There are few things in the world of music — for musicians, critics, and fans alike — that are as much equal parts necessary and frustrating to the point of being counterproductive as genre labels. We use them because they form a convenient shorthand, a way to categorize and file away the seemingly endless list of bands we come across. By agreeing upon certain sets of musical characteristics and features, we cobble together groups of musicians and bands together as our collective musical Dewey Decimal System as a way to help ourselves and help each other when discussing these bands and offering comparisons and recommendations. And the truth is, much of the time the system does work. Just have a peek at our Starter Kit series to see the system in action, even for the most obscure and sub-genre-y of sub-genres.
Ultimately these attempts to file and label every sound are arbitrary and reductive though, and the fact is that most of the time the artists and bands themselves have little to no say in how they become defined. Such is the case with So Hideous, who I will refrain from labeling with any one specific genre or micro-genre label here. Since arriving on the scene in 2008 (back when they were going by So Hideous, My Love), the band, fronted by composer/guitarist/keyboardist Brandon Cruz and his brother Chris (vocals/bass) have largely struggled to rise above the boxes listeners and critics alike have decided to place them in based on the zeitgeist of the day. Are they a post-metal band who employ blackened vocals and orchestral flourishes (drawing comparisons to the likes of ISIS early on when post-metal was a more driving force in the metal world)? Are they a symphonic metal band who are taking a more modern blackened death approach to the symphonic power metal sound of yore? Or are they really a black metal band who utilize elements of shoegaze and post-rock to cast spots of brightness to accentuate the shadows?
The latter is where the band finds itself thrown in most often these days thanks in large part to Deafheaven‘s influence in carving out the “blackgaze” and “post-black metal” niches the past few years, dragging along with them the likes of An Autumn For Crippled Children, A Forest of Stars, Vattnet Viskar, and many others. An argument can certainly be made that much of the band’s rising prominence and attention can be attributed to being placed into that box, but just the same as ever, it’s ill-fitting and completely misses out on what makes the band uniquely compelling. Starting with their 2011 EP To Clasp A Fallen Wish With Broken Fingers, Brandon has approached writing for So Hideous as a way to explore his loves of modern classical and chamber orchestration (including more chamber-like post-rock approaches from the likes of Mono) and placing them in a harsher and more polarizing emotional context. Their sophomore LP, Laurestine, is in every way a continuation of that mission, and its success is due to that exact disregard for genre pinnings, revealing a sound that is beautiful, chilling, and absolutely invigorating all at once.
Laurestine focuses on the story of a man caught in the space between life and death, specifically the 7 minutes after a body is pronounced officially “dead” but the brain is still technically active. The seven tracks that form the album represent the journey of that individual as he is led towards the afterlife by the guiding hand of a spirit named Laurestine, reflecting on his past, present, and the unknown that forms his future. The number seven plays a prominent role throughout (7 tracks, with 7/4 and 7/8 time signatures littered throughout), but more importantly, Laurestine feels like a singular work through and through thanks to Cruz’s focused compositions. From opener “Yesteryear” through the final notes of “A Faint Whisper,” the music grows, contracts, hits huge peaks, and shifts in sonic complexion but never feels fractured or anything less than natural. Few bands could get away with placing something as sweet as the heavily chamber-focused track “Hereafter” next to the heart-wrenching harshness and masterful build of tension by the rasps of Chris Cruz in the conclusion of “Relinquish,” only to have that tension released by a masterful post-rock groove that forms the front half of “The Keepsake” without it becoming a scattered and jumbled mess. The melodies, pacing, and arrangements are so strong though that these disparate elements come together to form something much greater than simply the sum of its parts.
In fact, the most surprising aspect of Laurestine might be in just how unconcerned it is with presenting itself as a “metal” album. Interludes “Hereafter” and “Falling Cedars” on their own hardly register as such, and even the tracks that feature the heaviest concentration of blastbeats and black metal-infused vocals are often couched in string-saturated emotional builds or post-rock breakdowns and crescendos. Similar to the best work of Alcest, these heavier elements are merely tools to be employed to compliment and contrast the moments of emotional climax and bring depth to a sound that could easily fall into maudlin or overwrought emotional territory. To borrow a word my colleague Eden Kupermintz enjoys more than most in his own reviews, So Hideous are a band built around exploring chiaroscuro, and each piece of the band’s musical identity is in service of adding or removing pieces of light to illuminate, obscure, and reveal the raw beauty underneath. Laurestine is an album confident enough in its musical identity to pull this kind of genre-agnosticism off and forge a sound that resists easy categorization and can certainly draw plenty of comparisons to other bands, but ultimately possesses and controls a musical language all its own.
If Laurestine is a great album that reveals a great creative force though, it also reveals a musical potential that has not quite been fulfilled to its greatest extent. Cruz perhaps a bit too often still uses the emotional weight of his orchestration as a thick brush, painting the music in bold, broad strokes that are powerful and build great climaxes, but don’t leave enough room to see some of the finer, more subtle spaces in between. It’s not simply a matter of volume or tempo, as he uses contrasts in those quite well throughout, but also texture and depth. Strings too often fall into an epic kind of loud unison to compliment a melody that likely started on piano or guitar, and it’s a strategy that begins to demonstrate some diminishing returns by the final two tracks, “The True Pierce” and “The Final Whisper.” Cruz himself is surely aware of how much versatility the instruments he’s employing have, and if he could explore even further the infinite territory they present to form exciting and unexpected textures, chords, and sounds, it would add even more layers of depth to a sound that is defined by exactly that.
Nevertheless, So Hideous find themselves on the precipice of true greatness with Laurestine. This album will likely present them a critical and popular acclaim that will bring them far more clout and notoriety than ever before, and rightly so. It’s whatever comes next though that will perhaps be the most important step in the band’s career, one that could elevate them above the kind of categorization and lumping in with other bands once and for all or could mire them further in that struggle. But for now, let the accolades come, as Laurestine is surely among the year’s best albums, regardless of what category or genre one might place them in.
So Hideous’s Laurestine gets…