False – Portent

Thumbing my nose at the True Believers

(I’m not going to bother moving all 500+ of my reviews over here because I am a lazy man, but I’d like to herald my entrance to Review Lads with an album that I love that I also know Thumbman hates.)

If Bell Witch can be held responsible for anything at all, it’s introducing the metal world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently the only human being in the galaxy capable of accurately emulating Zdzislaw Beksinski’s iconic art style. Since painting the stunning cover of the aforementioned Mirror Reaper, this nearly sixty year old painter has suddenly found himself one of the most in-demand artists in the entire metal sphere, and one of the bands that won the Lewandowski Lottery this year was Minnesota’s False, a band finding itself scrutinized fairly hard by those in the know. This midwestern sextet seems almost lab grown in how they hit every single nerve when it comes to soaking up alternative press adoration as the token “metal band we’ll allow ourselves to like”. Gorgeous cover art, female vocalist, pristine production quality, easy to absorb and understand music, inspiration from modern styles of metal, signed to Gilead (home of Smart Person BM heavyweights like Yellow Eyes, Mizmor, Falls of Rauros, and Krallice (and previously Fantano mainstays like Imperial Triumphant and Thou)), they blacked out the Internet Metal Journalist bingo card before a note was even heard. I can absolutely understand the skepticism from the underground when a band hits a meteoric rise like False did when every single element seems like the closest thing to an industry plant that metal can muster.

However, sometimes the Hipster Hype Train gets it right. Maybe, just maybe, it was purely by accident/coincidence that False has all of those aesthetic bits that made them media darlings so quickly (though it may be worth noting that they’ve existed for nearly ten years without a lineup change before finally hitting it big with their sophomore release here), because none of that shit should even matter in the first place, and allowing it to cloud your judgment of the album obscures some fantastic songwriting.

I’d be lying if I said Portent was something radically new or unique, but I’d also be lying if I said this was a shamelessly derivative copypasta. It’s pretty close to impossible to listen to any random snippet of this album and not be reminded of Emperor’s full lengths from the 90s, but their personal twist on it is that they’re paradoxically hypermaximalist while taking heaps of influence from drawn out minimalist atmoblack of the Cascadian variety. It’s no secret that I love overly busy maximalism, I am one of the last dudes still loving obnoxious tech death after all, and I think putting such an idea into the context of extremely lengthy and atmospheric black metal creates a sound that should be a total disaster but somehow works marvelously. For example, synths are featured on the album, but they’re never “prominent” in the sense that they’re carrying the melody. They’re settled back playing simple chords to accent the atmosphere, unlike the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk style of hammering you over the head with doodly melodies. The guitar instead takes the lead when it comes to these things, and they restrain themselves only insofar as they aren’t playing shredding Yngwie Malmsteen arpeggios, because they’re doing everything else they can to be the star of the show here. Occasional bursts of major key triumph pepper the landscape laid out on Portent, and they never let these moments go by without drawing attention to them. Take a look at the 3:37 mark in “A Victual for Our Dead Selves”. That right there is an abrupt shift in mood from slow, agonizing death into a bombastic victory fanfare, and it’s done without a reliance on tooting keys at all. It’s just pure, unadulterated, fist pumping metal slicing through the darkness.

Almost all of the buzz surrounding the album, positive and negative, has done well to describe the music accurately, with the only real difference being the qualitative assessment thereof. If you don’t like the idea of especially busy atmoblack, then False was never going to appeal to you to begin with, and that’s fine. For me though, this is superb. Imagine Wolves in the Throne Room or Altar of Plagues except the drums almost never slowing down and the melodies less floating in the upper spaces and more being shot out of a bazooka. Portent is forceful in its expressiveness, very much taking background elements and exploding them into the foreground. My only real complaints are ultimately pretty nitpicky, those being that the vocals aren’t nearly as impressive as the rest of the band and “The Serpent Sting, the Smell of Goat” is 100% just two separate songs smashed together, complete with fifteen seconds of silence between the two halves. It’s such an oddly pointless thing to do and I wonder if somebody insisted that every song needed to be over ten minutes or else the album wasn’t getting released. Pure speculation, but whoever had that idea is a doofus.

So the hype train took a stop in Minnesota and picked up False, but I’m happily hanging onto the caboose like a filthy transient, pumping my fist and hooting the whole way. Portent just hammers you over the head with riff after riff after melody after riff and I adore it. Maybe it’s overbearing for those who can’t stop huffing the fumes of burning ravens and slashing their wrists with their bullet belts, but for those of you who, like me, wished atmoblack as a scene would stop pumping out so much drawn out mediocrity and finally let something fucking happen for a change, Portent is a godsend.

Rating: 94%

Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings

A formula that works and continues to work

It’s one of the weirder things that this formula works so well, and continues to work so well in this album. As a whole the album’s themes make you intuitively want to think this band should be playing the stereotypical ‘medieval’ music – the flutes, the harpsichord, the tin whistle – but that’s not the case here. With Obsequiae, the formula is a simple matter of album structure; instrumental tracks built on the wonderful work of the talented Vicente La Camera MariƱo and his use of the medieval harp act as natural breaks between more standard, melodic black metal tracks. You won’t find the hyper use of folk instruments or the occasional awkward folk sampling; that’s just not the type of music this is.

Instead, in spite of its medieval themes, Obsequiae have consistently relied on the use of stringed instruments that make its instrumental tracks seem more ancient than medieval. And, it’s in the instrumental tracks wherein that element is isolated and on show. Set among sounds of nature, the stringed instruments – particularly the harp – are elegant, graceful, and frankly beautiful. They’re also undeniably meditative with melodies that transition into subsequent tracks with the same level of grace in which they are played.

Likewise, the melodic black metal tracks raise the bar with each and every subsequent song. Guitars rise above the rest and appear to drive the music with soaring chord progression. The bass and drums create and hold that triumphant rhythm while giving the vocals a thick atmosphere for them to complement, not take away from the rest. Compared to the instrumental interludes throughout the album, these melodic black metal tracks have a similar elegance while still being uplifting, fast-paced and energetic. They’re undeniably fun, but not in the hokey, cheesy sense. This is serious music, but music that also doesn’t shy away from wanting people to find it enjoyable first and foremost.

Although, for the most part, The Palms of Sorrowed Kings sticks to that tried and tested formula, there are some areas or moments in which the band have opted to experiment and try new or different things. This is most evident towards the end of the album, with “Lone Isle” and “Emanations Before the Pythia.” Both tracks feature guest artists, notably women, providing either narration, screams, or clean vocals, which have the effect of emphasizing the storylines of those particular tracks. Although I appreciate this move, I somehow feel those guest artists could’ve been better utilized; their addition almost feels like an afterthought. That’s my only complaint though with that. Doing things like this makes for good progress, and I hope they continue doing so in the future.

On the whole, and overall, the album is a great continuation of the band’s take on melodic black metal, and without a doubt is one of the better albums of this year simply, if not only, because that same formula that led to the band’s success is still on display here in all its glory. My own feeling of disappointment is that, and I can’t really explain it, the album just doesn’t feel as novel and exceptional as the previous two felt for me. I always worry a little about bands that focus too exclusively on the same formula, in that they can often end up – for the lack of a better term, albeit a movie-related one – ‘Marvelizing’ themselves; in essence, creating good, satisfying products, but not necessarily great works. I don’t think Obsequiae has gone that way with The Palms of Sorrowed Kings, and this album deserves praise, but it’s a lingering thought in the back of my mind. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Rating: 90%

Also published on The Metal Archives.

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