Sunday, November 6, 2016

album review: 'pure' by in the woods...

You know, it's kind of funny, when I was working on my Avenged Sevenfold review and discussing the path towards metal I had taken, I came to the realization that for as much talk as I've put forward about exploring black metal, I really hadn't done as much as I would have liked this year. And that's almost entirely on me: there were a lot of black metal records that dropped this year, and I haven't done my due diligence in covering them. Now to be fair I also haven't gotten many requests for them either - black metal is a niche genre, and the brand of it I tend to like that's more melodic and atmospheric is more niche still - and I'm coming close to putting out more reviews in 2016 than I did last year, so it's not like I haven't been busy...

But still, there have been black metal records I've wanted to cover and haven't yet had time to do so, so let's make up for lost time a bit and discuss one that's been on my radar for some time: In The Woods... Now immediately out of the gate, you have to make some qualifications: when In The Woods... began releasing records in the 90s, they may have started in black metal but they didn't stay there, venturing into progressive metal and blending intricate instrumentals with some impressive melodic song structures and remarkably solid songwriting. I probably hold their sophomore album Omnio as their strongest release, but even though I'm not exactly wild about Strange In Stereo, it was still disheartening when I was rediscovering the band last year and discovering that they hadn't released any full-length records since. Thankfully, In The Woods... actually did reform with new vocalist James Fogerty, and they actually released a full-length record this year. And I really wasn't sure what to expect - progressive metal, black metal, either way the pedigree of this group is strong enough to warrant one hell of a comeback. So, while I'm entirely too late to the punch here, how was Pure?

Honestly, it's a tricky album to evaluate, mostly because it's not easy to place in context with In The Woods...'s other albums in terms of tone, sound, or even a lot of the content. As such, it makes comparisons to Omnio kind of pointless, because while I do like that album more for its experimental melodic flavour, this record is aiming to do something very different - it leans much heavier towards progressive and even doom metal than the classical or experimental black metal touches of the past, and as such while I definitely like this, it was a very different experience than I was initially expecting.

And the most appropriate place to start is the instrumentation and production, as Pure doesn't really fit within any clearly delineated genre of metal. The slower tempos, the booming drums, the grinding riffs and basslines, the deeper melancholic vocals from James Fogarty, the minor tones, these imply element of doom metal... but it's not nearly as ponderous as that genre can often feel. The rhythm guitars still sizzle and have a fair amount of chugging momentum, although the main riffing only touches black metal textures on songs like 'Devil's At The Door', and even then it's background. Especially when you considering the circular, more intricate drum patterns and lack of heavy blast beats - and that's before you get to the synth tones and organ - this record is much more reminiscent of early progressive metal, or even with some of the weirder chord progressions hints of psychedelia. And it's pretty damn great progressive metal too - from the masterful transitions off a great melody line on the title track to the final pianos, to the rumbling drumlines playing off the stronger major chord melodies of 'The Recalcitrant Protagonist', the organ and bass interlude on 'The Cave Of Dreams', the very sparse, empty soundscapes of 'Towards The Black Surreal' with melodic motifs that call back to In The Woods...'s debut album, to the grinding swell of the final track 'Mysteries of The Constellations'. Hell, even if I do feel 'Transmission KRS' feels a bit stretched, the moody stretches of melody do lead to a pretty potent vibe, and the liquid, borderline post-punk esque guitar tones lend the mix a solid rattling darkness.

What it leads to is a record that certainly takes its time and has a certain deliberate tone to its approach, where everything was carefully considered... but that doesn't mean it's without its flaws. For one, some of the fizzier synth tones could use a little more body, and I do feel some of the oscillations could better blend with the rest of the mix, or at the very least add a little more distinct character and spark from song to song. But that's a larger issue with the entire record - while it does modulate, it does feel uniform in overall tone and sound, to the point where the songs lacking great melody can really start to run together. And as much as I do like his vocals, I'm not sure Fogarty helps this: he's imposing, his upper register melodic runs on 'Mystery Of The Constellations' and 'Towards The Black Surreal' are awesome, and his growled vocals occasionally split things up, but he also doesn't quite modulate enough to avoid this. And particularly on the back half of 'Transmission KRS', it can feel like the main guitar or synth melody can get a little lost behind the riffs - which is a damn shame, because the melodic interplay is an unsung strength of this record.

Of course, the other big unsung strength is the writing - I've always dug the detail-oriented approach of In The Woods...'s lyricism, and this record definitely holds up as well. Thematically breaking free of an ignorant world and searching the dark cosmos for the pure strains of enlightenment aren't exactly revolutionary in progressive metal, but it's the details I really like here. Take 'The Recalcitrant Protagonist', which explores the thought experiment of not being the main actor in your own story, seeing your 'supporting cast' devolve into archetypes and not feeling you have any control to step away from the stage... and yet there is still a sneaking feeling of obligation to that audience, the sort of complex layered metaphor about human interaction that I love to see explored. Or take 'The Cave Of Dreams', which falls into similar patterns of finding the light away from ignorant shadows of superstition and failed belief... but note that when our protagonist steps towards the light, he casts a shadow back behind him, leaving any who might come after to face the same struggle. And that lingering obsession to find that pure enlightenment is deftly framed across this record, especially if its driven from within: if you internalize your own gods, what becomes your devils but subsuming to others' whims, but it's telling how such selfish drive for pure enlightenment can take a bleak toll indeed, and In The Woods... never shy away from framing the consequences, at the very end leaving the open question if you'd give your life for it after casting aside relationships and friends. Chilling stuff, especially given the framing - but there are a few songs that could have used sharper or more defined stakes, most specifically the transitional 'Cult Of Shining Stars' or the abandonment of 'This Dark Dream' - not badly written, but they're merely good while others are great.

But overall, I really dug this album. Yeah, I went in looking for experimental metal or black metal, and I can't quite say this record fits the bill for either, but that's more because it's entirely in its own lane and sound, difficult to define but such a definite entity as it is. It's not perfect - it runs a little long, the melodies could afford to hit stronger, there are some spots that could be tightened - but it's still pretty damn close to great, getting a very light 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation. Yeah, I know, late to the punch with this, but worth a listen regardless... now to actually find some real black metal to discuss...

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