Scene: You’ve been on the run for weeks, trying desperately to find an answer to an unasked question, fleeing an unknown fate. Your frenzied flight has taken you through glittering, opulent palaces and garish, almost obscene temples. Everywhere, all has been vanity, vanity, and you find yourself no closer to the truth. Finally, your quest brings you to a dingy alley choked with the detritus of past labors and taboo pursuits. A glittering, neon sign above an otherwise inconspicuous door catches your eye. “Escape the Predatory Light that haunts you,” it promises. You rap upon the door three times and are welcomed inside by an aged but otherwise nondescript soothsayer. “Come, sit,” she beckons. Before you can even mutter any sort of question, she chimes, “I know what seeks you. Here, breathe this.” She hands you a steaming cauldron, and before you can protest, the acrid vapors fill your lungs.
As the potent inhalant begins to disperse throughout your bloodstream, you hear an odd, slightly alarming organ tune from somewhere just outside of your field of vision. The music dances strangely in the candle smoke, and suddenly a grand vista tears open before your eyes in the oddly luminescent haze cast by an esoteric, not-quite-Phrygian lead scale somewhere between Mercyful Fate and Nile. Suddenly you’re soaring, soaring, soaring. A verdant plateau gallops beneath you like a lush, first-wave black metal riff mounted atop a rolling, NWOBHM-reverent drum line. You soar higher and higher into the queer incandescence that lights this world, glimpsing a freedom in your very soul that absolves your past of all your sins. Sometimes you dip back closer to the terrestrial plane while the twin guitar harmonies take a brief moment to refill the room with their haze, coiling and copulating in the musty fog like paper dragons born aloft by a thermal vent. Through it all, a deep, powerful growl often unheard in black metal anchors you to your initial point of entry, reminding you of the price of freedom. Yet this journey, with all its valleys and peaks through the oppressive atmosphere, is sublime.
But then, almost eight minutes after your trip began, it ends, and the fortune teller asks for another toll to continue your sojourn into divine rapture. Predatory Light is banking entirely on the strength of the formula of this first track, “Laughing Wound.” Do you like what you hear? Good, because you’re going to keep hearing it ad nauseam.
Each of the following five tracks repeats the same tricks. The lead guitars prance up and down the mystic scale over rock-solid rhythm guitars evoking classic metal styles. The drums alternate between a slow, tom-heavy plod and a double-time, snare-driven rampage. The vocals croak and bellow with a malicious snarl more akin to first wave black metal than second. It’s all executed with an exceptional professionalism rarely seen on a debut album. The drums in particular deserve merit; it’s rare that I hear a drummer play with as much restraint as N.M., yet he completely knows his place, only choosing the rare off-beat accents and drum rolls to accentuate those arcane, glittering leads. The kick drum is a little too quiet for my taste, but N.M.’s performance here is of an otherworldly caliber that perfectly suits the alien guitar spells conjured by K. and L.S.
The problem with this album, then, is not with the strength of the individual tracks. Each song taken alone easily stands against some of the best songs released this year. No, the issue is the fact that the band rarely deviates from the parlor tricks used to such mesmerizing effect on “Laughing Wound.” Sure, there are the odd flourishes here and there. “Lurid Hand” contains a tribal coda of drums that reverberate with cavernous glee against portentous thunderheads of feedback. “Sacrum (Feral Devotion)” sees vocalist L.S. inverting his typical throaty snarl for some primal screams, and the band unleashes a noisy landslide of percussion and tremolo riffing on “Born of the Wrong Blood.” However, it’s impossible to escape the feeling on each new song that you’ve heard this riff before, been tricked by this smoky lead before, and taken this drum trip before. Though the parts are each strong, the whole is rendered less potent by its uniformity.
By the end of Predatory Light, it’s impossible to not feel that the band has only granted you a glimpse of their full potential and only pulled the veil back far enough for you to peak into the realm beyond. Transcendence remains just out of reach. Maybe the next album will finally tear apart the boundaries between this world and the next.
I’d happily rate each of these songs individually 5/5, but due to the overwhelming ubiquity of the band’s style, I can only award Predatory Light’s self-titled debut