Monday, May 13, 2019

album review: 'divided by darkness' by spirit adrift

So over the past couple months I've seen more than a few heated arguments surrounding the concept of genre and if how in the era of streaming and blurring boundaries whether it even matters. And while I've been a staunch force for arguing that there's still a place for it at least in terms of adequate classifications of certain music, I'm amicable to the idea of subgenres and blurring lines... but if you wanted to come to me and say that genre was always more of a marketing scheme than clear demarcations of sound, I'd be willing to hear that argument.

And to support that argument, you only need to look at heavy metal, a genre that's well-known for fiercely entrenching its lines and barriers... until you take a look at the list of tags tacked onto every Bandcamp release, which are less about defining the sound and more about hitting as many search results as possible. So I'll admit I found it a bit rich when I checked out Spirit Adrift, one-man project of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Nate Garrett, this time paired with drummer Marcus Bryant, and how in their own marketing they said they were often pigeonholed as doom metal - and then saw 'doom metal' in their tags - but upon reflection, I could see why that connection might have been drawn. While they had faster passages, you could sketch some loose parallels to how Black Sabbath was touching that sound in the late 70s or the very earliest progenitors of the genre in the early 80s - and yet like with Sabbath, I'd argue if you were looking for that sound proper, I wouldn't go to Spirit Adrift. To me their sound was at its best rooted in the hook-driven, more conventionally structured and melodic heavy metal that showed a clear lineage to the past, but brought the chunky, grimy muscle that characterizes a more modern scene and acts like Baroness or Mastodon, and in going back to their first two albums, I heard a lot in which I found really damn promising! So yeah, it's been a while since I've given a proper metal review - what did we get out of Divided By Darkness?

So here's the tricky thing about this album: I can make the argument that it's easily Spirit Adrift's best album to date, retaining the heaviness and crunch while doubling down on the hooks that hit the razor-sharp balance between modern textures and a clear debt to Sabbath-era heavy metal, in not precisely a tight package but one that knows how to prioritize its best elements and deliver a ton of striking moments. It's absolutely their least "doom" project to date, but if that means they were able to refocus on their greatest strengths that just so happen to be more up my alley, that's a major plus. No, the real tricky question is whether they did enough to differentiate themselves from their forebears and delivered enough individual standouts to hit true greatness... and honestly, I think they may have just gotten there, and could have very well delivered one of the strongest heavy metal projects you'll hear this year.

Now if only to get this out of the way now, let's talk about those sonic influences, specifically Trouble, a bit of Candlemass, and especially Ozzy-era Black Sabbath: from a compositional level in terms of chord structure, progressions, and even a few solos it's hard to ignore how deep those roots can be. Now a lot of that is tempered by production that is modern and well-balanced - we'll get into this more, but it is something that even the early greats in metal didn't always have - and by some sizzling synth work that serves more as a progressive accent than a strident contribution to the melody. But if you're one of those people who thinks that Spirit Adrift are aping their influences a little too closely, I wouldn't blame you, especially given frontman and mastermind Nate Garrett's nasal timbre that shows its roots in similar older tones. And while I'm complaining, I'll also add that lyrically, Spirit Adrift might not disappoint but they also don't really rise above much either - definitely introspective in casting their cosmic battles as primarily internal, reconnecting with primal instincts but still wracked by guilt and old demons that can't quite be vanquished and that's not even touching the question whether those old instincts can be fully trusted to lead to the light - but by doubling down on abstraction and pretty conventional metal iconography, nothing here is going to blow you out of the water, and that does matter when your vocals are cleaner and you're embracing a more conventional structure. And given that we are in this territory, it's hard to avoid the fact that there are remnants of the band's more doom-inspired past that can make a few songs not quite hit with the same impact, mostly through running a little long or not quite ending with the same precision, with the sludgy 'Born Into Fire' being the biggest example, although the groove not quite coalescing on 'Tortured By Time' also falls in this territory, even with the key shifts and the echoing final notes of that solo making a valiant effort. Hell, I might even put 'Hear Her' into this territory as well, especially given how abrupt that ending was.

But all of that being said, for as much as Spirit Adrift might call back to the past, that influence also leads to its greatest and most important strength, only augmented by the other pieces in place and never really diminished by the quibbles I do have: guitar interplay and melodic arrangement. Simply on a compositional level, the attention to detail between the rhythm guitar, the lead guitar, and developed basslines is stunning, with an eye for crescendos off the arpeggiated chords while not defaulting to overplaying because they can. Consider how effectively the bass and rhythm line hold in lockstep on the opening cut 'We Will Not Die' until they're allowed to diverge for the lead to ride off that fat bass foundation for a genuine climax. Or skip ahead to 'Living Light', which might seem to have one of the more stable compositions on the album, but then makes a sharp pivot into a slow simmer that allows the solo to ride the synths out and even bring in some choral vocals for a surprisingly bright close with that organ off the liquid bass! Or take how 'Angel & Abyss' doubles its lead for a huge gleaming opener that still takes the time to build into Sabbath power ballad territory - yeah, it's got probably some of the most obvious Ozzy callbacks, but that ridiculous solo puts it over the top in the best way possible! But I have to give a ton of credit to Sanford Parker's production as well: the old doom influence contributes to a chunky roiling low-end with real textured crunch, but layered in a way that the title track can venture into bassy but liquid prog territory and that the higher melodic shred of the lead doesn't get overshadowed, but complimented - and in that case, have the balls to land on a surprisingly bright major chord! That also plays a significant role in how you get a more developed lead and bassline across 'Hear Her' that eventually diverge just enough to dive into those gurgling synth swells and a solid solo. And while I'm not one to advocate for a project to end with an instrumental - it's a high risk move to wrap up an album - 'The Way Of Return' is dynamic enough and is willing to bring all of its main ideas to bear for a terrific lead solo well balanced in the bass, drop into an acoustic-accented prog passage unlike the rest of the album but seamlessly integrated, ride the kickdrum crescendo into another great lead climax that ends in a dark, synth-inflected place, but one paid off by the quaking final notes; yeah, it fits.

So, to tie this all together... look, I can see a lot of metal purists being all over this album and rightly so - the guitar and bass work is phenomenal, the production is genuinely excellent, and the compositional nuts and bolts are so strong that I can see Nate Garnett being able to take Spirit Adrift in any direction. But it's that last point that makes me excited about this project - possibly transitional in its shift to more accessible hooks and structures, but with fundamentals so strong that they could go in any direction, willing to experiment but tempering it a rock solid foundation. In short, this is the sort of heavy metal project that seems destined for a breakthrough, and Divided By Darkness is the album to get there, netting an 8/10 from me and absolutely a recommendation. And given the parallels I made opening up this review... yeah, Spirit Adrift earns them and more, so you absolutely need to check this out.

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