Contrast is a tricky tool to use. It has the obvious allure of instantly creating drama, tension, hooks with which to reel your intended audience into whatever creation you’re working on, be it music, painting or otherwise. However, it also requires a fine degree of expertise. It’s not enough to know how to pull a guitar string, you need to know by how much in order to get the right tuning. Metaphorically, we can say the same about contract in art, and especially music with its somewhat ephemeral quality. You must be able to know how to lean hard enough but soft enough in order to create that balance, the intake of breath before the precipice, the precarious vista over the abyss which leaves the heart racing.
Eight Bells have certainly aimed for that unique moment but have come just shy of it. Drawing on the tradition of bands like Ancestors, Lotus Thief and, more recently, Dreadnought, they have attempted to create a canvas replete with the sound of former decades but able to also tap extreme influences, especially black metal. However, by not leaning hard enough on the heavier side of the mix, by not making the more abrasive passages more robust and aggressive, they have failed to create the necessary chiaroscuro. Mind you, they’ve failed by a little: all the pieces on the album sound great but, when combined, they don’t carry the outburst of the contrasted, the tension of the linchpin.
The title track and center piece of the album, “Landless”, is the perfect example of this. It opens with a furious passage, blastbeats going at full speed over some soaring guitars. However, it quickly transitions into a calmer passage. No harsh vocals are introduced to support the harsher instrumentation, even though clean vocals support the calmer parts in between. While the track does return to the opening ideas a few times, most of it is quiet, even ambient. A building drum beat accompanies most of it, with ethereal choirs floating in the background. This buildup dominates most of the track, almost five minutes of the twelve minute run-time, but when the pay off arrives all we get is a return to the sounds we had already heard. What was needed here were some powerful, harsh vocals to accentuate the way we’ve come since the track started. While harsh vocals are introduced near the end, they survive for perhaps four to six lines, nothing more, and always accompanied by the choir vocals. They could have served as a much needed anchor for the track; instead, we are left rudderless, hardly able to distinguish birth from death, front from end.
The frustrating thing is that these tools are perfectly utilized on the next track, “Hold My Breath”. It is by far the best track on the album; its middle calls on Elder for inspiration, delivering some truly varied and exciting guitar lines. Near the end, when the expectation breaks, some truly impressive, high pitched screams are placed, in their own capacity and not as supporting crutches, finally converting all that held tension into emotional catharsis. The track also carries all of this right to the end, instead of following into the lazy and easy allure of the melodic outro. Everything here is balanced as it should: the calm parts carry enough wonder, the harsh parts carry enough kick and the whole thing emerges as a pristine machine in balance, forever leaving you flat footed.
For some reason, these elements are not only absent in “Landless” the track but also in Landless the album. The band obviously know how to utilize them, so where did they go? Perhaps some sort of epic approach was sought after here, with “Hold My Breath” a supposed tipping point that would solidify the 70’s-tinged vibe into a modern statement. It does that, certainly, but it’s too little, too late. Other tracks are almost all soft and, unlike the afore-mentioned Elder, the guitar and bass parts aren’t interesting enough on their own to carry these tracks. If only the harsher elements had been brought to bear more, most importantly in the title track but perhaps even earlier, this would have been an outstanding addition to a fast-growing sub-genre. As it is, it’s a good album but when which is tinged with frustration more than anything. It leaves the listener constantly on the cusp of catharsis but without the clear cut and impassioned climax for which we long.
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Eight Bells’s Landless gets…