A musician’s “return” after an extended absence from music (whether that be from an intentional hiatus or otherwise) is an interesting peek into their creative headspace. Do they prove themselves creatures of habit, or were they reinvented over this intermission? In the case of Ails, it’s a little of both. Other than for this record speaking for itself (read: kicking tons of ass), the group is likely best known for bandmates Laurie Shanaman and Christy Cather’s previous work in Ludicra. As expected, Ails is a similarly forward-thinking metal project, but The Unraveling distinguishes them from their impressive lineage – the group also features guitarist Sam Abend (Desolation, Abrupt), drummer Colby Byrn (One In The Chamber, 2084), and bassist Jason Miller (Phantom Limbs). The album’s six tracks are refined and streamlined as they are ambitious and exploratory. The Unraveling’s more colloquial take is a welcome answer to the sophisticated dialect of skronkier blackened death bands. Here, twists and turns are more easily navigated, but the journey is no less surprising or enjoyable because of it.
Energizing opener “The Echoes Waned” is a indicator of the deft and thorough approach heard on The Unraveling. The mix provides a crisp, clean gaze throughout, inviting repeat listens. Every flick of the wrist is present, highlighting dexterous transitions and a supreme sense of timing. Their musical language regularly hints at something around the next corner, but there’s still a number of jarring, dramatic wrinkles to keep things from getting stiff. “The Echoes Waned” brews up rounds of tension with Shanaman and Cather’s intertwining vocals before they’re sucked away by undertows of mini-movements, culminating into a “how’d we end up here?” acoustic detour. The vocal interplay lends a welcome contrast over the course of the album, though Shanaman’s exhaustive shrieks slather the ominous instrumentation with tangible dread, terror, and sorrow.
Fleeting and fluid, one moment melts into the next with a musical intuition seemingly sensitive to the listener’s pulse. Punctuating moments have a transitory feel, picked up by the momentum of each song. This happens frequently and makes the record a pleasure to come back and parcel out each lead, lyric, and rhythm. “Dead Metaphors” dismissively passes from a majestic doom intro to tremolo swirls and jagged, gnarly harmonies only to revive it for an epic reprise. For as efficiently as the group evolves each composition, Ails maintain a rawness and edge that match the thrashy tendencies of fellow Bay Area boundary-pushers Grayceon. While there’s much on the epic end of the spectrum, this rawness is a welcome retreat from the heady swell of the super-calculated and dissonant styles.
“Mare Weighs Down” has a perfectly maimed gait that encourages their heavy metal slog to become a hub from where each aspect of their sound can take off. Ails merge black, death, and doom metal with a folksy majesty and NWOBHM-level love of rad harmonies, making for a delightfully dim atmosphere. Each facet gets its due, though the flywheel of their sound is carried by blackened passages. With all of the grind and few of the frills, the too-brief “The Ruin” demonstrates Ails’ blistering idle. So as brainy as they get, melodies thread through each song, leaving something to latch onto as things quickly unfold. “Any Spark of Life” unfurls a into a nebulous spew of death and doom that staves off eroding flurries of needling guitars. Similarly, closer “Bitter Past” is ferocious and patient, doling out blows on cue then dashing off to the next verse or bridge. Overall, The Unraveling is a remarkable, oftentimes catchy take on a style that often gets long-winded or tied up in it’s own aspirations. A very strong debut despite the group’s pedigree.
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The Unraveling comes out April 20 via The Flenser.