Switzerland might not be the first country that springs to mind as a natural home of metal bands. But, with a spectrum of domestic talent ranging from Celtic Frost to Coilguns, via the likes of Knut, Kruger and Promethee, it might be time to start reconsidering our preconceptions. Returning to active duty with their second album, Sombre Dessein, after the best part of five years away – and with a change of personnel in the interim – are Herod, ready to claim a prime spot at the weightier end of the Swiss metal spectrum.
Sombre Dessein broadly translates as ‘dark motives’, and the album sets a tone which is bleak to the point of apocalyptic. It is a brooding, almost predatory, affair which marries gigantic, sludgy riffs with post-metal song structures to deliver a sustained pummeling to the unsuspecting listener. Buckle up, kids.
The name of Herod’s new vocalist/guitarist will no doubt be familiar to progressive metal fans of the noughties, as Mike Pilat was The Ocean‘s live vocalist during the many-headed Precambrian period, and re-tracked the vocals on Fluxion for its 2009 re-issue. The links to the German group don’t end there, as Sombre Dessein is being released through Robin Staps’ Pelagic Records. Mike’s vocal performance here, it must be said, is notably fearsome – unleashing a bellow that makes him sound about twenty feet tall and ready to climb the outside of a skyscraper.
Mike’s mighty pipes are, in turn, backed up by some equally mighty riffing from band mastermind Pierre Carroz. Carrying a similar gut-churning intensity and neck-snapping grooves to Conjurer, early The Ocean (probably unsurprisingly) or Intronaut at their most feral, Sombre Dessein is brawny and in-your-face, but too considered and thoughtful to be considered knuckle-dragging. By weaving the most punishing moments into epic, labyrinthine tracks which can stretch up to ten minutes in length, they hit with more dynamic force than if they had just come straight out of the gate swinging. The influence of Isis, Cult of Luna and possibly Opeth is also evident in these song structures and arrangements, with slow-burn builds and tremendously satisfying payoffs. There is also a surprising hint of Monuments-esque djenty bounce in some of the more uptempo rhythmic moments, even if it is still dripping in sludge.
Lead single “Reckoning” is a more concisely packaged and immediate four minutes of rage that still finds time for a spaced-out middle eight, amongst some of the flithiest riffs that Sombre Dessein has to offer. The dynamic flow of the album periodically gives the listener a moment or to regroup before the next sledgehammer riff. The net result of all of this is that Sombre Dessein is a crushingly heavy album that you can actually lose yourself in. From the atmospheric, industrial clanking of the albums introduction (itself potentially an audio reference to the ‘Shipwrecking’ artwork used for the cover of the album) to the monolithic closing of “There Will Be Gods”, Sombre Dessein draws you in, and then just throws you around.
Sombre Dessein does sound thick and beefy throughout, which means that it takes a while to realise that there are not really any discernable, independent basslines in the songs. This is not necessarily a problem, but especially in the quieter moments, it does feel like there are some missed opportunities for some more imaginative bass-work. But, in turn, the single-minded focus on the guitars may be what gives the album’s sound that more visceral, primitive twist. Of course, it’s an also an avenue that Herod could well end up exploring in the future.
‘Progressive sludge’ almost feels like a contradiction in terms, but it is hard to find a better description for Sombre Dessein. It attacks the listener with an immediate savagery – but then these attacks are arranged intelligently into songs that reward repeat listens, and maintain their potency beyond the point the initial shock of impact has worn off. Sombre Dessein is a strong step up from a renewed and reinvigorated band, and one that is worthy of any riff-worshipper investing forty minutes in.
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Sombre Dessein releases on February 15th via Pelagic Records. You can pre-order it via the Bandcamp link above.