Staring up at the dark ceiling in the dead of night is a pastime that many metalheads are intimately familiar with. For all its braggadocio and inflammatory tendencies, there are few mental spaces that metal has occupied with more authority than that immense place between time and space in between our ears. That void in the center of our own lives and all existence, gaping, consuming insatiably. It’s a place that is nearly impossible to put into words, but one many of us often inhabit. If there were a band set by God to officially inhabit and sonically interpret that unknowable space, I feel very strongly that it would be Amenra.
Garnering a devoted, frothing cult following over their past two decades of music making, the Belgian atmosludge maestros have been making music exclusively designed to lose your mind to since inception. Sharing space with titans of post-infused doom-heralding such as Cult of Luna, Neurosis, and Rorcal, Amenra have carved for themselves a very unique niche that sounds at this point both familiar and utterly foreign, a balance that they have further fortified with each new release. Their fifth full-length release, De Doorn (translated to “The Thorn” in Flemish), continues that trajectory but with a few unusual twists that help it stand out not only as one of the most stunning metal releases of 2021, but as one of the band’s most creative and inspired moments in a long and storied career.
In terms of void-gazing, Amenra have yet to release an album that sonically soundtracks moments of existential crisis more intensely. The band’s music has always been dripping with atmospheric dread, but De Doorn cranks these elements to 11 on a constant basis, creating what might be their most complete and absorbing sonic world. The music contained here is ethereal and otherworldly in a way that most bands of this ilk only dream of translating. Opener “Ogentroost” is a world in and of itself, taking its time to unfurl with all the menace and foreboding of a comet hurtling unseen through space, on an inevitable collision course with your brain. It’s perhaps the most unsettling and cinematic opening moments of the band’s career, eventually unwrapping into a menacing Flemish spoken-word monologue by project mastermind and architect Colin Van Eeckhout. If you come to Amenra for atmosphere, “Ogentroost” will fill your cup to overflowing.
But as is inevitable with Amenra, those quiet moments of dread are punctuated by world-shaking cacophony. In this regard, “Ogentroost” once again delivers. Bursting forth around the four-minute mark into a gargantuan riff fest overlayed by Van Eeckhout’s hardcore-tinged vocal agonizing, the track propels itself ever onward into a truly brutalizing and beautiful second half that should satisfy sludge and doom lovers alike, showing once again that Amenra have lost none of their prodigious metallic bona fides. Perhaps better than in any other full-length project they’ve released, these elements are juxtaposed with clear intention and purpose, with the album as a whole leaning a bit further than most onto the more atmospheric trappings of the band’s sound. “De Dood in Bloie” follows up “Ogentroost” with a poetic atmosphere engulfment, with band members speaking softly and purposefully in Flemish. The band’s exclusive use of their native tongue on De Doorn is another aspect of their keen focus on atmosphere-building. The vocals feel immediate and unknowable (as, like myself, I assume many the world over are not fluent in Flemish), generating a further intangibility to the music. It’s a brilliant decision that pays off throughout the record.
All this talk of increased atmosphere isn’t to suggest that De Doorn doesn’t maintain Amenra’s status as a bruising, intense band. When they decide to unleash, De Doorn is as powerful and punishing as anything they’ve written. Album highlight “De Evenmes” starts off with stark intensity that only ratchets up as the track progresses, resulting in a crushing finale that allows the track’s central riff to blossom into its full potential. “Hey Gloren” also contains such moments, in particular possessing an insanely memorable central riff that I hummed in my head for days after listening. There’s plenty of beef to these bones, and anyone hoping for Amenra to maintain their pedigree for immensity should be pleased.
But it’s in “Voor Immer” that the band’s full kaleidoscope of sounds, tones, and songwriting philosophies converge into a sonic solar eclipse that towers over all else within the record. Building with excruciating patience and precision into one of the most cataclysmic and emotionally stirring finales I’ve heard in a very long time. Every ounce of listener fortitude pays off in five minutes of immense catharsis that rivals Der Weg einer Freiheit in emotional intensity. It’s an absolutely perfect cap to a record overstuffed with good ideas executed with utter competency and precision. It’s a masterwork.
If you’ve enjoyed Amenra’s work in the past, I have a hard time imagining you not eating up everything De Doorn has to offer. It’s a bold, intense, atmosphere-drenched outing that only further cements the band’s legacy as one of the genre’s most potent void-gazers, and should be at the top of every doom, sludge, and post-metal fan’s to-listen list. It’s a record that I have revisited nearly a dozen times since its release and I’m nowhere close to tired of it. As a soundtrack to stare into the night sky to, there is none better in 2021. Highly, thoroughly recommended.
De Doorn is out now and available for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.