There are two types of melodic death metal fans: those who love Be’lakor, and those who have never heard of them – for they are one of the few bands since the genre’s progenitors to push the genre forward in meaningful and exciting ways. Best described as what Opeth would sound like if they played melodic death metal without any clean vocals, the past few years have seen them reduce the technicality of their playing whilst still retaining the progressive elements which have always been a part of their sound. The cavernous roar that is vocalist George Kosmas lends the vocals a certain blackened quality, and at times they can even resemble a doom band when they bring down the tempo. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Be’lakor are set to release their fourth album Vessels on 24 June. It is their first with drummer Elliot Sansom (Okera), as the recent departure of Jimmy Vanden Broek marked the first lineup change in the band’s 12 year history.
Bucking the trend of the past few years, Be’lakor have chosen to release two of the best tracks from their new record as singles, and both songs, “An Ember’s Arc” and “Roots to Sever”, encapsulate the core of what Be’lakor is. “An Ember’s Arc” begins with a beautiful folk acoustic guitar intro before a seamless and natural transition into the realm of death metal. One of the album’s highlights is how easily the band navigate such transitions, with songs frequently moving between acoustic and aggressive passages with aplomb, acoustic riffs later appearing in their electric form to provide the song’s a sense of unity and purpose. Throughout the track’s eight minute run-time the band continue to change things up both within and between styles. Not only do they move from furious blast beats and booming death growls to dreamy, almost spacey acoustic interludes, but they continue to introduce new riffs to ensure that the heavier parts continue to stay interesting in and of themselves. Particular highlights include a somewhat discordant guitar which shouldn’t fit but absolutely does, and a closing riff that you simply don’t want to end.
“Roots to Sever” kicks off with an instrument that Be’lakor use to great effect, and one which their contemporaries seem somewhat reluctant to incorporate: piano. The use of piano adds a certain depth and texture which keyboards and synths just cannot compete with, and rather than being relegated to the background, it stands proudly alongside the guitars to add an additional layer of gorgeous melodies. The riffs manage to achieve that classic Gothenburg sound without feeling derivative, and they also utilise one of their key strengths: the ability to always mix things up just enough to keep the listener entertained. Be it through particularly percussive drumming, some world music influences, shifts in tempo, the introduction of some quirky riffing or a doom-influenced passage, there is something here to satisfy any fan of extreme music. The production is arguably the best they’ve ever had and, unlike many of their peers, the bass plays an important role and is clearly audible alongside the remaining instruments in the mix. However, as good as Vessels is, it still isn’t perfect.
Track listing is a very important part of most albums, and the choice of which track kicks off the record is a particularly important one. Most bands want to start with their best, or perhaps their most aggressive, foot forward. When it’s not one of the album highlights, then it’s usually an interlude/introductory type of track that segues nicely into the next song, which is where things really take off. Here, Be’lakor achieve neither of these results. The opening track “Luma” is fine, the riffs are solid and the solo is decent, but it doesn’t transition nicely into the following track, and at two minutes in length there simply isn’t enough time for them to do anything interesting and memorable with this track. Thus it’s an odd one to start with, and the record may have benefitted from dispensing with the uninteresting interlude that is “A Thread Dissolves”, and moving the opener into the space “Thread” had just occupied. Not only would this allow the excellent “An Ember’s Arc” to become the opener, but it would remove a filler song and help the latter stages of the album flow better too. Another argument could be that self-editing, and not track listing, is the main issue here; and that the album would have benefitted from having both “Luma” and “A Thread Dissolves” cut from its runtime, as they do little to add to the record’s quality.
Faced with the unenviable task of adding to a near-flawless discography, Be’lakor have done a reasonably good job with Vessels. The album certainly has quality material and some of the songs are absolute gems; however, it’s not quite as good as what has come before. Whilst they have done enough to ensure this is one of the better melodic death metal records you will hear this year, when weighed against their own gargantuan standards one can’t help but think it could have been better.