Saturday, December 21, 2013

Blacksoul Seraphim - Alms & Avarice (2012)

Full disclosure: Gothic doom metal is not a niche to which I can claim an inherently consistent reaction. One might say I was 'polarized' when it came to many releases in this field. I do not believe all My Dying Bride releases are created equal. I've revered a few of the older Candlemass records, and have since they were released in the 80s, but have muddled and mixed reactions to most of their later output. Groups like Isole and Draconian have by turns blown this mind and put it to sleep. I find that, like several other categories of doom, there's a hazy line between what is authentically crushing and saddening and what is strictly a boring slog through saccharine poetic doldrums, landscapes of ineffectual emotional effluvia which I wouldn't be able to relate to if I was an 19th century wannabe lyricist drunk off absinthe and hanging around in graveyards. It goes without saying, but songwriting and sincerity are just as valid and important here as they are anywhere...stringing together a few predictable Paradise Lost chord patterns and then dressing them in pianos or operatic female vocals is not, in any way, automatically fucking heavy. Like any other subgenre of a subgenre, you'll have albums which successfully take you to their own space, and others that spend a lot of time crowding the predefined boundaries.

Alms & Avarice is, gracefully, more of the former and a lot less of the latter. To be clear, I was not always blown away by this debut, and frankly the pacing and arrangement were not always my cup of tea, but like the Massachusetts mainstay of several of the members (Gothic/black metal outfit Sorrowseed), the attention to detail, production values and overall effort placed into this record are never shy of professional. First and foremost, the record passes the pseudo-Turing test I apply to most doom records: the songs themselves are not treacherously long and boring, or confused into thinking that they NEED to be to create some genuine artistic license in this particular medium. The riffs aren't insanely original or inspired, but they flow fairly seamlessly through solemn monoliths of sorrowful structures that absolutely remind me of those first times I heard a record like Epicus Doomicus Metallicus...Sabbath at heart, always, if their music were being viewed through a medieval lens more akin to the eponymous Theater of Tragedy record. Lyrically these are paeans to the corruption of man's institutions through the eyes of a fell angel, and I think that is absolutely a proper sort of concept for a record such as this. What's further, there are moments of variation inserted through the 48 minutes of content that help divert the record away from tearswept monotony, such as the bass solo "Dust Merchant" or the great guitar instrumental "Tarnishing of the Crown" which is arguably the most majestic riffing of the whole shebang...

The major creatives here are Josh Carrig (Morte McAdaver of Sorrowseed) handling most of the guitars and vocals, and Thomas Cyranowski on the keys. Drums are provided by Clay Neely of stoner doom sect Black Pyramid who also produced this disc with the gloss and clarity of nearly anything you'll find on the Napalm, Nuclear Blast or Candlelight rosters overseas. Having heard Carrig's voice both here and in his more Gothic/vaudevillian act Pandora's Toybox, I have to say this is his best performance, with a soothing and even tone that doesn't quite plumb the depths of a Peter Steele or Fernando Ribeiro unless he's doing a more narrative passage like that of "Virtue and Vermin" where the lower drawl accompanies the moody piano lines and rhythm guitar chords. Granted, there's not a huge range to the singing, but you could think of him as a more level alternative to Aaron Stainthorpe without sounding like he'd just overdosed on heroin. The death growls often present in this style are thankfully absent, as are the ethereal female guest spots, so I actually like that they were presenting a unified vocal front rather than the cliche 'beauty and the beast' techniques that were mastered long ago in the 90s and rarely useful ever since. No Leaves' Eyes swill here, just a spiritual numbing set to the studied, centuries old vernacular of the lyrics which read just as strongly as those of Sorrowseed. I also found Cyranowki's pianos and keys refreshing in their complacence to never over-contribute and let all the guitars and drums drive the experience.

But really, Alms & Avarice will live or die by its riff construction, and here you get a pretty broad palette of traditional Euro-doom melodies with some more trad-metal stuff redolent of bands as wide as Opeth and Iron Maiden. Nothing is repeated needlessly unto oblivion and there's only a single song here ("Psalm of Insurrection") which even remotely flirts with 'padding' (at over nine minutes), and that is saved by one of Carrig's more brooding, baritone vocal performances and a sweeping sense of momentum like a great shadow passing over a marble-strewn, ruined courtyard. The bass-lines sound decent if not themselves all that compelling, and Clay's drums fit the musical mold with effortless ease, offering slight fills but largely constricted to that sense of steady pacing that best fits the doom. I'd also add that, while few of the actual guitars might sound innovative to anyone with years of listening to this genre, they're 'busier' than what you'll hear in a lot of comparable bands...probably at least on the same level of Tristania and Draconian in how they eschew the endless tirades of lamentation by the less creative. Loads of melodies throughout give this slab of despair a ceaseless sense of hope, a few errant golden rays piercing the darkened din of cloud cover that scream: 'We can change, we can love, we can live', in rather humorous opposition to Sorrowseed's more apocalyptic disposition.

Ultimately, Blacksoul Seraphim is one of the classier Gothic/doom outfits from the States that I've heard, or at least the New England region, and very much recommended to fans of the more polished My Dying Bride output, earlier Anathema, Isole, Draconian, Swallow the Sun, While Heaven Wept, even a little Candlemass. This is not an album to approach with expectations of the utter bleakness you'd find in Mournful Congregation, Shape of Despair or Evoken, due to the lighter outlook of the melodies. While I could define some of the atmosphere as loosely 'funereal', this is by no means funeral doom, nor does it thrive off the grubbier grit of sludge and stoner rock aesthetics. It's not a sepulcher sinking into the swamp's edge, but a proud block of obsidian in a public boneyard. A few flower arrangements show up through the year, the weeds are clipped and the surface of the stone polished; and while it's not flawlessly engraved, or the most memorable memorial you're like to find, it is certainly built to endure the elements, and in places, to triumph over them.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (the citadel, sick with material bliss)

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