Serpent Column is a project that has been waiting to burst onto the larger metal scene for some time. Over the past few years, sole continual member Theophonos has conjured adventurous, meticulously crafted music that melds elements of dissonant death and black metal into a swirling pool of chaos and degradation. His debut album Ornuthi Thalassa was an unexpected blast, with last year’s Invicta further cementing and, somehow, further darkening the project’s robust sound. That said, both of these releases felt, for different reasons, somewhat incomplete. I have a fairly strict policy for taking music as it is, but Serpent Column consistently feels like a band always capable of more to my ears. With the project’s sophomore full-length release, Mirror in Darkness, such a claim no longer holds weight. It is not only Serpent Column’s most complete and dexterous release to date, it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. In any genre.
Anyone unfamiliar with this project’s sound should stop reading this review and rectify that problem immediately. Take the angular black metal of Deathspell Omega and stir it together with a splash of Ulcerate and a few liberal dashes of Krallice and you’ll veer close to the rich amalgamation of sounds that Serpent Column peddles. But far be it from me to claim the project’s music is strictly derivative. With Mirror in Darkness, Theophonus has conjured compositions that honor their influences while striking off into some bold new territory. Opener “Promise of the Polis” infuses chaotic rhythmic and vocal performances with a significant amount of melodic guitar work that keeps the track (just barely) on the rails throughout. But the chaos never goes so far as to stay in a realm of complete inaccessibility. The end of the track incorporates a violent and measured riff that pulls the whole raging mess of fists and elbows together in a finale for the ages, culminating in one of the more powerful opening salvos I’ve heard this year.
The juxtaposition of compositional madness and recognizable, decipherable melody is a key factor in the record’s overall success, strip mining the more insane elements of a project like Esoctrilihum while seamlessly mixing in distinct melodies that make every track oddly accessible. “Ausweg” could not be more different from its preceding track in its opening moments. Kicking off with a catchy guitar lick heralding back to the rock-influenced early work of Immortal and Emperor in its melodic focus, the track eventually breaks down into something far more menacing, slowly unfurling into a maelstrom of raging black metal that roils and seethes with manic aggression, but never discontinues its strong melodic underpinning. “Amphiclasm” brings these patterns and themes to full fruition with its ceaseless barrage of riffs that are deeply complex while never losing an innate sense of decipherability. The album’s title track is an excellent example of how modern black metal bands can and should write riffs, as its combination of death-like chugs and tremolo intensity leaves nothing but burned-out husks in its wake. Every track on the record feels like its own self-contained exposition on how to write engaging black and death metal, and its wonders continue unabated through its final harrowing moments.
It’s clear throughout Mirror in Darkness that Serpent Column isn’t trying to lose the listener through meaningless and meandering complexity. Sure, there’s enough juicy compositional wizardry here to make a music major blush, but the minor miracle of this record is its deliberate use of chaos to achieve distinct and decipherable ends. Instead of offering up a platter of directionless insanity, this record presents a veritable smorgasbord of fiendish and infinitely knowable delights that may require multiple listens to fully appreciate, but are fully digestible with effort and attention. It strikes a near-perfect balance of adventurousness and memorability that few in metal are able to accomplish, and that alone makes the album worthy of high praise. On the whole, Mirror in Darkness is one of the most accomplished and impressive records I’ve heard this year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Mirror in Darkness is out now via Mystiskaos, and is available for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.