In 2014, a Greek band by the name of Spectral Lore released an album called III and it was one of the finest albums in the atmospheric black metal sub-genre. Evocative, intelligent and dense, this more than an hour’s worth of music took the listener on a complicated and taxing journey through blastbeats, harsh vocals, acoustic guitar passages, expansive ambience and blistering black metal. It’s a punishing and rewarding album in a way that only truly dedicated black metal can be, convulsing and turning upon its own concept and sound, again and again bringing us back to bear on its ideas and melodies.
This writer discovered it way too late; two weeks ago, to be exact. Since then, I have listened to it almost non-stop, “almost” because my listening has been interspersed by the three albums that succeed it in Spectral Lore’s discography. These are three EPs, released over the course of 2015, investigating and displaying “styles peripheral to those found in a regular Spectral Lore album” (to use the band’s own words). Voyager, Gnosis and Fossils are the albums I’m here to talk about today. III is majestic, an incredible piece of music; I urge you all to listen to it. But those three EPs are just as good and, in some ways, even more interesting than the full release which precedes them.
Voyager is the one which first caught me. This is unsurprising because of two facts. One, it is chronologically the first release and, therefore, I listened to it first. But the second one is much more important; it’s all about space and it’s incredibly synth heavy. Anyone who knows me knows that those two things, when executed well, are a sure way to bring me over. But Voyager is unique; it is nothing quite like anything else I’ve heard. It is most akin to the quieter moments of 65daysofstatic, especially on their 2016 release, No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe. But it never quite takes off; Voyager is already in space. There is no rush of insertion or the adrenaline of takeoff. Voyager is about space exploration in the truest sense, of un-measurable distances in the void blended with the heady optimism of pioneering.
It achieves these sounds by two contrasts: first, the ambiance and low-key vibe of the entire album. As I said, it never quite takes off; it always promises energy and release but maintains a sustained, drawn out energy instead of momentary peaks (quite like what feasible space exploration will probably be). The other is how rich everything manages to be within this more restrained atmosphere. This is achieved mainly via synth tones; the album has some of the best ones I’ve ever heard. Take “Voyager (Mission Launch)” for example and its incredibly bright synths. The tone is so rich and evocative and undergoes so many permutations as it repeats the main theme of the track. As the lines play and then fade away, only to return again, Spectral Lore capture the sense of wonder and endless exploration that space radiates in our collective imagination.
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This is followed by “Relic Radiation (Remnants of History)”, a track so quiet and haunting that it hints at the albums that are to follow. It’s almost like drone music about space, what you’d get if Earth were exploring far from their eponym. In that regard it, and plenty of the tracks after it, are best likened to the second album of the aforementioned 65daysofstatic release, Soundscapes and its potentiality of music. This harbored energy, this almost articulated sense of awe and place, is what makes Voyager work so well as an homage to space and as an album. Weirdly enough, this sense of baited breath also ties to the following albums and perhaps explains the glue which holds the entire trilogy together.
Even without its predecessors, Voyager would be an amazing release. But in light of them, it grows even better. Its darkness and hushed power, leaving the listener lacking the exact words for the gamut of emotions it makes them run, is magnified by the following albums. On its own, Voyager might even feel like a hopeful album; but in the light of the albums which follow it, it seems strangely depressing and morose, accentuating more the emptiness of space and the awe which breaks down the human psyche in its presence.
Gnosis in the regard, turning towards mysticism and introspection, is a continuation and elaboration of Voyager in many ways. While it doesn’t have the electronic sounds of precursor, Gnosis builds on the drone influences and ideas found in Voyager and ties back into the black metal roots of Spectral Lore. It is an album which almost sounds as if III was elongated, spread across the longest possible run time, black metal passages and folk instruments both. Closing track “For Aleppo” for example is an exploration of Mediterranean instruments placed over drone, immensely touching and evocative for its balance between blatant expression and hinted, evocative notes. In general, the folk instruments found on Gnosis are not your usual, European flute and lyre. Being Greek, Spectral Lore channel the rich and ancient world of Mediterranean instruments and their timbre.
“Averroes’ Search” (hinting at the important and too often forgotten philosopher Aḥmad Ibn Rushd), is an even sparser rendition of these sounds. Within it, the folk influences are less varied, although heart-breaking just the same. Transformed through the lens of the track, they become the build up and monotonous pressure of true drone. Thus, the folk elements on Gnosis are again and again channeled almost (almost) against the listener, breaking them down. As we open more and more to these sounds, their delivery of the drone elements of the album magnifies. Their unique, eastern timbre is the vehicle through which Gnosis breaks us, where Voyager used synth tones.
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This timbre is blended not only with drone but with the black metal which is Spectral Lore’s bread and butter. The magisterial “A God made of Flesh and Consciousness” explores this mix during its fourteen minute run time, moving between raw, drawn out instances of black metal and poignant folk. Thus, Gnosis conjures not only the grandeur of divine presence but also the inherent meaningless and small sensation which Voyager brought to bear before it. The elongation and drawing out of the black metal influences make them all that more abrasive and harsh, especially the raw vocals. Much like on III, the acoustic passages are less respite as they are a breath drawn without choice, as lungs must fill with air and the mind contemplates all that came before and all which surely waits beyond the next crest of massive guitars.
Set up for such grandeur of assault, Fossils is the ultimate sucker punch. The last part of this trilogy is the straw which breaks the heart; it is Spectral Lore at their darkest and most muted. Fossils is the drone/folk combo filtered through the lens of winter, given an impossibly pervasive chill and haunting forbearance for melancholy. Its two opening tracks, “Weathering” and “Bloodmoon Descending”, are sparse and bleak as even Gnosis could not be, fuzzy ambience surrounding us like so much snow around a bedraggled and lost traveler. But “History of the Displaced” which follows them is the first true death blow. Centered around the piano, its tones are echo-y and cavernous, as if played in a rotting, wooden room. It has majesty but it is a grim one, the majesty of a manor falling apart around you.
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The tracks which follow out are couplets. Each couplet is made of a first track that is almost silence and where it is noise, it is droning, haunting almost-stillness like “A Humming Buried Within the Fields” or its more present counterpart, “Arctic Heart”. The second part is achingly beautiful, acoustic guitar centered pieces which resonate a bit closer with European sentiments and influences. “Out of a Muddy Pond” for example almost lilts but shies away from any true joy in the end, leaving us bereft and strangely feeling as if we should be happy but unable to quite bring ourselves to the emotion.
Fossils closes the work of the trilogy, leaving us completely shattered. Whether this was the intent of Spectral Lore or just an attribute summoned forth when their music is deconstructed matters little; the end result is the same. With their clever blends of genres, sounds and tones, these three EPs contain all that’s needed for an emotional crisis (and its catharsis). Voyager entices you with the promise and size of space, leaving you in a peculiar mood associated with exploration and your role within it. Gnosis brings you face to face with the overpowering aspects of knowledge and mysticism, wearing you down with black metal spliced with intense, oriental folk acoustics and drawn out abrasiveness. Fossils swoops in and dunks you in coldest winter, freezing you to the bone. Taken together, these EPs represent a truly powerful experience and an accomplished musical journey.
Hopefully IV is coming soon.