Thursday, March 10, 2016

album review: 'mystical future' by wildernessking

So one of my personal resolutions for this year is that I'd make time to cover more black metal I found a lot to really like last year and Panopticon's Autumn Eternal landed on my year end list for my top albums of 2015...

And thus far, I've been failing miserably. To be somewhat fair to myself, it's not like I've seen or heard about much in this genre that's gotten waves of critical acclaim - my general sources have been pretty dry here - but I also don't think I've put in enough due diligence to cover the acts that have gotten a little hype. So as before with Vallendusk, I looked up the one guy I trust on YouTube to mention some interesting black metal - that'd be Myke C-Town - and saw that he had covered the sophomore release from South African band Wildernessking, so after seeing how much praise their 2012 debut The Writing Of Gods In The Sand received, I decided to give it a shot.

And wow, I'm glad I did. I'll admit I don't always have the best frame of references when it comes to black metal and I can't quite say I was immediately wowed by Wildernessking as I was by the insane riffing of Vallendusk or the genre-bending of Panopticon or the weird avant-garde tendencies of Wolves In The Throne Room or the progressive touches of In The Woods..., but there was something subtle about Wildernessking that really sucked me in. Atmospheric touches that recall post-rock, riffing and grooves that had touches of post-hardcore but still had enough grime and intensity to fit within black metal, and enough focus on melody to really stick with me. Plus - and I'll wholeheartedly admit it's inconsequential but a great touch regardless - they actually posted their lyrics, which considering how deeply they buried their vocals was a real plus. So with the knowledge that their sophomore album was going to be going even harder, I picked up Mystical Future, looking forward to five songs of blisteringly potent black metal - did I get it?

Well, I did, but it's one of those cases where I feel like I want to like this album a fair bit more than I do. Don't get me wrong, Wildernessking have taken real steps to diversify their sound, bring in more evocative textures, ultimately structure more cohesive and fully formed songs, but at the same time I feel like they're just a shade away from really sticking the landing and developing a uniquely powerful sound. Definitely a very good record, but I'm on the fence whether it's truly a great one.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, where I'd argue the most changes have taken place. Now the core of Wildernessking's sound is still here: fuzzed out riffs that can still carry real melodies with the methodical pace of a mantra; subtle yet ragged basslines, and some of the best drum production you'll hear in black metal. I'm not kidding here, so much of the percussion has a fully formed live sound that doesn't need to have layers or filters to add grit or more of an edge - not only is the playing explosive and borderline progressive, but often it's the drums that are driving the change-ups against the hypnotic guitar lines. It comes through most on the distinctive post-rock touches of 'To Transcend', which takes the rattling hollow tones of the layered guitars and adds in some stellar interplay between the bass and kickdrums. But if we're talking about layering, it's really the guitars that take the cake: the shift on 'White Horses' to a more jagged, grimy tone against thicker cymbals and the tremolo backing textures before the gorgeous liquid tone floods through the last minute, the melancholic chugging riff on 'If You Leave' that gives the solo real room to breathe against the feedback, and especially that soaring hook on 'I Will Go To Your Tomb', that augments the bass groove with some compressed layers that reminded me of the last Baroness album and yet never felt overstated. Unfortunately, I will say the ambitious layering choices to thicken the feedback does mean that unless the melody or solo can slide through it can get drowned out, most evident on my least favourite track 'With Arms Like Wands'. And while I like a lot of the smokier textures, it has a similar issue to one I had with the last Wildernessking album, namely in terms of compositional dynamics. Don't get me wrong, I understand why so many of these songs are opting for a distinctive melancholic, minor-key saturated atmosphere that does lead to smoothly uniform transitions, but there are points on the longer tracks that feel like they can drag a bit and could use another transition or two. And yet bizarrely, I wasn't wild about the very abrupt ending on 'If You Leave', which after a slowdown to another crescendo I thought would slide out gracefully and yet the abrupt ending makes the track feel oddly incomplete, despite running for thirteen minutes!

Now this takes us to vocals... and really, I've got no complaints. You could argue that they're a bit buried or blended a little too well, but I could always make out the lyrics when listening closely, and between the visceral full-throated screams and growls, they came together excellently. What caught me by surprise came on 'If You Leave', which for the opening few minutes features clean vocals from a female singer! Definitely not complaining, though - her ethereal presence worked with the rest of the mix and fits thematically within the record, and she sounded great.

But what are those themes? Well, like with most black metal, it's a little tricky to say. Wildernessking went on record saying how this album was more personal and confessional, expanding on themes of their debut like loss and enlightenment, coaxing it through a lot of very prominent nature imagery. And the images they evoke are very stark - a white horse erupting out of the surf, beautiful and deadly as it storms forth; going to a tomb at sundown to crack the mystery of death only to see the night sky open above you. And while there is a starkly feminine presence that inhabits this record - one reason why the female vocals worked so well, it's tough to discern what she might represent. A mother's spirit from beyond death, Mother Nature, a muse coaxing forth revelation - hell, she might as well be all three, a primal force that we can bring death but enlightenment as well. And while there are a few moments that the writing can feel a little clumsy - most specifically on 'With Arms Like Wands', where I get the metaphor but the word choice feels awkward - for the most part it comes together. And yet where things get fascinating is on 'If You Leave', where it seems like even despite how much our protagonist craves her presence, that female figure feels like she must depart, the definition of tragic mixed signals. Maybe her presence was too much for the human mind to handle, or maybe it was the ceaseless desire for the protagonist to transcend when he wasn't ready to pass beyond the human experience. Or hell, maybe it's bigger, implying for as much as we want transcendence or that higher spirituality, when confronted with its reality we push it away. Honestly, these are shots in the dark, and I do like Wildernessking's choice to keep things ambiguous.

But in the end... you know, I feel this is a transitional record. Far from bad - Wildernessking are definitely on right path to defining and expanding their sound and they've got a knack for some beautiful high-concept poetry - but a few more dramatic melodic change-ups or dynamic shifts could have made this very good album something really special. For me, it's a extremely strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're hunting down some of the more atmospheric black metal. Otherwise, it's a good sophomore step, and if Wildernessking continue to evolve like this, we could be in for something very special very soon.

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