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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Guest Album Reviews by CB: Akelei - ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’ and Raving Season - ‘The Brightness of my Disaster’

For this Wednesday’s post I’m handing my blog over to a very good friend of mine (who I’ve never met, the internet is a wonderful thing). CB has been responsible for pointing me at some amazing music over the last couple of years, much of it ranking among the best new sounds I’ve encountered in that time. Out there bands like Igorrr or Negura Bunget, that I would never have stumbled across without his help, because he, like me, is a digger, a music terrier, who operates on the assumption that if you’ve already heard of it, it’s probably not worth your time. What he has to share with us here is a brace of very progressive bands from the doomy, epic end of the metal spectrum.

Raving Season - ‘The Brightness of my Disaster’ (2009)
self released, CD EP, €8
An Intricate Game of Agonising Beauty and Beautiful Agony.
Three ladies and four gentlemen from Italy. Influences ranging from chamber music to Opeth and perhaps even Agathodaimon. One five track EP. A self released gem, holding as much promise as it does beauty. 
Raving Season are a young Italian band that has, to this point in time, only one release, the EP reviewed here - although there is, so claims the band, a debut album in the making. So, whilst I sit here in restless anticipation, waiting for the day of its release, let me share with you my enthusiasm for this talented collective and the potential they manage to display in five chapters of impressive technical maturity and suprising variety.
The Brightness of my Disaster opens with a short, acoustic track. At best, it could be described as neoclassical, or perhaps, soundtrack material for European art films. It is a low and slow, dreamy, melancholy piece which sets the emotional pace for the rest of the album very well as it leads into the first 'real' track of the album – a track that begins with strings, piano and Judith's angelic, operatic vocal. When I say operatic, though, I don't mean pompous, Tarja-esque showing off. The first minute and twenty seconds are much more intimate, much more like a chamber piece. Following that, whispers and acoustic guitars are reminiscent of Opeth but pick up the vibe, set up by the intro and the first part of the song, wonderfully. 
Speaking of Opeth, remember how Mikael Akerfeldt busts our collective balls by slashing across the acoustic, whispery parts with his epic grunt?
10 seconds of whispering and acoustics, and Federica, the other female vocalist, achieves just that. Yes, she's a growler. And what a growler! Her growl tears into the song, forcing it into a new dimension altogether. And then... then Judith joins her, the vocals entwine, the guitars pick up pace and perform a few decidedly prog-death stunts … and I think to myself, hey, we're 3 minutes into the second song, under 5 minutes into the album, and enough has happened to fill half a page or more just trying to keep track and describe. And that, that is exactly what this EP is about. Though always in tune with the melancholy vibe, established by the intro, always true to the central idea, compact and sensibly assembled, it is full of turnarounds, surprising shifts in pace, style or even genre. However, each and every element, each and every segment flows into one seamlessly. 
The quality of the musicianship is undeniable – the instruments sound as raw as they sound tight and precise. As if the band had been at this for over a decade. Hey, who knows, maybe they have? After all, one can't have this much going on without some genuinely mad skills and mileage, right? And if they really have been together since no earlier than 2005, the mad skills are very mad and exceptionally skillful indeed! The compositions are extremely mature as well, never trading off the whole to show off a particular element. This is so much more than progressive death or doom metal. It's gothic, it's atmospheric, it can be aggressive, heavy, ruthless, intricate, gentle, crushing... 35 minutes provide more in terms of variety and intensity than some bands have managed in their entire careers! 
And let me return to the quality of Judith's vocals. Simply angelic. Crystal clear, with a solid range and the ability to weave in an unexpected element here or there. Listen attentively. As for the grunts, Federica simply blows me away. You won't mistake her for an angel, but she does make a damn good death metal demon. Low as a deathmetal grunt, but with the vicious emotion of black metal delivery, her vocal work fits the album perfectly. Perhaps unlike most female grunters, she doesn't simply go for raw power. The lady delivers in a way that makes you believe she means every single word of the lyrics. 
The album's biggest shortcoming is the production – a bit on the quiet and fuzzy side, it sometimes masks or dulls the intensity of the musical delivery. However, let us remember that this is a debut EP, self released. No major metal label backed up the making of this precious work of art. 
Oh, and there's another one.
It's simply way too short.
Raving Season, please release the full length soon!

Akelei - ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’ (2010)
self released, digital download album, £free
A Soothing Sonic Inner Sanctum of the Soul.
With various unavoidable websites screaming about Brit's Pears and their new 'album', with random people online and off attempting to convince me that Burlesque is not merely an exercise in recycling (anything featuring Cher… Cher herself… is an exercise in recycling in my humble opinion) but a genuinely good musical movie, with all the rage and raging around teenage pop, twenty-something 'rock' and 'true underground', often as blatantly market driven as the rest, I find myself craving sanctuary. 
A sanctuary that is not my usual fare of extremes, experimentation or raw-as-fuck attitude.
Something, somewhere, soothing yet engaging.
Something, somewhere, where genuine emotion and atmosphere reign, where unpretentious, organic playing helps crystal clear vocal work convey lyrical messages.
Enter Akelei.
The Dutch doomsters' music is all of the above and more. Akelei play melancholy, emotion laden doom metal, laced with aspects of gothic, post-rock and shoegaze. Perhaps, upon reading these words, one would think, hey, deja vu? However the brilliance of the band lies not in the genres or genre elements themselves. The brilliance of Akelei lies in the way they bring it all together. So, let us take a look at the 'all' that they so skillfuly fuse in their rich, rewarding music.
Doom metal only acknowledges two paces. Slow and slower. Akelei keep it firmly in the realm of slow, never sacrificing the outstanding atmosphere to adopt a more 'extreme' sound, be it by slowing down or speeding up. However, the pace does not mean a lack of variety. Take the very first song from the album, for example – Verlangen. Clocking in just over 11 minutes, there is still a lot going on in the very first two. Beats and melodies change and flow naturally, never once remaining in one place for too long, yet never in a hurry.
The guitarwork, the foundation of everything metal, combines slow  and heavy doom riffs, not too big on fuzz, with clean, minimalist melodies and sweeping shoegazy passages. Mad props to the boys here, because they manage to build a full, rich sound, fusing the elements into a sonic wave where so many bands sound as if they build their thing from lego with bits and odd ends sticking out everywhere. 
The transitions are simply brilliant, soft and smooth even when the shift from a gentle, clean sound to thick and heavy riffage in itself presents the listener with a rather intense contrast. Imagine being hit by the proverbial doomhammer, except that it's wrapped in silk this time. Overall, the guitarwork of Akelei sweeps over you, wraps itself around you and refuses to let go, whispering and chanting along with the vocals.  
Ah yes, the vocals. All of the songs are sung in Dutch, a language that isn't very common in the world of metal in general, perhaps somewhat more so in the doom and black realms. The language fits the songs perfectly and the voice, oh, that voice! There is something almost sacral about the choruses, something meditative about the phrasing… it's rich and expressive, it's there, working perfectly with the instruments, driving that message through, unstoppable, focused upon the delivery, like a funeral procession. However, it is the vocal work that allows for a glimmer of sunshine, that elusive spark of hope that gives the music of Akelei an even more unique vibe. 
The album features one more pleasant surprise, guest female vocals on a song. A duet with a no nonsense title Duett – which, of course, translates to duet. Sung in Dutch and Norwegian. The formula is beyond description. As a matter of fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best male / female vocal duets ever heard in either doom metal or its gothic rock cousin.
Although the album is divided into five songs, it would be rather pointless to dissect the pieces. In fact, it would be blasphemous. ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’ is an ocean. Ever in motion but a solid, unified entity, full of fascinating details to explore though none of them fascinating to the point where one could forget or ignore the majesty of the whole.
Go to and dive in headfirst – the band has put up all of their music for free! I guarantee you, even if melancholy doom metal is not number one on your list, this masterpiece won't leave you cold. You might even end up ordering the actual albums in spite of the mp3s being free. I know I did.
P.S. Once downloading, be sure to also grab the single ‘Dwaalur’ that is on the band's Bandcamp site. It was, they claim, a song intended for the album, but then left on its own. A good call. The song is a priceless display of the versatility and potential that Akelei have. True to the urban melancholy and genuine emotion that permeates ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’, Dwaaluur is musically reminiscent of acts such as Dead can Dance or Arcana.
In short, the only thing exceeding the briliance of Akelei today is the potential they have for the future.

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