Five years on from their atmospheric, neofolk-inspired album, A Forgotten Land, Australia’s Encircling Sea have returned with a release that takes the band’s unique blend of black, post, and doom metal in a fresh new direction. While their latest effort, Hearken, retains elements from all these genres, it tends to forego the huge, atmospheric soundscapes of its predecessor in favour of a more concise, riff-driven approach that will at times sound more familiar to fans of Cult of Luna or Neurosis than it will to fans of Wolves in the Throne Room or Panopticon. While tremolo-picked guitars continue to whir away in the background of most songs, providing an icy ambiance and abrasive texture, the band’s sound now revolves more around thundering, glacial doom riffs that lumber about with a colossal weight. Similarly, blackened rasps and shrieks are now used more sparsely, with most of the vocals ranging from low, guttural growls, and a mid-range bellow reminiscent of Scott Kelly from the aforementioned Neurosis.
One aspect of Hearken that makes itself immediately clear on even the briefest of listens is just how densely layered and impenetrable the wall of noise that drives this beast forward is. The thick, fuzzed-out rhythm guitars and rumbling bass would themselves fill out the textural palette of a normal band, but Encircling Sea constantly augments them with blasting drums and countless layers of atmospherics, lead and ambient guitars, and vocals. The dense, fuzzy tones and weighty, molasses-like riffs on Hearken also imbue the whole record with a hazy, sluggish tone that is just as likely to lull you into a hypnotic slumber as make you bang your head. Well aware of the trance-inducing power of their sound, Encircling Sea frequently adds and remove layers to control the attention of their listener and the tension of each track. There is one particularly heart-stopping moment around 4 minutes into “Everoak” where almost every layer drops out instantly, leaving just one thin guitar track wailing away, stripped and exposed. Then, just as you’ve been jolted awake and you’re checking your headphones are still working, every layer kicks back in with blistering intensity.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about Hearken without considering the thematic elements that informed its creation and which manifest themselves so prominently in the final product. For example, the album’s title means to pay attention or listen carefully. On the one hand, this could be read as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek request to pay attention to the album itself. But when considered in context with the record’s lyrical content, it becomes clear that the band is harking back to the past, and to their ancestry and heritage. While A Forgotten Land represented a spiritual communion with nature and an exploration of the band’s connection to it, Hearken explores spirituality from another angle. In an interview with Heavy Mag, vocalist and guitarist Rob Allen explained: “Hearken is about connecting to my ancestors, to their spiritual practices – in a way that is tangible and physically attainable for me to achieve a connection directly with them. Where A Forgotten Land was about finding that primal spirit within, Hearken is about nurturing that spirit throughout thousands of years of ancestry and trying to come out of it learning something about myself, and my place in this world.”
Not only are these spiritual themes present in the lyrics of Hearken, they are present in the fabric of the music as well. The towering, monolithic weight of this album is essentially the sound of gazing backward into the abyssal depths of an endless ancestral void. The existential burden of the infinite lives before you is felt palpably with every crushing, colossal riff. Savvy listeners may also notice that every track title on Hearken is an amalgamation of two words, and always contains one that alludes to the record’s preoccupation with ancestry (eg. Blood, elder, kin). Rob again suggested that this was done intentionally to fit into the album’s spiritual themes, with the idea being to recombine old elements into something new.
Standout tracks on this album include “Sunhelm”, which hints toward the avant-garde with its bleak, atonal guitar phrasings even as it remains firmly anchored to a foundation of thick, rumbling doom riffs. Towards the end of the track, the rich chord progressions and sinister riffing also devolve into a primal choir of voices that scream abjectly in a suffocatingly dense unison. “Kinsoil” is also striking for its incorporation of haunting clean female vocals, which provide a chilling respite from the ferocious riffing, and add another texture to Encircling Sea’s already impressive sonic palette.
Hearken builds on all the elements that made the band’s previous records so compelling, but condenses them down into something altogether more gritty and substantial. It boldly renounces many of those features that had made the band stand out in the past – like extended song lengths, washed-out atmospherics, and a focus on nature – but proves more than capable of forging fresh ground for itself. Primal yet contemplative, reinvigorating yet mired in tradition, Hearken is a gloriously heavy record and a totally captivating introspective voyage.