In the struggle to describe music and its culture, the writer grasps for many words. That’s why many reviews might appear to be long-winded; it’s not only that writers usually have an ego problem which leads their tongue to wag on end. Rather, the frustration derived from the basic action of trying to put music into words fuels a constant hunt for better words. That hunt is, of course, futile. There will never be words eloquent enough to capture music within their syllables. However, that doesn’t stop the writer from trying; his brow furrows as he searches mind-caverns for shining gems that might help him along the way: soaring, dulcet, ponderous, sonorous. Terroir. Now there’s a word. It means the set of all factors affecting an environment, a feeling for a certain landscape or area. It comes to us from the vineyards, where it is used to describe the soil which feeds the crops.
When in the hell does this all have do with Illudium? Perhaps nothing; perhaps this writer has finally gone crazy, his mind-lantern lying smashed on the floor of the cave. Or, perhaps, he senses that the only way to review Septem is to locate it within its own terroir, to feel out the discrete soil-types which gave it birth. Under this assumption, the album would unveil a certain sensation, a bouquet of sounds and ideas. Septem would be, under the dubious wishes of the author to see it that way, rich soil where stoner, sludge and blues elements all mix to create juicy, sumptuous fruit. Entertain the notion for a moment as we entertain the author in his pretension.
Septem then is a hillside, made up of different kinds of dirt. Some of it gives way to the touch, presenting a softer texture that belies the depths that rumble below. This is Shantel Amundson’s vocals. Their vintage lies in the 60’s and 70’s, long before metal had even considered female vocals. As such, they have nothing to do with the high pitched, “melodic” stereotypes to which metal consigns most of its female vocalists. Instead, her voice is deep, honey-thick and filled with emotion. It is a storyteller, employing various rises and falls. You can hear these tools being utilized on “Veil of Nymphus” for example, one of the most ambitious performances from Amundson on the album.
Along the verse that inhabits most of the track, she is low and inviting, like smoke from so much incense. Her partner in crime for this is the bass, a backbone that runs through the entire album. The production for it is nothing short of phenomenal, deriving a tone which is just as expressive as the vocals. Even on the verse, as Amundson soars high, the bass is right there to coat her delivery and pour into all those spaces left by her dedication to fly. It is the pulsing tides to her sea-foam, a solid push underneath heaving earth, a supple bedrock onto which the hill was placed. The following track, “Intertia (Miles)”, builds on that even further. The bass goes somehow lower and, by utilizing faster runs, leads this track on its way to fruition.
This is also where the other pairing on the album best shines forth. The guitars first. In our terroir, they are the more immediately digestible and visible elements: boulders here and there, dips and falls in the landscape. But “Intertia (Miles)” teaches us the folly of dismissing them for all of that. Underneath their apparent, progressive stoner complexion, lies the ability for variation. They start blistering fast, channeling the roots of stoner metal. They end open and bright, like an inhaled breath before the plunge that is “Indra”. Before that much needed break, they were everywhere, sharply contesting our expectations.
In that feat, they had a stalwart ally: the drums on Septem are never quite where and how we would expect them. Like the guitars, they jump between classic, stoner, slow, ponderous thunder and clever, intricate chimes. They are perhaps best described by our chosen adjective, the terroir. Like Septem, they lend a certain air to the album, a grandeur and intimacy both. On the aforementioned “Indra” for example, listen as they go along with the apparent parts of the track but also note how they blend fills, chaotic cymbals and other tools where you’d least expect them. This keeps us on our toes, constantly listening for what’s to come next, senses stretched to grasp the ineffable terroir.
And then Septem ends on “Sunrunner/The Light of Heaven Embodied” and the words fail this writer. The bass changes completely in the beginning, sounding more like something from out of a tech death band. All instruments bend towards one flame with the intro, perfectly setting up Amundson’s arrival. From there, this ten minute track goes everywhere else that the album went and is so grand as to leave us beggared. There’s a violin part in the middle; there are soft vocals and insanely powerful vocals. The guitars, drums and bass communicate with each other across countless leit motifs and repetitions. It’s everything that progressive stoner can be but so rarely is. And so, at the end of our rope, we turn to our terroir: it is smoke, earth, salt and peat. But it is also honey, light, breeze and moonlight. It is a progressive stoner metal album that doesn’t exactly defy genre definitions as much as effortlessly executes them, relying on passion and might to guide its path. It is a subtle, overpowering, beguiling and personal taste all at once, washing over your ears all at once.