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Wednesday 4 November 2020

Reviews: Sólstafir, Countless Skies, Vacuous, Arya (Paul H, Rich. Dr Claire & Paul S)

Sólstafir: Endless Twilight Of Codependent Love (Season Of Mist) [Paul Hutchings]

2017’s Berdreyminn scored a perfect ten from me. The Icelandic outfits shimmering post-metal individuality resonating deeply. But I admit that the band fell off the radar somewhat until a few months ago when the news of their next record, Endless Twilight Of Codependent Love broke. And whilst the latest release certainly picks up where the previous one finished, this is once again no easy listening 30 minute straight forward review. Formed 25 years ago by co-founder singer/guitarist Aðalbjörn "Addi" Tryggvason, Solstafir continue to pursue their own direction and approach. Having sung much of the last album in English, Tryggvason reverts to his native tongue for much of this album, which presents both challenges and benefits to those who don’t speak the native tongue. Regardless, Tryggvason’s enunciation and emotional commitment to the vocal process in effect adds more feel, flavour, and passion to the band’s songs which swirl, dip, and dive throughout this album like a flock of swallows on an early summer evening. 

Solstafir may have started out as an atmospheric black metal outfit, but their musical style today is far removed from those rustic beginnings. As Tryggvason comments, “Having been a metal band for a long time and gone through shoegaze, atmospheric black metal, and post rock, I just feel privileged being able to mix all my favourite genres and get away with it.” So, it’s not unusual to feel the influences within their music as variable as The Beatles, Kraftwerk, Darkthrone, Ennio Morricone, and Billy Corgan as you work your way through the 63 minutes on offer. Opening with the epic ten-minute piece Akkeri, it’s the emotionally charged Drýsil that really starts the ticker racing, the interplay between Tyggvason and the rest of the band is evident. As the sonic soundscapes immerse you deeper and deeper, the abstract constructions of each track, combined with the forays into explosive riff heavy segments that then slow and ease into ethereal beauty subtly envelope and fold around. It’s almost a comfort blanket at times, such is the gentleness that is emitted. Her Fall From Grace illustrates this perfectly, the use of English lyrics almost irrelevant. It’s an emotionally charged song which is the most personal on the album, describing the pain of watching a loved one succumb to mental illness. The lyrics do hold the focus, so much that it’s only towards the end that you notice the fuzzy guitars which kick in toward the final two minutes providing more depth and layers. 

But don’t forget, Solstafir started life as a dark metal outfit and tracks like Dionysus remind you that underneath the ambient, melancholic style lurks a beast which needs to feed on the occasional rampant riff and screaming vocal delivery. It certainly jolts any pleasurable drifting with a stoner beat that once more surprises and impresses with its indie style guitar work. Whilst allowing Solstafir to blow the mind with the intricate direction changes, focus on the intriguing cover which rightly brings the Smashing Pumpkins album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. It isn’t of course but is The Lady Of The Mountain painted in watercolour by Johann Baptist Zwecker in 1864. The Lady Of The Mountain is the female personification of Iceland. It was first published in a book of Icelandic folk tales but was never shown in public and until its recent discovery in the storage area of a Welsh museum gallery, Icelanders had to rely on a black and white woodblock replica. “Everybody knows the image of the Lady Of The Mountain,” declares Tryggvason. “All of a sudden, the original pops up and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, these are the most beautiful colors I've ever seen. And why does it remind me of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness?’ So that's purely accidental. When we saw this photo, we had to use it. It's too beautiful.” 

Endless Twilight Of Codependent Love continues the band’s recent exploration of their spiritual connection with nature, and their more recent consideration of mental disorders ranging from depression to alcoholism. In particular, the taboo behind men discussing those things for fear of being perceived weak. Although the band has had their own struggles, they have collectively been sober since 2013. This has helped with their open discussions about their challenges and it shows on the variation and exploration of styles. Til Moldar and Alda Syndanna vary massively in both style and tempo, the latter the closest the band get to a rock n’ roll number but both merely demonstrate the confidence that the band has continued to cultivate and explore in recent albums. Then there is penultimate track Or, with its bluesy jazz delivery, which once more changes direction in an unexpected twist. With Tryggvason once more joined by bassist Svavar "Svabbi" Austmann, guitarist Sæþór Maríus "Pjúddi" Sæþórsson, and newer drummer Hallgrímur Jón "Grimsi" Hallgrímsson, Solstafir has managed to provide further evidence, if it was needed, that they remain one of the most unique and interesting bands around today. But don’t take my word for it. Take a deep dive into the cool Icelandic waters and judge for yourself. 9/10

Countless Skies: Glow (Willowtip Records) [Rich Oliver]

The UK is not a country generally known for its melodic death metal but that could all change with the release of the second album from Hertfordshire band Countless Skies. Formed back in 2009 as Hatespire, Countless Skies changed their name back in 2012 and have since released a self titled EP in 2014 and their debut album New Dawn in 2016. They have played shows all round the country and have hit the stages at many festivals including Warhorns, Bloodstock and Metaldays in Slovenia. The band have been working away tirelessly on this second album at their own purpose built studio. Having their own studio has allowed them time to craft an album without the pressure of deadlines and the results clearly speak for themselves as Countless Skies have truly excelled themselves with one of the must hear albums of 2020.

At their core Countless Skies are a melodic death metal band heavily influenced by Finnish bands such as Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum and Noumena amongst others as well as Australian band Be’lakor (from where the band get their name) but on Glow the band expand their sound to incorporate more progressive influences such as Opeth and Devin Townsend plus I could hear strong nods to blackgaze bands such as Alcest and Møl and progressive power metal bands such as DGM and Pagan’s Mind. All these different soundscapes and influences mixed together means Countless Skies have crafted an album that is clearly their own and is richly textured not just musically but emotionally. It is clear they have put their hearts and souls into these songs which are not only full of melancholy and emotion but are bursting with joy and positivity. My arm hairs have been bouncing up and down throughout the albums duration and I found myself completely invested in and lost in the journey this album took me on.

The two singles that have preceded the release of Glow are clear highlights - Summit with its use of choirs sends this song into stratospheric levels of epic whilst the blackgaze influenced Zephyr is a gorgeous piece with luscious melodies and a beautiful atmosphere. To be fair there really isn’t a bad song on the album - opener Tempest mixes the luscious melodies and melodic death metal riffing to stunning effect whilst the three part epic title track sees the band expand on the progressive influences with many layers and some majestic twists and turns. The contrasting vocals from Ross King (harsh vocals and guitars) and Phil Romeo (clean vocals and bass) work fantastically well together and both are full of power and emotional with the charged harsh vocals contrasting beautifully with the majestic and powerful cleans. There are plenty of great melodic death metal riffs throughout the album but the melodies are where this album truly shines and both Ross and James Pratt (guitars) stun with their riff and melody concoctions. Likewise the rhythm section from Phil and Nathan Robshaw (drums) is to be applauded with the drumming methodical, changeable and varied and always suited to the music it is driving.

Glow is a breathtaking album that had my jaw agape throughout its duration and it should get Countless Skies the praise and coverage they so rightly deserve. Just when I thought I heard the best music this year had to offer this album changes the game big time. A must hear album. 10/10

Vacuous: Katabasis EP (F.H.E.D Records) [Dr Claire Hanley]

Fresh from the depths of lockdown, Vacuous offer us their debut EP, Katabasis. It’s about as desolate as you’d expect a record spawned during a pandemic to be, which fits their demographic perfectly alongside the likes of Spectral Voice, Necrot, Incantation, and Black Curse. Full-throttle ferocity greets the listener in the title track; a mix of razor-sharp riffs and relentless, rampaging beats. Classic old school death metal at its finest. Katabasis transports you back to the early 90’s, where these guys surely would have given the highly praised but long defunct Timeghoul a run for their money. Unmarked Grave continues to ooze aggression. 

There is definite precision in the chaos Vacuous create as the frenzy of guitarwork merges perfectly with the harrowing vocal performance to create a truly torturous aural experience. Fermentation and Voluntary Immurement really elevate the record and showcase a more dynamic side to the band’s repertoire, serving up similar savagery but with a punchy driving rhythm and inexorable groove. Blood Eagle closes proceedings by expertly meshing the two sides of the record - blending fevered riffage, demonic drumming, and sinister screams, which culminates in a track that instantly captures interest but also builds anticipation throughout. A stellar effort by the new kids on the most bleak of blocks. Awaiting a full-length release with as much excitement as such somber material permits. 8/10

Arya: For Ever (Self Released) [Paul Scoble]

Arya are a Progressive Metal band from Rimini in Italy, who formed in 2015. The band have released 3 albums before For Ever; In Distant Oceans in 2015, Dream Wars in 2017 and Endisires in 2018. Arya made some major changes to their line up in 2018, and seem to be in rebuilding mode. The new lineup of Virginia Bertozzi on Lead Vocals, Luca Pasini on Guitar, Bass, keyboards and Backing Vocals and Simone Succi on Guitar and Lead Vocals, have released an EP before this album in 2019’s Zero.
Arya style is a mix of Djent influenced, dense Progressive Metal and a more ethereal Post Rock sound. 

The opening track Easter Day 2018, is a good example of the basic sound. It kicks strait off into a nasty piece of Progressive Metal with harsh vocals, it’s aggressive and forceful. This then goes into soft, clean Guitar that feels fragile, with fantastic clean vocals from Virginia Bertozzi. The track then goes back to the harsh Progressive Metal part that then drives the track forward; then the beautiful clean vocals joins the harsh and nasty Progressive Metal for a very big ending. Most of the tracks on the album have a basic structure that uses this juxtaposition between melancholy and ethereal Post Rock and complicated and twisted Progressive Metal. One track that differs from that structure is the very interesting track Golem, which features slow and dreamlike clean Guitar riffs with a touch of dissonance and beautiful clean vocals, it all feels drifting and dreamlike. 

The song builds and we get a taste of one of the other high points of this album, and that is beautiful layered vocals that are built up gradually until this part feels huge and lush. The track has a short Guitar led melodic interlude, before returning to the ethereal clean Guitar but with an extra distorted layer that makes everything tauter and adds a little bit more drive to a fantastic song. The album also has a real curve ball in the track Roma. Roma starts with a soft and ethereal feel with clean and gentle vocals. Then after about half the track it abruptly changes and becomes nasty, dissonant and viscous. Lo-Fi harsh blast beats and savage harsh vocals. The second half of the track feels like a mix of straight Black Metal and Blackened Hardcore, and is a blast of savage energy. 

For Ever is a great album. The spikey, nasty feel to the Progressive Metal is beautifully tempered by the lush vocals and Ethereal Post Rock. The riffs feel avant-garde, complicated and extreme when they are harsh and melancholic, softer and dreamlike when they aren’t. What makes this album stand out is the vocals, particularly the layered vocals that are used on several tracks and which are so exuberant and effecting. 7/10             

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