musicianship is faultless and it’s obvious that the band have been able properly realise their intent.
The biggest issue here is me. When I’m promised atmosphere, I want the terrifying darkness of Tim Hecker or expansive gentle weirdness of Nils Frahm. When I want sludge, I want the grim savagery of Ledge or nihilist apocalyptic Lazarus Blackstar. This missed those benchmarks for me. When it’s fifteen minutes of my life or so per track, for that investment I want something with enough growth and progression towards a destination that it justifies the journey, and for me this was an investment that didn’t give the return I wanted.
Scribed by: Chris Wood