Sunday, July 16, 2017

Below - Upon a Pale Horse [2017]

Doom takes some skill to do right. So much of what goes around my ears traverses fledgling attempts at sucking the listener's emotional valves through sustained, meandering, heavy music for the sake of being heavy and morose, that I'm not surprised that the genre is so often berated for being 'slow'. Especially past a certain classic era which ended somewhere in the 90's, I find it difficult to counteract these enduring doom myths, but thankfully bands like Atlantean Kodex, Grand Magus and Crypt Sermon have proven to be persuasive arbiters of the best which their genre has to offer, combining the groove-laden moods of Candlemass, Count Raven or Pentagram which juicy, unbarred traditional heavy metal riffcraft, creating a riveting fusion of pace, melody and earthly sensation. Both the artwork and thematic plateau of Below's Upon a Pale Horse suggests something more in line with a King Diamond disc, but the assured quality and content is rather on a par with the aforementioned masters, something which only serves to further boost Sweden's retinue for streaming such excellent old-school metal from its bloodline.

To be frank, Below's effort here does not stack up an exceeding height to a body of already impressive recent heavy/doom offerings from bands I've already laid out, chiefly memorable among which I would cite the dazzling Crypt Sermon debut. The band gets the 'epic doom' tag from Metallum, a curious intimation with the original specters of the sub-genre, such as Candlemass, and one that I can't entirely agree with. The opener ''Disappearing into Nothing'' showcases a strong tact for tasteful riffing and harmonious, atmospheric choruses that explode with moving momentum; similarly, much of the rest of the songs follow such a course, whereby the sheer and dark Candlemass-esque pulsations are curtailed with a more pronounced proclivity for melancholy, injected through occasional arpeggios and low-ebb verses. All this, however, is not at all to detract from the band's capacity to churn out strong crafts of melody and musical narrative. There is also a fair bit variety in the pacing. ''Suffer in Silence'', my favorite from the album, begins with a harried diminished chord attack, and come chorus unveils with another killer, moving chorus the band seems to have such a knack for. ''The Coven'' could certainly have been a cover for Mercyful Fate, with its somber leads and Gothic vibe. Despite the evident comparisons, Below doesn't have the same saturnine weight as the Swedish legends Candlemass, because the compositions sail more elegant, albeit still convincingly poignant, waters, and the augmented fleshes of melody and harmony certainly serve as ear-catchers on the mast of the ship.

Vocalist Zeb is no virtuoso, but he does a fine job in reconstructing the Bruce Dickinson timber, sometimes sporting this grainy haughteur that's more reminiscent of some of Bruce's creepier moments, with the early Maiden records or as on some of his solo records, and the choruses and chants are nothing if not vibrant and memorable. Production is close to perfect: the drums cling on loosely but patiently in the background like sleepwalking candle-bearers in an abandoned attic, witnessing a sacrificial ceremony, the guitars, both while clean and distorted, hover with organic, if slightly sinister precision above the dim lights, - here's where the Candlemass comparisons really get their due - and the vocals, all told, are sufficiently resplendent to carry out the emotional wave of the record forward. The riffs never offer a copious endless variety of funereal meatiness, but as far as I'm concerned they're groovy and crushing enough to elude the caveat of 'bored metal' for the good +45 minute duration of the album. Tip to toe, I'm happy to say this is an accessible record, a fairly delectable 21st century yarn for Candlemass fans like myself, perhaps not the most forward thinking piece of music you're likely to hear in 2017, and certainly not an impregnable morass of lugubrious horror a la Esoteric or Skepticism, but a highly listenable, inspiring gauze of melodic doom nonetheless. Retro and maudlin, a luminous contender in a sea of colorless mourning.

Suffer in Silence
Disappearing into Nothing
The Coven

Rating: 77%