Wednesday, November 25, 2015

album review: 'homeward path' by vallendusk

So here's one of my favourite things about this semi-professional music critic thing: the research. There's very few things that really grab my attention than venturing into certain genres and slowly beginning to untangle their more intricate elements or finding bands that might be related to what you want to cover. After all, if I want to be considered remotely credible when I cover a band, you need to know the context where it was created.

As such, when I prepared to cover Deafheaven's New Bermuda a month or so back, I knew that I had to hear more black metal than just Sunbather to build a workable opinion, so I went deeper. I found acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and In The Woods... that I'd actually argue I liked more, so I figured if I could find more black metal that brushed up against progressive metal or atmospheric folk, I'd probably find more acts that'd run up my alley. So when I heard positive buzz coming out about the sophomore record from Indonesian black metal act Vallendusk - thanks, Myke C-Town! - I figured I'd dig up their debut album Black Clouds Gathering and explore. And I'm definitely glad I did - like most Indonesian metal acts, the guitarwork was ridiculously strong, but I also found a lot in the untamed and bleak poetry to like to match with the huge melodies, with imagery that wasn't quite visceral or incredibly dark but set a fantastically creepy mood to pay it all off. In other words, it definitely had earned the critical acclaim it had received, and as such as I was curious to dig into their newest release that was dropped a few months back called Homeward Path - what did we get?

Honestly, a little bit of a letdown, and the more I listened through this record, the more I get the impression that there were good ideas behind Homeward Path in expanding Vallendusk's black metal sound, but the execution compromises some of their strongest instrumental elements. Now that's not to say this album is bad - far from it, there's still a strong foundation that's hard to compromise - but I do feel a little disappointed, especially after how strong their debut was.

So okay, what happened here? Well, let's first consider the instrumentation and production, and Vallendusk's biggest strength: the guitar work. In terms of structuring a explosive, fast-picked tremolo sound, one of the biggest ways Vallendusk was able to stand out on Black Clouds Gathering was placing that killer guitar work right to the front of the mix, driving their huge melodies and letting the rhythm guitar support it. It was dynamic, it could play off the blast beat drumwork incredibly well, and it gave the songs memorable hooks that could then stand in contrast to acoustic segments that highlighted that same skill. And when I heard that Vallendusk was going to be bringing in organ keyboards to support this, I figured that it'd be a natural fit, especially if the playing was as good and they could get some melodic interplay. Unfortunately, that doesn't really happen - sure, the rhythm guitar is chugging relentlessly, but when the organ does creep in, the lone warble can replace the fast-picked melodies, not supplementing them. This takes all the momentum and fire that a lot of these guitar lines have and dampens it significantly, and it's nowhere near as impressive as the slower acoustic moments, which rarely ever get the space to breathe and build real contrast. It doesn't help matters that so much of any melody line is tuned back in favour of the riffs and blast beats, which would be fine if it didn't feel like so much of those riffs are swamped in their own feedback or smothered under a layer of frenetic cymbals. And sure, the melodies are pretty damn great when they move to the forefront - but I guarantee you're going to hear the same riffs each song at least three times, with nary a solo  in sight. It's a bizarre choice, given how strong the guitarwork is that they wouldn't want to highlight any virtuoso moments to give the songs more distinctive flavour, especially considering how long these songs are. And on that note, for how rigid the melodic structures can seem, you'd think they'd manage to end the tracks better than just dropping into a fadeout, which happens way more often than it should.

Now if all of this sounds pretty harsh, I should definitely make it clear that Vallendusk's strengths in melodic composition typically make up for the weaknesses in a big way. The melodic hooks that anchor 'Earth Serpent' and 'Ring Of Fire' are damn near excellent, and in the latter case build to some great crescendos erupting out of the smoky fuzz and darker tones. And hell, 'Eyes of The Watcher' actually talks a folk metal-esque opening progression echoed in the organ and actually gives its acoustic moments a little more room to breathe and features probably the most satisfying ending for a song on this record. And when the guitar work can really shine, like the clarion tones that cut through on 'Grains Of Horizon' that has a really sticky melody on the back half of the song that breaks into some great textured acoustic guitar that eventually leads to a smoky outro. Or take the melody that comes through on the midsection of 'Windswept Plain', it sounds beautiful. It's just a shame it doesn't carry over consistently to songs like 'The Wayfarers' where the guitar tone could have used the meat to cut through. And this ties into our second major issue: the vocals. No, not the screamed vocals - they're visceral and powerful and sound just fine - but the appearance of clean vocals across a couple tracks, and it really does come out of nowhere. And they are so badly layered it's ridiculous, either completely swamped and inaudible or moved more to the forefront and lacking any sort of presence - I get contrast, but they stand out in probably the worst way possible, and certainly don't lend any coherency to the tracks.

And this ties into the lyrics and themes. Now following in the wake of Black Clouds Gathering, Vallendusk chose to return to their well of nature-themed, borderline primal poetry, not so much animalistic but observing of the wild nature of the world around us. And the funny thing is that outside of the carnage on 'Windswept Plain' and the grimness of 'Earth Serpent', the lyrics stray much closer to power and folk metal, especially on the reminiscence to legends past on 'The Wayfarers' or the more cosmic-touched 'The Anchors' and 'Eyes Of The Watcher'. Where I feel Vallendusk's lyrics hit the strongest is when they can cultivate that feeling of encroaching doom, cataclysms that'll afflict humanity and only serve to emphasize how small we are in the vastness of space. That's why 'Ring Of Fire' literally referring to Pacific volcanoes and the comet of 'Grains Of Horizon' have so much impact, forces of nature so powerful they almost defy understanding in their destruction, with the light from the ghosts of stars taking eons to reach us. And yet all the while we try to find false paths of transcendence instead of becoming one with the far larger, more real forces of nature around us - that's a potent theme, and yet this album isn't as interested in contemplation as it is pummeling everything in its path to rubble.

In short, I get what Vallendusk were trying to do with this album, experimenting with more keyboards and more technical composition... and yet I can't say it works nearly as well. The organ tones don't have the same momentum or power to match the tremolo picking, the melodies aren't given the looseness to evolve or expand, and I find myself looking for a sense of contrast or crescendo that doesn't materialize to lend the abstract subject matter more gravitas. Coupled with a series of production missteps, we have what could have been a fantastic black metal project dropped to merely a very good one, which means it's getting a 7/10 from me... but again, I am recommending this, especially if you have a fondness for more technical melodic construction. One thing's for sure, I've still got more black metal to investigate, and Vallendusk delivered a solid, incredibly well-played example.

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