Saturday, February 11, 2017

Album review: Dark Funeral's Where Shadows Forever Reign

The kings of atmosphere but not much else
For all of the volumes of black metal that has worked its way out of the darkness over the years, there are really very few acts out there that catch my ear and hold on to it. Dark Funeral have caught my ear with the latest output, Where Shadows Forever Reign. Unfortunately however, after a few listens I don't know that they'll be holding onto my ear for very long.

It's a little hard for me to say why I'm not enamored with this album. Many of its elements range from good to great. The band's new vocalist fits in well quite well with the existing lineup and their sound. The production is layered enough to create that hazy black metal sound we've come to know and love while simultaneously being clear enough to avoid being audio fuzz with some shrieking on top. In fact with only minimal concentration you can easily pick out any instrument you like and follow it for the duration of any given song. Between the fantastic album artwork, the lyrics, and the instrumentation, the band have worked up a wonderfully dark and gloomy atmosphere, which is a must-have for me to enjoy a black metal release.

I guess if I had to nail down what it is about this album that doesn't quite reach as high as it could or should, it would be the guitars and the drums. It's not that they're bad. On paper they are pretty good actually. But somewhere in the transition between paper and recording they lose something. As I listen to this album I am always anticipating that these standard black metal riffs and driving drums that start off every song will lead into some spark of originality and brilliance towards the middle. However, that never seem to happen. They never give way to something else. They just persist throughout the entirety of each song. The driving drums drive. The simple tremolo picking riffs just keep on keeping on. All of the standards you might expect of a black metal album are here, and really that's all you get.

That is the extent of what this album offers. An excellent atmosphere but beyond that only the trieds and trues of black metal that have been done a thousand times before. It's a good album. Not a great one. It's worth a listen, and would probably make for an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with black metal and its tropes, but I can't really say that it is all that interesting.

Score: 73/100
Originally written for Encyclopaedia Metallum

Album review: Sympuls-e's Destroying the Barriers

Some of the finest $10 I ever spent
You know that extremely polished and glossy brand of melodic death metal that pops up from time to time? The kind that's got more than its fair share of synth and electronic elements and is usually coupled with a futuristic science fiction aesthetic? Whenever I listen albums that belong to this niche of music I usually think it's amazing on the first listen only to end up being pretty bored with it on only the second or third listen through. Fortunately however there are a few albums of this style that break the mold and end up being fantastic and not boring in the long run. Destroying the Barriers, one of my favorite albums of all time, is one such album.

An increasingly common trend in the melodic death metal world it seems is to see how many layers of sound you can pack into the music. The result is a veritable wall of sound so dense it can often be difficult or impossible to hear everything that is going on in a song. Sympuls-e have certainly jumped on this bandwagon but they have done so with far more grace than many of their peers. Based on the sheer amount of stuff going on in each song, Destroying the Barriers ranks somewhere in the top ten loudest albums I have ever listened to. However, where many bands drown out the finer elements of the music, Sympuls-e masterfully keep everything audible so that you can hear any given element without having to search for too hard in the mix. A very impressive achievement given the sheer volume of the music, and I think a key part of why I like this album so much.

There are in my experience two kinds of "technical metal" musicians. The first is the kind who attempts to pack every song they write full of all the tricks and impressive abilities they posses, which is all well and good but is often detrimental to the song. That is, you end up with a product that is all about admiring the abilities of the performers rather than enjoying the song as a song, which I tend to find pretty boring. The second is the musician who is perhaps less impressive in their technicality but possesses a superior ability to string those technical elements into a song that is enjoyable to listen to as a song. Of course there are exceptions to these archetypes. However, I believe the members of Sympuls-e fit in the second description. Very few of the technical elements of Destroying the Barriers are mind blowing or leave you wondering "how the hell did they get their fingers to do that?" However, there is still enough technicality to warrant the technical metal label, and I would be so bold as to say that there really is never a truly dull or boring moment on this album. There is no part where you simply want to turn it off because you believe that you have heard all you need to hear. The music remains engaging and interesting from start to finish and remains that way for the second, third, or tenth listen and beyond.

One final thing I'd like to note about Destroying the Barriers is that it is an oddly happy sounding album. Most metal is very fixated on being dark and gloomy with the exception of most power metal. Melodic death metal in particular is very fond of romanticizing topics like depression, sorrow, December in Norway, regret, snowstorms, bleakness, tears, having wasted one's youth, and so on with music to match. Now, I don't speak or read Russian, so I don't really know if Sympuls-e use these sorts of themes or not. They might. However, the music is very distinctly happy compared to other stalwarts of the genre. Not epic power metal happy, but pretty happy all things considered. The best example of this is fourth track, Wanderer. The song starts off with a joyous-sounding explosion of sound and maintains an adventurous and not at all somber feeling throughout the length of the song. The whole album ranges from not gloomy to happy. This is not necessarily a pro or con for me although it is an interesting break from the norms of metal.

Sympuls-e have delivered a beautiful product with their debut, Destroying the Barriers. It's technical. It's melodic. It's interesting. In a word, it's just awesome. This has been one of my favorite albums for a long time, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Score: 95/100
Originally written for Encyclopaedia Metallum
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