Beginning as a solo project in 2009, Montreal’s Hands of Despair digitally released their debut album back in 2011. Billed as progressive death metal, the project developed into a fully-fledged band in 2014 and they’re now set to release their latest offering, Bereft, on February 9 2016 through Deathbound records.

Right from the outset it’s clear that death metal alone is too narrow a categorisation for Bereft, and that the band have a distinctly blackened feel to them. Opening track ‘Reborn’ begins as a relatively straight-forward blackened death metal piece in the vein of Behemoth, before slowing down to a more atmospheric second half. It is during this passage that the listener’s attention is drawn to the impressive bass work, François-Xavier Jodoin adeptly balancing his role of providing the rhythmic backbone to the track, whilst simultaneously carrying some of the key melodies. As has become the trend in progressive, extreme metal releases over the past decade, the bass is clearly audible in the mix, giving the listener something more to focus on than just the repetitive riffs on display. In terms of production, the gritty bass tone suits the blackened nature of their sound; however, a cleaner tone would have helped accentuate the talent on display and, more importantly, allow the listener to distinguish it from the guitars during the heavier moments, as well as the softer ones. The final two minutes of the track are the most interesting by far, the bass and guitars fading as vocalist Jeff Mott unleashes an anguished scream, neatly juxtaposed against the entrance of a solemn piano whose melody plays out the remainder of the song. It was the most memorable passage the song had produced, which is itself somewhat of an indictment on what had come before it. The preceding eight minutes were not bad by any means, but bass lines aside, the remaining instruments did not do enough to justify such a lengthy runtime, a flaw which would sadly continually reappear throughout.

Vocally, frontman Jeff Mott shows impressive diversity with his harsh vocals throughout the record. His stock vocals are trademark blackened screams, but he is more than comfortable raising his pitch to a witch’s raspy shriek, or dropping it to that of a demonic growl fresh out of hell, and it’s when he’s performing the latter that the band sound at their best. It’s regrettable that such diversity does not carry through to the music itself, particularly with the guitars, where there is a distinct lack of variation both within and between songs. Whether or not this is a problem largely depends on your musical preference, and so lovers of post-rock and doom may see this trait as a strength, whilst those more inclined to progressive music may find the riffs increasingly stale as the album progresses. The album’s second track, ’Bereft’, introduces clean vocals for the first time as the band draw from Opeth, alternating between their death metal core and mellow, folk-influenced acoustic passages. They then proceed to follow this template over the next several tracks which, whilst not a problem in and of itself, (after all, Opeth have achieved widespread acclaim following a similar route) nevertheless fails to entertain the listener when they feel like they’ve heard it all before. The greatest distinguishing feature of each track is the guitar solo’s, which are relatively simple, aptly fit in with the passage in which they’re present, and refrain from technical overindulgence.

Thankfully the guitar work on the disc’s second half is a notable improvement, with particular highlights including the furious break-down like sections adorning the middle passages of ‘ETOC’, and the near entirety of the album’s standout track, ‘Remnants’. In the wider context of progressive death metal as a whole, further diversity wouldn’t go astray even in the record’s second half, but any improvement is still good improvement. The band’s overall sound can be found at a crossroads, a place where progressive death metal meets black metal, and doom metal. Such a label, together with the comparisons to be drawn between them and both Behemoth and Opeth, would doubtlessly fill many an extreme metal fan with glee. Yet, ultimately the band appears trapped in no-man’s-land, caught being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Whilst the average track length is nine minutes, there is not enough happening to justify the term ‘progressive’ other than the aforementioned transitions between heavy passages and cleaner, mellow ones, transitions which cannot be called unique by any stretch of the imagination. Similarly, the band’s riffs aren’t memorable enough to compete with the best doom has to offer, whilst their attempts at creating an eerie atmosphere pale in comparison to contemporaries such as Myrkur.

Apologies are in order if this review comes across too negatively in its tone. This is not a bad album. Fans of death metal, black metal and doom metal will find aspects of this record that they will enjoy. However, Hands of Despair have the potential to be much better than this, which is why these words are tinged with disappointment. One can only hope that they can take such criticism in their stride before improving their songwriting to a level which matches their ambitions, allowing them to return with a record which fulfils their substantial potential.

Hands of Despair – Bereft gets…

3/5

-KD

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