Review: Gévaudan ‘Umbra’

I suppose I’m old enough, or certainly of the persuasion, that I remain a child of the album format. Whilst I’m not averse to the concept of a good playlist, the size of my lovingly assembled (and large) record collection means that putting 50 thousand plus mp3s on shuffle produces intolerable results from a lifetime of what can only be described as musical ADHD.

Gévaudan 'Umbra' Artwork
Gévaudan ‘Umbra’ Artwork

As a result, over the years I have come to love the art of the concept album in all its occasionally/frequently (delete as appropriate) dodgy, pretentious glory.

However, the epic-length, single-track album is nothing new and it has produced some absolute blinders, the first of which that springs to mind is Sleep’s Dopesmoker and this year’s Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate by Bell Witch, both of whom defy the laws of shuffle and demand your full focus and attention for their duration. And now joining these lofty ranks are UK progressive doom outfit Gévaudan.

Since their formation in 2013 and named after the so-called Beast of Gévaudan, an animal which between 1764 and 1767 attacked and killed dozens of people (mainly women and children) in south-central France (the now-defunct eponymous province), they have graced us with two EPS and they’re highly regarded Iter debut in 2019.

As this year entered its final quarter, the band unveiled Umbra, the culmination of a decade’s worth of steady progress to present the realisation of their ambition to craft an epic-length, conceptual saga. The result is the continual forty-three-minute journey that is Umbra – the word itself being used in the context of shadow or darkness, that’s stock in trade for a doom band with their sorrowful tails of nightmarish misery and woe.

It should be said it takes some moxy and confidence to write a forty-three-minute song. I have worked with bands in the past that have expressed the challenge of writing ten or twenty-minute epics, so to craft a three act tale that spans nearly three-quarters of an hour must have been a daunting prospect that the band have attacked with gusto.

The first act begins with the kind of ominous build that one would expect; swirling, grinding sounds that are part electronic and part organic introduce us to Umbra, before the stamping clinical riffs enter the fray with the sound of the production realising a semi-industrial edge to what on the surface seems like a traditional doom album.

Their ambition and the execution of what they have done here is commendable and fans of the genre should absolutely lap this up…

It takes just over four minutes before Adam Pirmohamed’s vocals make an appearance and, as expected, they are sombre and mournful in a manner that fits the funeral doom genre. However, the whole mix produces a beautifully melodic, downbeat lament as the music shifts stuttering and stumbling with almost gracious glacial drift. The guitars harmonise and hit with scratching harmonics that are counted by the incessant cymbal work.

As the band sink their teeth into the deeper, moodier passage, a gorgeous solo emerges around the ten-minute mark and heralds a passionate vocal tonal shift as the first act comes to its dramatic climax.

The second act begins with quiet guitar and whispered almost crooning vocals, there is a sense of ambient floating and creeping instrumentalization appears and grows in power before the doom breaks out around nineteen minutes. The vocals show a surprising amount of dexterity and emotional depth as they articulate the story, while the guitars glance off the taught drum fills before unleashing a, stylistically different, second solo, as this time it focuses more on running up the scale with fretboard histrionics.

This instrumental passage proceeds before the vocals return with passionate pleading, the wailing gives way to soaring notes and the band gradually flows into striking piano keys, slowing the feel of the track before electronics emerge once more.

The third and final act begins around thirty-three minutes in and the stillness this time is interspersed with smatterings of piano, denoting a different tone as the vocal intonation is striking again with its ability to showcase Pirmohamed’s range. As this final movement grows into the powerful riffing, you can truly feel the weight of what has gone before as Gévaudan build towards the squealing guitars of the finish and Umbra fades out gradually grinding to a halt with heavy pounding.

It feels increasingly difficult in this day and age to judge epic-length music given the seeming lack of collective intention spans, but the fact Umbra holds up well and is incredibly entertaining is possibly because of the sub-one-hour running time. In a genre packed with excellent epic-length doom releases this year from to Ahab to the aforementioned Bell Witch, this album is punchy and almost feels like Reign In Blood by comparison.

Whilst it cannot realistically be broken down below the entire runtime, it manages to be both entertaining and well-accomplished, which speaks highly of the band. Their ambition and the execution of what they have done here is commendable and fans of the genre should absolutely lap this up.

Label: Meuse Music Records
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Spotify | Twitter | Instagram

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden